Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Torture in Democracies: Rinse, Repeat

Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy. published an article this weekend in the Boston Globe (“Torture, American Style”) that recast my understanding of the place of torture in the history of the U.S. and all the western democracies. Surprise:

Torture isn't an alien force invading our democracy from the benighted realms of dictatorships. In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.

In one instance after another, democracies developed new torture techniques, refined them, and then exported them to more authoritarian regimes. Americans didn't just develop electric power; they invented the first electrotorture devices and used them in police stations from Arkansas to Seattle. Magneto torture, a technique favored by the Nazis involving a portable generator, was actually developed and spread by the French. Waterboarding and forced standing owe their wide use to the Americans and British.

Rejali details multiple forms of torture employed by law enforcement and the U.S. military throughout U.S. history: electrotorture "in police stations from Arkansas through Seattle" in the first third of the twentieth century; waterboarding in the Philippines and then in military prisons and police stations in the same period; magneto torture in Chicago law enforcement in the 1970s (apparently imported by veterans who had learned torture techniques in Vietnam). Eradicating these practices has been a constant struggle:

[H]istory shows that the cycle of torture can be broken. Americans put an end to most domestic torture between 1930 and 1950. We did this, in part, by exposing torture. The American Bar Association's 1931 report transformed American law and policing. The document was cited in court decisions; newspapers and true crime books drew on the group's investigations to educate the public as to what the modern face of torture was. And police chiefs instituted more checks on police behavior, including clear punishments for violations of the law and regular medical inspections for detainees.

This history lesson is literally "disillusioning." Yet it's also oddly reassuring. It's not true that the U.S. definitively rejected torture 200 years ago and has now opened the floodgates. As with many evils -- political corruption, financial fraud, athletes' substance abuse -- the fight against torture is chronic and cyclical and must be fought in every generation.

Myth: democracies don't torture. Fact: democracies regularly sniff torture out, debate it, and usually reject it. Of course, that equilibrium could be destroyed any time; a public's sensitivities can be coarsened, its values corrupted, by sensational TV shows and demagogic politicians. But that danger, like its antidote, is perpetual.

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