Amnesty International: an organization of around one million members in over 160 countries and territories working to promote the human rights that are set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bell (campana): a method of torture leaving no external marks in which a person's head is placed within a pail or other metal container which is then struck repeatedly, causing sudden loud sounds and reverberations
Buzzer (chicharra): a method of torture in which the person is repeatedly shocked through wires or other conducting objects that are attached to parts of the body (e.g., ears, eyes, eyelids, genitals, gums, soles of feet)
Carry On: a method of communal torture in which a group of guards use batons, pick handles, and other weapons to beat prisoners
Chepuwa: a method of torture in which the person's thighs are tightly bound with bamboo or similar materials
alanga: a method of torture in which the soles of the feet are repeatedly struck with either hard (e.g., canes) or pliable (e.g., wires) objects
Helicopter trip: a method of torture in which the person is hung upright or upside-down from one of the large blades of a ceiling fan and is struck repeatedly as the blade revolves
Necklacing: a method of torture in which a tire, filled with gasoline or similar flammable liquid, is placed around the person's neck and set afire; also, a method of psychological torture in which a landmine, grenade, or similar explosive is tied around a person's neck in a way that it is difficult or impossible to remove without detonation
Torment of the sticks (Supplice de baguettes): a method of torture in which two sticks are placed through a wire encircling a person's head and are slowly turned, tightening the wire
Telephone (telefono): a method of torture in which both ears are clapped or otherwise struck
Torture: intentionally inflicting severe physical or psychological pain or suffering
Water torture: methods of torture that can include dunking (holding a person underwater for long periods), holding the person upside down and pouring water over the face to achieve partial or complete drowning, and forcing large amounts of water (sometimes by placing a funnel down the throat) into the mouth and stomach
Prohibited by international law and widely recognized as inhumane, the practice of torture is nevertheless relatively wide-spread. This chapter notes the most typical forms that torture can take, examines torture directed at women, and considers the cognitive and other strategies by which individuals, groups, and governments enable torture to be viewed as justified or even necessary.
In 1975 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly unanimously approved the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Member nations agreed to eliminate torture. Article 3 made clear: "No State may permit or tolerate torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The states assumed active responsibility to eliminate torture. Exceptional events, situations, or factors would not provide an exception to the prohibition against torture. Article 3 continued: "Exceptional circumstances such as a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked as a justification of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Member nations assumed the responsibility to take preventive measures to ensure that no one be allowed to engage in torture. Article 4 stated: "Each State shall in accordance with the provisions of this Declaration, take effective measures to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment from being practised within its jurisdiction." Previously, the UN had stated the principle on which member nations now committed themselves to act. Article 5 of the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Yet as this chapter is written a quarter of a century later, torture is practiced in an astonishing array of countries. Amnesty International's (AI) Report 2000 presents reports of instances involving security forces, police, or other state authorities in 132 countries. Although many studies focus on torture practiced by the police, military, and other branches of government, torture also can occur -- especially when women and children are targeted -- families and other domestic contexts.
Torture is also practiced in an astonishing array of forms. Physical torture may involve beating, burning, cutting, starving, hanging (e.g., by the thumbs or feet), kicking, mutilating, forcing body parts into icy or boiling water, blinding, puncturing ear drums, removing body parts, applying acid or electric shocks, administering drugs or noxious materials, holding the person under water or otherwise preventing access to air, breaking bones, denying adequate shelter from extremely hot or cold weather, and so on. Some methods have become so common that they are given their own names such as "Bell," "Buzzer," "Carry On," "Chepuwa," "Falanga," "Helicopter Trip," "Necklacing," and "Telephone" [see Glossary].
Although all forms of physical torture are likely to have psychological aspects and consequences, some forms of torture are primarily psychological in nature. For example, people may be forced to watch family or friends being tortured, may be given false reports about the torture, death, or betrayal of loved ones, or may be told that they are about to be executed (sometimes followed by a fake execution, in which, e.g., an unloaded gun is held to the person's head and the trigger pulled). Victims of torture may be told that no one remembers them or cares, and that if they survive, no one will believe them. The psychological aspects of torture may range from the seeming inevitability of a fixed routine (e.g., the dread of interrogation and physical torture at set times each day) to an inability to anticipate what will happen next. Jacobo Timerman, editor and publisher of the Argentinean newspaper La Opinion until his arrest by the military, emphasized the agonizing unpredictability of his years in prison in his book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number: "[W]henever someone was being prepared for transfer, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, thrown on the ground in the back of a car and covered with a blanket, he would have preferred to remain in the clandestine prison. You never knew whether you were being led to an interrogation, torture, death, or another prison . . . " (p. 159).
Some of the cruelest techniques of psychological torture are those that appear to make the person an active participant. The person may be told to choose which of two family members, friends, or other fellow prisoners should be tortured or put to death. The person may be directed to undress and use the torture devices on him- or herself. The person may be commanded to reveal the names or locations of individuals whom the torturers want to capture; failure to reveal the information will result in the torture and death of fellow prisoners. The person may be forced to participate actively in the torture of others. The person may be asked what form of torture he prefers, or where on his or her body the torture should begin, or which piece of the body the person can most easily do without. The person may be lead to make false and damaging statements in writing or while being videotaped.
The literature on torture tends to focus on adult victims, but children too serve as the targets of torture. In all areas of the world, children have been subjected to forms of physical, psychological, and sexual torture. AI has documented the prevalence of child torture and referred to it as "a hidden scandal" because it receives so little attention. For many groups and individuals engaging in torture, children may make especially inviting targets because of their relative lack of size and strength, their tendency -- especially when very young -- to be dependent on adult authority, and the belief that children are more likely to be dismissed as unreliable witnesses whose accounts of torture will not be believed.
A major shift in awareness over the last decade or two has been the growing recognition of the ways in which the torture directed at women has tended to be minimized or overlooked, especially in the area of sexual torture. Historically, rape and other acts of sexual violence that are primarily (though not exclusively) perpetrated by men and primarily (though not exclusively) directed at women have often been ignored (as extremely rare events, unworthy of book-length discussion), discounted (e.g., as of little importance or consequence), or dismissed (e.g., as false memories created by women who, by nature, secretly long to be raped). It is difficult to find any book devoted exclusively to the topic of rape prior to the 1970s. The 1970 edition of Wigmore's Evidence in trials at common law, cited as the authoritative text in many court opinions, reveals the extent to which the law, the mental health professions, and society more generally believed that almost all charges of sexual violence reflected an inherent female tendency to make false accusations based on believed-in but imaginary memories of having been sexually abused. The text concludes that: "No judge should ever let a sex offense go to the jury unless the female complainant's social history and mental makeup have been examined and testified to by a qualified physician. . . . The reason I think that rape in particular belongs in this category is one well known to psychologists, namely, that fantasies of being raped are exceedingly common in women, indeed one may almost say that they are probably universal."
The raping of prisoners of war, of people in police custody or jail, and of those who have been abducted or "disappeared" has often tended to be dismissed using rationales similar to those in the Wigmore text on legal evidence. Even when it has been officially established and acknowledged that soldiers, the police, or other officials raped someone in their custody, it has, until relatively recently tended to be viewed as a private matter. A landmark in the shift from this view was AI's 1991 publication of Rape and Sexual Abuse: Torture and the Ill-Treatment of Women in Detention, documenting the nature and scope of sexual violence inflicted on women held against their will. Of exceptional influence was AI's clear statement: "When a policeman or soldier rapes a woman in his custody, that rape is no longer an act of private violence, but an act of torture or ill-treatment for which the state bears responsibility." One year later the United Nation's Special Rapportur on Torture stated to the UN Commission on Human Rights that because "rape or other forms of sexual assault against women in detention were a particularly ignominious violation of the inherent dignity and the right to physical integrity of the human being, they accordingly constituted an act of torture."
This growing awareness of rape as a form of sexual torture has been met with a backlash. Police, military officers, and other security personnel in some countries now conduct what they term virginity testing. Women are taken into custody and either threatened with or administered a supposed test to determine whether they are virgins. The formal rationale -- which has no validity -- given for the test is that if it can be established that certain women are not virgins, the conclusion must be drawn that they are sexually active and therefore cannot reasonably claim to be raped while detained. In actuality, the "findings" from the test can be used to inflict suffering on women. If the test supposedly shows that women are not virgins, officials may threaten to make this information public. The loss of virginity may be viewed by many in the society as a loss of honor and of any prospects for marriage. In some societies ostracism and more severe penalties may be imposed by families, communities, and the state. However, if the test supposedly shows that women are virgins, officials may threaten to rape them. The awareness that any woman can be detained at any time and administered a virginity test can constitute an exceptional form of oppression, injustice, and intimidation.
Torture in the form of sexual violence is relatively wide-spread. In one study of refugees seeking help from a center for victims of torture, four out of five women and slightly over half of the men had been subjected to sexual torture. In addition to the pain, disfigurement, and psychological harm, the effects of sexual torture can, depending on the circumstances, include sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, sexual dysfunction, conception, and infertility or sterility.
Women seeking asylum as refugees may face special risks and hardships. They may find themselves lacking food, clothing, shelter, or other resources (for themselves and in many cases for their children) and unfamiliar with the country's language, customs, and laws. These circumstances may make them exceptionally vulnerable to sexual demands (in exchange for survival) and attack. They may be rounded up and placed in detention centers as undocumented aliens, effectively prevented -- regardless of national or international law -- from making claims for political asylum. The detention center's leadership and staff, as well as the male detainees, may subject them to rape and other forms of sexual torture. They may encounter threats to harm their children iF they attempt to resist rape, file a complaint, or inform anyone else.
Current United States law requires those petitioning for asylum to demonstrate that to return home would subject them to persecution because of at least one of five factors: membership in a social groups, nationality, political opinion, race, or religion. What constitutes a social group facing persecution in various countries has been the focus of much litigation and constant evolution. In 1994, gays and lesbians were first recognized as meeting this criterion, as were members of certain clans (e.g., Somalis). As this chapter is written, the U.S. Justice Department submitted a proposal that battered wives and other victims of domestic violence be considered a "social group" under this law.
Fauziya Kasinga brought about a landmark change in U.S. immigration law. When she was young and growing up in Togo, her father resisted the custom of female genital mutilation (FGM), and protected her from it. After he passed away, the family entered into an agreement that Fauziya Kasinga be married. One of the conditions was that she undergo FGM. Right before the operation, while those who had come to perform the operation were meeting in the kitchen, she escaped with the aid of her mother and sister. She fled to the United States but was held in custody for two years as an undocumented alien and subjected to severe conditions.
Various groups, such as Equality Now and Amnesty International USA worked to help gain both her freedom and her safety from being forced to return to Togo. Her petition for asylum was rejected. Others, however, helped bring an appeal. In a ruling with far-reaching implications, the Decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals, U.S. Department of Justice decided in her favor on June 13, 1996. They held: "The applicant has a well-founded fear of persecution in the form of FGM if returned to Togo. The persecution she fears is on account of her membership in a particular social group consisting of young women of the Tchamba-Kunsuntu Tribe who have not had FGM, as practiced by that tribe, and who oppose the practice. . . . we grant her asylum."
Although both men and women may be tortured, targeted, or threatened because of their words or acts (e.g., speaking out against a repressive regime or trying to rescue those who are being tortured), women may also be harmed or endangered because of the words or acts of their husbands, male blood relatives, or other relationships. They may be tortured as a reprisal for what their brothers, husbands, or other male associates have done, or to intimidate the men into silence and inaction. In order to force a male suspect to confess to crimes or provide information, torturers may rape and otherwise torture his wife, sister, or other female relatives while he watches. However, when these women flee to other countries and petition for political asylum, they may be turned away because they themselves are not or are not viewed as politically active or targeted for their own political stances.
Women who have experienced torture or threats of torture may, because of strong cultural and other factors, find it virtually impossible to speak of these matters to anyone else, particularly in a formal setting. Asked if they have been raped or subjected to other sexual torture, they may find themselves unable to speak aloud about such matters. Many women will not disclose their experiences of torture with a male interviewer, even if the interviewer is empathetic, well-trained, and conducting the interview in the context of providing medical, clinical, or other services. Many will not disclose their experiences of torture, especially sexual torture, while in the presence of family members, whether male or female. Many will not testify in public about such matters, even if it means they will be returned to the country from which they have just fled and face almost certain death. In summary, the growing recognition of the diverse ways that women are targeted for torture and that the torturing of women has tended to be denied or discounted has been accompanied by an increasing awareness of the many risks and costs -- some of them fatal -- to women seeking asylum from or speaking out about their experience of torture.
The prohibitions against torture, the extent to which torture is currently inflicted on so many, and torture's heinous nature, including the special ways that women are targeted lead, when considered together, to a particularly difficult but pressing set of questions. How do we as human beings allow torture to occur in our midst? How is such a cruel and inhumane activity that has been so widely condemned allowed to persist? How do the citizens of a state accommodate themselves to the presence of torture within the state? How do we--as individuals, groups, governments, and cultures--come to accept and even support it? How do we justify its occurrence?
The extensive literature in this area has attempted to identify some factors that help answer these questions. The most common strategies of accommodation, acceptance, or justification include relying on state authority and formal orders, using abstraction and other linguistic transformations, dehumanizing victims, sanctioning revenge, preventing destruction, making the torturer the victim, obtaining essential information, denying relationship or responsibility, and denying the existence of torture. A brief discussion of each follows.
A. Torture Legitimized by the State and Formal Orders
The citizens of a state, including those who engage in torture, may claim that the state is the source of legitimacy and whatever procedures the state initiates must by definition be considered legitimate. In authoritarian states, the ruler's authority may seem to bestow its own inherent legitimacy. Citizens who engage in torture ordered by the state may argue that their role is to act in obedience to and on behalf of the state, regardless of their personal views. Citizens who are not direct participants in the torture may argue that such matters are none of their business, that they are not expected to understand or even be aware of state procedures and rationales. For all citizens in authoritarian states, questioning the authority of the state may be viewed as contrary to the interests of the state and the role of the citizen. In many authoritarian states, questioning the state's authority may be punished severely, sometimes by execution without trial.
In democratic states, on the other hand, the fundamental principle may be seen as "government by law," conferring legitimacy to the actions the law requires or permits. Individuals may be expected to conform their actions to a law, however much they may disagree with it. They may work to change a law viewed as wrong or unjust but, pending that change, may be expected to obey. Within this narrow framework (which does not embrace civil disobedience or other ways of challenging laws believed to be unjust), citizens may believe that no one is "above the law," that no one can simply pick and choose which laws to obey and which to ignore. Those acting under legal authority as members of the state or local police, of the military, of the government's internal or external intelligence or security forces, etc., may argue that their role is to follow orders from their legally appointed supervisors. Combat soldiers, for example, may point out that a normal part of their work involves inflicting wounds or death on enemy soldiers and that they are in no position to question assignments that they find repugnant.
The claim that a state's authority, laws, or orders can legitimize torture focused the world's attention during the Nuremberg and similar trials after World War II. Those who participated in the inhumane medical experiments and other forms of torture that were a part of the Nazi atrocities defended their acts by saying that they were just doing what the state required them to do. They were "just following orders." The war crimes courts, however, held that this was not a valid defense for engaging in torture and other war crimes.
After the rulings of the war crimes courts following World War II, other organizations began to emphasize explicitly that individuals could not evade responsibility for inflicting or condoning torture and that torture itself could not be legitimized through "orders." The Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, for example, stated clearly: "An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture."
B. Abstraction and other Linguistic Transformations
The horrors of torture can be obscured by achieving a sufficient level of abstraction, euphemism, and other forms of linguistic transformation. Repeatedly in the Nuremberg trials, the most heinous forms of torture carried out by Nazi doctors, concentration camp guards, soldiers, and others were characterized dismissively by the defendants as "medical matters." Institutions in which those with views unacceptable to the state are tortured until they renounce the views and pledge loyalty to the state may be termed "Education Camps" or "Re-education Academies." Inflicting pain, disfigurement, and ultimately death in order to obtain information may go by such names as "depth interrogation," "directed probing," or "motivated debriefing." Many of the names for torture that are listed in the Glossary fail to communicate any of the horrors involved, some of them sounding almost like children's games. Analyzing in 1946 the ways that language can hide or blur atrocities, George Orwell provided the following examples: "Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets; this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the road with no more than they can carry; this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers."
C. "They Don't Count"
Governmental leaders, torturers, and the other citizens may justify torture by regarding those who are being tortured as of little importance. Racial, ethnic, national, religious, gender-related, and other stereotypes, labels, and slurs are used to characterize those targeted for torture. The torture victims are categorized as inferior, inhuman, unnecessary, unwanted, and "different" in ways that preclude recognition of their humanity and right to humane treatment. Just as the prior strategy used abstraction to create the illusion that torture was not torture, the "They Don't Count" strategy creates the illusion that the people targeted for torture are not actually people but rather genetic or cultural "trash," of no inherent importance.
The system of laws may echo this strategy. Certain groups of citizens within a country may receive less protection under the law, making them more vulnerable to torture. Even when a country accords full rights to all citizens, the law may not affirm those rights for those who are not citizens (e.g., refugees).
Similarly, those charged with enforcing the law may treat some within a country as if they didn't count. The police and the courts may provide differential treatment to members of certain groups. Whatever ideal the system of laws has set forth to protect individuals from torture, the day-to-day practice of law enforcement may create conditions in which torture is allowed or even encouraged for members of certain groups that fall below the law's protection.
D. "They Deserve It Because of What They Have Done"
Certain acts may cause such destruction, pain, and outrage, that torture is set forth as the only fitting punishment. Justice is possible, according to this view, only when those who have caused great suffering are made to endure great suffering. Torture is seen as righteous and well-deserved revenge.
In some instances, this is portrayed as an "eye for an eye" philosophy. If someone has gouged out another's eye, then that person's own eye must be gouged out. If someone has crushed the hand of another, then that person's own hand must be crushed. If someone has caused the slow, agonizing death of another, the perpetrator must suffer a slow, agonizing death.
The torture may target those who, while causing no harm themselves, had some direct relationship to those who originally caused harm. If terrorists inflicted pain and abuse on the children of others, their own children may be tortured as a consequence.
The torture may also extend to those who, having caused no harm themselves, had some indirect relationship to those who caused harm. If soldiers massacred civilians, those acting on behalf of the massacred civilians might torture other soldiers from the same army, citizens of the country from which the soldiers came, or, depending on the circumstances, virtually anyone matching the soldiers' race, ethnicity, religion, etc.
Those condoning torture in this way may sometimes perform a sort of moral calculus, weighing what is being done by each side. They may acknowledge engaging in torture in the context of the following claim: "Yes, we have had to resort to extreme methods, but what the other side has done is much worse and what we are doing is as nothing compared to what they continue to do." The weighing may also focus on the temporal sequence of events: "Yes, we acted, but only after they initiated the atrocities. They started it!"
E. "They are threats"
Under this justification, torture is appropriate not because of what people have done but because of what they will, might, or can do. Certain citizens may be seen as internal threats, putting at risk the safety and stability of the state. Various foreign individuals or groups may be seen as external threats, able and willing to inflict severe damage on the country and its citizens. Some may be identified as terrorists whose capabilities are unknown but whose intentions--either stated explicitly by the group itself or inferred by others--is to inflict maximum destruction, distress, and destabilization. One of the goals of such groups is often to provoke, through rhetoric and behavior, an over-reaction by the country it is attacking. The country under such attack may suspend civil liberties and violate citizen's rights, engage in pre-emptive atrocities such as torture, and create martyrs.
Those who accommodate, accept, or justify torture on the basis that the victims constitute threats often claim that the horrendous nature of torture may not only deter those who are tortured but also frighten other people who are threats to the state. Under this rationale, it matters little whether the victims of torture were correctly identified as threats: They stand as vivid examples of what can happen to anyone who is perceived as a threat. The more reckless, impulsive, and almost arbitrary the torturers are in choosing victims, the greater the intimidation. People may avoid any speech or behavior that might, rightly or wrongly, lead to being tortured.
F. Switching Roles: Torturer As Victim
One of the most creative strategies is switching roles. Torturers portray themselves and are portrayed by those who accommodate, accept, or justify the torture as the actual victims and as legitimate objects of sympathy for what they have suffered. One of the most famous claims to this status was made by Adolf Eichman during his trial in the early 1960s. A Nazi leader, Eichman had served as Chief of the Gestapo's Jewish Office and as SS Lieutenant-Colonel. He was subsequently convicted of crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people, and executed. During his trial, Eichman testified: "I am not the monster I am made out to be. I am the victim. . ."
Torturers are only one of many groups of those who are more powerful and who victimize others and yet may be seen by themselves and others as victims. Male therapists who sexually abuse their female clients often claim to have been victimized. Adults, particularly men, who sexually attack children, particularly girls, often attribute the power, the knowledge, and the responsibility to the child while portraying themselves as virtually helpless. In some instances, the courts have accepted this justification. One judge discounted a man's responsibility for sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl, holding that the girl, whom the judge described as "an unusually sexually promiscuous young lady," was responsible because she allegedly initiated the sexual contact. Another judge declined to confine a man who had pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting a young girl, holding that the man had been victimized by her "provocative clothing." The provocative clothing in this case consisted of blue jeans, a blouse over a turtleneck sweater, and tennis shoes. The judge held that the man was helpless because rape is a "normal" reaction to such "provocative clothing." Yet another judge refused to convict two adult defendants of raping an 8-year-old girl because of the judge's opinion that she was "a willing participant."
In what sense may torturers be viewed as victims? Many emphasize the horrific nature of what they do. In order to torture others, they themselves must inflict and witness intense human suffering. Many emphasize the guilt they must endure. Many talk of being victimized by those whom they tortured: those whom they tortured provoked the torture, caused the torture, bear responsibility for the torture, left the torturer no alternatives. Often they will speak of being victims of fate or circumstances, led helplessly by events to the role they played. Sometimes they will speak of being victimized by their leaders, colleagues, family, and friends, who convinced them that using torture was the right thing to do. All such constructions portray torturers as the relatively helpless victims of external forces beyond their control.
G. "We must have the information they have."
One of the most common rationales for engaging in torture is to obtain information that supposedly could not be gathered by other means. Assume hypothetically that a small group of terrorists has stolen documents providing the identities and locations of every undercover agent--as well as of the agents' families--working for the country, the launch codes for all weapons including those with nuclear warheads, or other information likely to be put to use promptly to kill many people. Assume that the authorities have a week or less to prevent mass casualties. One of the terrorists is captured, but refuses to talk. Some may argue that torturing the terrorist to obtain the information to save lives is not only permissible but a moral necessity. Torturers and those who condone their methods in these circumstances see a stark choice of conflicting rights: Either recognize the individual's right to avoid torture, thus seeming to ensure the impending deaths of hundreds, thousands, or more, or engage in physical and psychological torture to save lives.
If the impending loss of a great many lives outweighs an individual's right to be free of torture, the justification of torture may apply to a wide variety of individuals. If the terrorist in the scenario above is to be tortured to yield the information quickly (within a week), it seems impossible to allow adequate preparation for a criminal trial, the trial itself, the possibility of appeals, etc. Therefore, torture may be inflicted on someone who is a suspect. In a crisis, law enforcement, the military, or counter-terrorist intelligence groups may identify a number of suspects. If the suspected terrorist is not yet in custody, would torturing his or her child, parent, spouse or partner, close friends, or neighbors yield information about the suspect's current location, habits, resources, or other information to help enable capture? Would torturing those who have been a member of, affiliated with, or supportive of the terrorist group yield information to identify the terrorists? In each case those supporting torture may claim that subjecting an individual to a relatively brief experience of torture may be necessary for a greater good: preventing the loss of a great many lives.
H. "This is no concern of mine."
Those who are aware of torture may come to accept its presence in their community or state by viewing it as something that is none of their business. In many cases it is as if they compartmentalized their awareness and placed the phenomenon of torture in a compartment to which they pay virtually no attention, habituating to it so that they no longer notice it. For some, this process of attention directed away from torture seems to occur quickly and with little or no effort. The process itself seems to happen out of their awareness. For others, it seems a much more active process in which the person must consciously push the thoughts of torture out of consciousness again and again.
Reminders that torture is occurring may be inescapable. They may hear screams from a building in their neighborhood or from the darkened streets at night. They may see neighbors and others with signs of burning, cutting, and other mutilations. They may hear reports of torture. But somehow it is viewed as none of their concern, as something that has no reality, importance, or implications for their own lives. It is not something to devote time, thought, or action to. It is an unrelated aspect of life.
There are also many who recognize the reality of torture in their community or state but accommodate themselves to it -- take no action -- and become passive bystanders. The tendency of bystanders to do nothing in the face of even the most horrendous acts as they are suffered by others became a focus of research after the slow murder of Catherine Genovese in New York City the morning of March 13, 1964. As she was returning home from work, she began walking from her car to her apartment building. A man began chasing her, caught her, and began stabbing her. She screamed. The lights began to go on in the windows of the buildings on each side of the street. The man ran but then, when nothing happened, returned to her and began stabbing her again. His attack continued and it took 45 minutes for her to die. Thirty-eight people watched this happen from their windows. Not one went outside to help. Not one called the police. No one took any action to stop the attack, to help her, or to summon aid.
One ironic finding of the subsequent research is that the more people who are present, the less likely any of them are to take action to help. When more people are present, each individual may feel less responsible for taking action. There may be less sense of personal responsibility because it is easier to assume that, with so many people present, someone else is likely responding, or has more information about the situation, more knowledge about what to do, or more resources and ability. When there are others around who can act in such situations, it may seem better to refrain from "becoming involved." Not acting may seem easier and safer. The responsibility may seem to lie with others or -- in a blurred and diffuse way -- with the group as a whole, but not with the individual.
I. "This is a lie, an exaggeration, or a mistake."
One of the bluntest ways that people can accommodate torture in their midst is to deny that it exists, usually by dismissing any signs, reports, or evidence of torture as lies, exaggerations, or mistakes. The reality of torture may be so overwhelming that individuals act quickly to convince themselves that it is not, would not, could not be occurring in their midst. If they can accept the premise that the torture is not occurring, then there is no need to confront the reality of torture, no need to seek additional information and take action. They face neither the fears and risks of acting to stop the torture nor the shame and guilt of doing nothing to stop the infliction of pain and suffering on their fellow human beings. They are free to go about their lives as if the torture were not happening for they have convinced themselves that the torture is not happening.
Although many people seem to engage in forms of this denial on their own, those who order and inflict torture may foster this approach. They may flatly, vigorously, and convincingly state that no torture is occurring. They may spread false information and manufacture bogus evidence to support their claims. They may provide arguments and evidence that anyone who reports torture is lying, exaggerating, or mistaken.
The arsenal that torturers and their immediate supporters have to discredit reports and evidence of torture is impressive. Imagine a country that subjects countless citizens to torture. What evidence can there be that the torture is actually occurring? There may be people who report that it is occurring but reports may be dismissed as lies, exaggerations, or mistakes. There may be claims by those who say they have been tortured, but such claims, if they are not characterized as intentional lies, may be dismissed as sincerely-believed false memories. If those claiming to have been tortured show scars and mutilation, such visible signs of torture may be dismissed as self-inflicted or the result of an accident. There may be eye-witness accounts from disinterested parties, but there is extensive research that has been used to dismiss eye-witness testimony as unreliable, subject to a variety of perceptual and cognitive errors, post-event influences, and other distorting factors undermining its validity. There may be confessions from those who ordered or carried out the torture but there is also an extensive literature on the potential invalidity of confessions based on an array of such factors as coercion, suggestion, the dynamics of interrogation, psychological needs for attention or punishment, and so on. There may be photographs or videotapes of torture sessions, perhaps taken by hidden cameras, but such images can be dismissed as fakes (i.e., the popular movies Jurassic Park and The Lost World with their seemingly realistic images of dinosaurs are not evidence that such creatures currently roam the earth). There may be sworn testimony but testimony can be dismissed as perjured or sincerely-believed but based on false memories; if the testimony appears in a court transcript or other document, the document itself can be dismissed as fake or significantly altered, not representing the actual testimony.
If there are only a few who raise the issue of torture, they can be dismissed as a small band of troubled people or trouble-makers. Their motivation can be subjected to rumor and innuendo: they are out for profit, for fame, for revenge. They are enemies of the state, lacking in patriotism and loyalty, seeking to harm their country by spreading false accounts of torture. If there are many raising the issue of torture, they can be dismissed as victims of mass hysteria, suggestible people who have been intentionally mislead or caught up in the contagion of a rumor. They may be dismissed as a danger to the state, evil people out on a witch hunt.
A variant of this strategy is to concede that there may actually have been one or more instances of torture but that it has been greatly exaggerated. It was not nearly as extreme nor as wide-spread as claimed. It was not authorized but carried out only by one or two officials, soldiers, etc., who were acting on their own. It was simply an isolated incident, an anomalous event that has been dealt with and is unlikely to happen again. Further, whatever torture may have happened, happened in the past. It is over, history. To bring it up now is to wallow in the past, ignoring the pressing concerns of the present.
Understanding and preventing torture requires countering effectively the strategies of acceptance, accommodation, and justification. But the strategies may carry special appeal in the context of inertia, noninvolvement, and the costs of recognizing torture's realities. Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman wrote: "It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering." It may be exceptionally difficult to acknowledge not only many people's willingness and ability to inflict horrendous physical and psychological torture on fellow human beings but also torture victims' personal experiences of being cut, burned, beaten, drugged, mutilated, and the other forms of suffering to which people are subjected on a daily basis. Perhaps one way to alter the context in which the strategies of acceptance, accommodation, and justification carry a special appeal may be to ensure it includes a focus on two questions: What are we doing to understand and prevent torture and help its victims? If we are not doing all we can, why?
Conroy, J. (2000). Unspeakable acts, ordinary people: The dynamics of torture. New York: Knopf.
Duner, B. (1998). An end to torture: Strategies for its eradication. London: Zed.
Innes, B. (Ed.) (1998). History of torture. New York: St. Martin's.
Pope, K.S., & Garcia-Peltoniemi, R. (1990). Responding to victims of torture: Clinical issues, professional responsibilities, and useful resources. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 22, 269-276
NOTE: This chapter, "Torture, by Ken Pope, appeared in Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender edited by Judith Worell and published by Academic Press, October, 2001, 1264 pages, ISBN 0122272455. Academic Press owns the copyright to this chapter. Questions about any uses involving copyright should be addressed to Academic Press.
Related Web Pages on this Site:
- Resources for Torture-Victims, Refugees, and Asylum-Seekers
- Why I Resigned from the American Psychological Association