Catastrophic Exceptions

Catastrophic Exceptions

Torture and Democracy
by Darius Rejali
Princeton University Press, 2007 880 pp $39.95

AMERICA, UNDER George W. Bush, became a torturing country. Everyone knows it. One of Bush’s worst lies is this: “I’ve said to the people that we don’t torture, and we don’t.” It is not just that the president’s words are demonstrably false, as evidenced by the sworn congressional testimony of the director of Central Intelligence and the horrific photographs from Abu Ghraib. What is most pernicious about Bush’s lie is that almost everyone would desperately want to believe it. Torture is so profoundly incompatible with modern liberalism that it took just six weeks after the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789 for France’s deputies to abolish judicial torture. So how can democracies torture today?

The answer is, in their own special way. As Darius Rejali explains in a sprawling, essential book, Torture and Democracy, the kind of torture depends on the political landscape. He is clear that authoritarian governments have a worse record on torture than democratic governments do. For a dictator, the use of torture—like other spectacular exercises of coercive state power—is meant not just to break the victim, but to cow all the other people. Mutilated victims are a hobbled reminder not to mess with the big man. Acid torture, for example, leaves victims either dead or scarred; it was showily used in Nazi-occupied France, Iran in the 1960s, Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s, and El Salvador and Syria in the 1980s.

Democratic torture, on Rejali’s account, goes on in a much different political arena. The torturers have to be worried about the interference of judges, lawyers, reporters, activists, and voters. To evade them, the democratic torturer has to turn to “electric prods and electroshockers, tortures by water and ice, drugs of sinister variety, sonic devices—and also by methods that are less technical, but no less sophisticated or painful; the modern democratic torturer knows how to beat a suspect senseless without leaving a mark.” Democratic publics, according to Rejali, also might be more willing to overlook torture when they think it is necessary for national security, or if it is done to different kinds of people, or in wars or colonialism. As an example of almost all of those dynamics, in 1902, during the war in the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt coolly noted, “The enlisted men began to use the old Filipino method of mild torture, the water cure. Nobody was seriously damaged.” Democracies torture; they just do it evasively.

The bulk of Rejali’s book is a massive dictionary of the unspeakable: the electric bath, the electrified prod, paddling, sleep deprivation, stress positions (the British Empire pioneered the Gag, the Wooden Collar, and the Whirligig; the French Empire used to discipline its troops with the silo and the crapaudine...