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Torture and Democracy: Scholar Darius Rejali Details the History and Scope of Modern Torture

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Darius Rejali has been described as “one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on the subject of torture and the consequences of its use for modern society.” Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College and author of the new book Torture and Democracy. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Capitol Hill, House Republicans voted Tuesday to uphold President Bush’s veto of a bill that would have banned CIA agents from waterboarding and other forms of torture. By a 225-to-188 vote, the Democratic-led House fell short of the needed two-thirds votes to override the President.

The bill would have set a single standard for interrogations by US forces by requiring all agencies follow the Army Field Manual. The manual specifically bans waterboarding, mock executions, electric shocks, beatings, forcing sexual acts and deprivation of food, water or medical care.

President Bush announced the veto on Saturday during his weekly radio address. He defended the CIA’s program of using so-called “specialized interrogation procedures.”

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The main reason this program has been effective is that it allows the CIA to use specialized interrogation procedures to question a small number of the most dangerous terrorists under careful supervision. The bill Congress sent me would deprive the CIA of the authority to use these safe and lawful techniques. Instead, it would restrict the CIA’s range of acceptable interrogation methods to those provided in the Army Field Manual.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush, giving his weekly radio address, announcing his veto of the bill that would have banned the CIA from waterboarding and other forms of torture.

Well, our next guest has been described as “one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on the subject of torture and the consequences of its use for modern society.” His name is Darius Rejali. He is a professor of political science at Reed College and author of a new book called Torture and Democracy. His other books include Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

DARIUS REJALI: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: You are from Iran?

DARIUS REJALI: Yes, I was born in Iran, and I remember the times where the Shah of Iran used to say we need to be tough on terrorists, and I remember what happened then, too, which was that he said these guys are radicals and we need to be tough, and then what happened was that the organization said — Khomeini said, “Look who’s medieval: the guys who torture.” Nothing got more people on their side than our torturing.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you saying torture was the inspiration for the Iranian revolution?

DARIUS REJALI: Most people don’t remember how much torture was the inspiration for the Iranian revolution. It pulled all the radicals to their side. It was a revolution about human rights, not about religion. Khomeini rode that bandwagon into power.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The book’s title, Torture and Democracy, would seem to be, at first glance, at least, contradictory terms. But it’s a major premise of the book.

DARIUS REJALI: It’s true. I mean, we don’t normally think of democracies as having much to do with torture. After all, the people vote the politicians; they don’t like to be tortured. So if someone tortures them, it won’t happen that way. Or if we think that democracies are just bargains between people, elites, Republicans and Democrats, basically the idea is, you don’t torture me, I don’t torture you when we’re in power, and then all will be fine. Historically, of course, torture has always happened in democracies. The Greeks and Romans, the Renaissance republics, all — even Britain, France and America were torturing in their colonies well before World War II. Long before the CIA existed, these techniques all happened.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why had, historically, that happened?

DARIUS REJALI: Well, there are three reasons why torture happens in democracies. The one that obviously is going to occur to you is national emergency situations, right? But there are two other reasons. One is, basically, torture is sometimes and often a local arrangement between local businessmen and the cops, like in Chicago, where Commander Burge and a whole number of other detectives were implicated in torturing, or allegedly so, roughly from ’72 to ’94. This wasn’t because there was a perceived or emergency threat; these people wanted false confessions to convict people. And they basically corrupted the judicial system. Governor Ryan, a Republican, had to suspend the death penalty, because there were so many false confessions within the system. He couldn’t tell how.

The other things that torture is connected to is long periods of detention and when judges and juries outright value confessions far more than they should. In Japan, for example, 86 percent of all crimes end with a full confession by the accused, which is really high compared to, say, our rates. And whenever cops — whenever juries and judges basically say we need to have confessions, cops will get it any way they can.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your reaction to Bush’s veto and the Republican upholding of the veto against making everyone go by the same Army training manual, whether they’re CIA or military, around the issue of torture?

DARIUS REJALI: I have two reactions. The first one is that whenever you create parallel systems — one group of people can torture, the other person can’t —- what happens is that torture creeps across that line. It’s a very sharp, corrosive practice. I mean, just think about this. You’re an Army interrogator, and you’re supposed to use grade-B practices, where the guys on the other side can use grade-A practices, and you think it works, right? So what’s going to prevent you from using those practices?

Another kind of thing that my book documents is that many of these practices, whether you call them torture or not, are clean. They don’t leave marks, so they’re very hard to trace, very hard to hold people accountable for. So, very quickly -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you say that’s a particular characteristic that’s been perfected by democracies, more so than dictatorships?

DARIUS REJALI: Those kinds of practices first emerged within democracies because of the high levels of public monitoring, right? And dictatorships, for most of known history, if they used water, they preferred to boil people. They didn’t use tepid water. Waterboarding is kind of our thing. And it’s very rare to find in ancient history people who used techniques that don’t leave marks. But as the number of church groups, as the number of human rights groups, as the press people become much more active, the police move increasingly towards cleaner techniques. And that happens in democracies, because our civil societies are stronger, first. So, basically, the line in my book is quite simple: when we’re watching, the cops get sneaky. And it happens whether it’s international or domestic. And that’s always a real problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Cheney said a few years ago a dunk in water, referring to waterboarding, saying, “it’s a no-brainer for me” if it can save lives.

DARIUS REJALI: Well, look, again, I go back to the Shah. I remember the Shah of Iran also did peekaboo politics, where he would say, “Well, we don’t torture. We just have like this way and that way, and it saves lives, right?” Look, no one knows how many people this saves lives. As a historian, I can tell you what the rate is when I look at other cases where armies very selectively tried to get suspects. And the best rate results that you can get when you use these techniques, at least as much as I’ve been able to find, is you pretty much have to first arrest minimally 8,000 to 20,000 suspects. You have to torture all of them. And out of that number, you’re going to get twenty to seventy-eight innocents that you have to torture for every one bad guy you get. And that’s a really bad rate.

The other thing I just want to say on this point is this. We don’t know how many lives torture has saved, but all of us know how many lives torture has taken, because we know that much of the information that started this war was gotten through coerced information, and we know that much of the war — the threat this war was prosecuted by was done through coerced information. It was the torture of [Ibn] al-Shaykh al-Libi who told us that it was Saddam Hussein who was training al-Qaeda in biological and chemical weapons, a claim that the Pentagon yesterday finally confirmed was utterly false. Well, that went into the President’s speech in October 2002 and was part of the main justification that took us to war. Every American military death in this war, every civilian death, every limb and leg that was lost was a life that torture took. In the end, if we’re going to talk about the value and the balance of these things, whether torture is immoral, we have to weigh all those things against the lives torture saved.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You make it clear, obviously, that the United States is not alone, that, as you say, many other democracies or empire democracies, in effect — England, France and these others — also practiced torture. But now you’re seeing the United States almost alone in terms of how it’s regarded, even by some of these other countries. Your sense of the international standing of the United States in this analysis of torture now?

DARIUS REJALI: Well, there’s no question that America’s standing has taken a hit in symbolic terms, but it’s also taken a hit in very practical terms. We know the thing that works best for getting intelligence. We know there are people out there who want to hurt us. And the thing that works best in getting intelligence is public cooperation. And when you torture, you not only just get bad intelligence, you undermine the willingness of loyal Muslims or people who like America to come forward and help us.

My favorite example of this, just so you understand, July 21st, a bunch of guys got on buses in London with bombs, and they escaped. The British police got them all in ten days, and the break in the case came when the parents of Muktar Said Ibrahim, loyal British Muslims, turned in their son when they saw the security video. Would they have turned him if they knew their son was going to be tortured? The answer is: obviously not. Right? We know the kinds of things that work in policing. The FBI knows it. This is a standard practice. And the more we torture, the less it is that people will surrender to us. Getting into a terrorist organization is not unlike trying to get into the Mafia. You want people to walk in, turn sides on us, be our inside moles. That’s the way it works.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Rejali, talk about tasering. How do you — how does that fit into the spectrum of torture?

DARIUS REJALI: You know, one of the very important points I want to make in my book is that I know we’re all focused on international torture, but there is no sharp line between domestic and international torture. Practices that start in our prisons go out into the field. Practices in the field come back to us.

We all know what waterboarding is. What we forget is that waterboarding was a technique that, although it was learned in the Philippines — we’ve all seen the New Yorker article, I’m sure, on how that happened — those soldiers, when they come back, what kind of jobs do they get? They get jobs as policemen. They get jobs as private security people. And very soon, in the 1920s, all those techniques from the Philippine war started appearing all across the United States. They were used on conscientious objectors during World War I. The techniques that appeared in Chicago in ’72 to ’92 were all techniques that we have already documented in Vietnam that MPs were quite familiar with, right? So, after every war, people come back.

Tasers moved from domestic policing here, they’ve been out there in Iraq. We have a number of cases where people allege that they were tortured with the use of tasers. And the problem with tasers — the problem with any kind of device that doesn’t leave marks is this: if we’re going to use violence in a democracy, there has to be third-party accountability. It just can’t be that you take the cops’ word for it, right? There’s got to be a way in which somebody can say, “Hmm, let me look at that tape again and see if you properly used mace or that baton or something.” And with electrical weapons that leave very few marks, it’s very hard to know.

I always ask people, during the Rodney King video, which everybody saw, “Does everyone remember it?” And everyone says, “Yeah.” And ehtn I say, “Well, how much electroshock did he get when that video was running?” And everyone goes, “I don’t remember anything. There was just beating.” I was like, “No, he had a taser in him. He had gotten two bolts of 50,000 volts, and they were emptying out the remains of that charge in him while he was struggling.” Now, everybody can get outraged by violence they can see. Violence they can’t see, we barely have the opportunity even to raise the question.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the conflict, the debate within law enforcement in the United States on these issues? Is there a significant, strong counterforce against the use of these kinds of techniques?

DARIUS REJALI: Well, I think that law enforcement looks very hard for non-lethal ways to exercise their power in a way that can be accountable and as minimal as possible. And there’s no question that tasers — and not so much stun guns, but tasers, for sure — there are cases where they’ve saved lives. Some of the taser companies now begin to understand that these are problems, so they’ve mounted their tasers with computer-to-digital chips that will determine when it was used. They sometimes have video cameras that allow you to actually see what the policeman was doing.

And I think that data collection is important, because it allows for third-party monitoring by human rights groups and stuff. But that data monitoring is only as good as how centralized this collection process is. I know that recently the British police want to put little cameras on the little — on the big round cop — you know, those bucket helmets that all the British police use. They now all have little helmet cameras so that people can watch them. But I’ll tell you, if I wanted to do something nasty, I’d make sure my helmet broke.

AMY GOODMAN: Darius Rejali, you talk about psychological torture and the references to it as “torture lite.”

DARIUS REJALI: Well, I mean, I think “psychological” is a word that’s used a lot in a different set of contexts. Torture lite is called psychological often because it leaves no marks. But these are actually physical techniques. Sleep deprivation isn’t just depriving people of their naps. One of the things that we know about sleep deprivation is through experiments. And, by the way, this isn’t because of torture; it’s because most of America lives sleeplessly. And we all know how — and it affects our judgment and all sorts of things. And psychologists have studied it. And what we know is that it produces sharp pains in all your muscular joints, starting with your legs, going all the way up. It also makes you extremely sensitive to chemical heat and electrical stimuli. In other words, all other tortures hurt more when you have less sleep. And so, it’s an ideal technique that torturers always combine with stress and duress techniques and all these other things. It’s not psychological. Just because a technique doesn’t leave marks doesn’t mean it’s psychological. There are ways that I can strike you with my bare hands that would leave a bruise. There are other ways that I could strike you with my hand which wouldn’t leave a bruise at all, no matter how many times I did it. And frankly, it would be a mistake to call one technique psychological and the other one physical.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Finally — we have less than a minute — I’d just like to ask you, for those Americans who see the possibility of — what can be done about this for themselves? What would you suggest?

DARIUS REJALI: Well, first of all, one of the good pieces of news about my book is that torturers actually care what human rights groups and church groups do. You may not think writing that check out to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty or so forth really works, but the reality is this: if torturers didn’t care about human rights monitoring, they would actually not be clean. They’d be using these scarring techniques. President Bush would be talking about torture all the time, right? And the other part of this is, we know that they hunt down human rights lawyers and doctors who catch these things, so they care. So don’t give up. This is really our best chance of a world without torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Darius Rejali, I want to thank you for being with us. Torture and Democracy is this tome of a book, and we thank you so much for joining us, Professor at Reed College.

DARIUS REJALI: It was a pleasure being here. Thank you.

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