Krista's Journal: Facing the Malleability of Human Nature

November 4, 2010

In the post-September 11th era, torture became an aspect of U.S. identity, a defining part of our national repertoire of intelligence gathering and military detention. This is something we knew on some level long before April, 2009, when the Obama administration released Bush administration memos that functionally sanctioned it.

Those memos semantically parse just how far an interrogator could go, how much lasting psychological or physical pain he or she must inflict, to breach international definitions of "torture." Without stridency, Darius Rejali's knowledge sets such parsing in human and historical context. Most importantly, he helps us understand the damage such calibrations — and the policies they engender on a slippery slope of rationalization — did to the soldiers who received the orders and to the nation that now carries this legacy. What it does, in other words, to us.

We started talking years ago as a production team about how we could approach the subject of torture and contribute to public reflection on it. In Darius Rejali, we finally found a distinctive, helpful, edifying way in. He brings a unique practical and moral authority to this conversation on several levels. He was raised in pre-revolutionary Iran with, as he tells it, an Iranian Shiite father and a Calvinist American mother. He grew up with an awareness that a long line of his aristocratic Iranian forebears, including his great grandfather, had used torture against opponents. Torture was also a known tool of the state apparatus of the king, or Shah, who ruled Iran during Darius Rejali's childhood in the 1960s and 70s.

Darius Rejali says there is no question that authoritarian states have practiced torture most viciously. But, he points out, torture is also not incompatible with modernity, culture, and education, nor is it a stranger to democracy. Major media reports of the story behind "enhanced interrogation," after its details were declassified in April, suggested that U.S. officials had to learn about torture techniques used by the former Soviet Union. But one of most disturbing — and important — revelations Darius Rejali makes in this conversation is that democracies have made their distinctive mark on the history of torture, including the U.S.

Torture is a part of the history of human cruelty, Darius Rejali clarifies. It is distinguished by the fact that it is applied by officials of a state, claiming public trust. Rejali finds echoes of torture not only on the Iranian side of his family lineage but also in that of his maternal ancestors who held slaves in the American South. Interrogation using electricity was innovated in U.S. prisons in the early 20th century. Even "waterboarding," or simulated drowning, — the most notorious and controversial method of interrogation to enter our public vocabulary recently — appeared domestically, inside U.S. prisons, early in the last century. In the 1980s, a Texas sheriff and his deputies were convicted of using waterboarding to extract confessions from prisoners. This is not a new or foreign invention.

It is, rather, a prime example of the "long shadow" of torture that this conversation attempts to trace as a foundation for collective reckoning and healing. Waterboarding first took root in local police forces, mostly in the American South, after U.S. soldiers were exposed to it in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Its impact becomes manifest in the inner trauma, the family lives, and the future work in security firms and prisons of soldiers who were ordered to do something — as Rejali sees it — that no human being should ever be ordered to do.

Rejali's immersion in 40 years of social scientific research also yields the plain, unsettling message that these men and women who have perpetrated torture were probably not sadists, not just a "few bad apples" who defied the norm. The demonstrated if shocking norm of human behavior is that at least half of us are capable of inflicting harm on another human being under orders, in the right circumstances, with the right kind of authority behind the orders. I'm reminded here of a similar observation made to me recently, and discerned in killing fields the world over, by the forensic anthropologist Mercedes Doretti.

The upside of facing this malleability of human nature, however, is that the right systems of accountability and reckoning can make a profound and immediate difference moving forward. Darius Rejali also proposes some very practical steps for lawmakers and citizens as we reckon with the unfolding consequences of what has been done in our name in recent years. This reckoning is in all of our interest, whatever side of the political divide we are on, and whether photographs are released or some individuals brought to trial.

Whether you call it "enhanced interrogation" or "torture," it profoundly traumatizes the lives and societies of those who experienced it and those who perpetrated it. Coming to terms with these human consequences will be the work not of days but of years and generations. For we know that in our lives, both individual and collective, traumas that we do not face will continue not merely to haunt but to define us.

Recommended Reading

Image of Torture and Democracy
Author: Darius Rejali
Publisher: Princeton University Press (2007)
Binding: Hardcover, 880 pages

Rejali's latest book on torture, violence, and its role in democratic countries is a sweeping, definitive narrative. His comprehensive history of torture and its techniques shines a clarifying, expansive light on modern debates, with both moral and practical implications for us as individuals and as members of a broader culture.

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is a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and author of Torture and Democracy.