Wednesday, May 05, 2004

On torture, impunity, bystanders

Kathryn Cramer has a post about heroes: people who refused to torture or denounded or stopped torture once they knew about it. Which brought to my mind sections of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, by John Conroy, a book I wish everybody would read, especially these days.

I googled a bit and found this piece by Conroy himself. It seems to incorporate a lot of the best material from the book. It is dated 2000.


... It takes no genius to see a pattern ... and that pattern is repeated throughout the world: torturers are rarely punished, and when they are, the punishment rarely corresponds to the severity of the crime.

Democracies and authoritarian regimes sometimes offer the same rationales for failing to prosecute torturers. The morale of the security forces, for example, is as sacred in a democracy as it is in an undemocratic regime. Putting soldiers or policemen on the witness stand is politically dangerous. They might, after all, name high-ranking officers or public officials who sanctioned the treatment.

Furthermore, it is often difficult to mount an effective prosecution. Torture usually occurs in a closed room without independent witnesses. Sometimes the victims have been blindfolded or they are dead, so although their in juries indicate they were tortured and it is not hard to determine what unit was responsible for their custody, it may be impossible to determine which man in particular attached the electrodes, performed the rape, the near drowning, or the severe beating. Without predetention medical examinations, it is often difficult to prove that a victim's injuries were sustained in custody.

A prosecutor's task is made more difficult by the fact that torturers are often decorated soldiers or policemen who have served their country in time of need, men who often represent popular belief: they were tough on crime, or they were saving the country from subversion or immorality. The victims, on the other hand, may hold political or religious beliefs not in favor in the larger society, or they may come from some lesser class that is viewed as a threat to the society at large gooks, niggers, Paddies, Arabs, Jews, criminals, agitators, heretics, labor organizers, stone throwers, flag wavers, singers of nationalist songs, terrorists, friends of terrorists, and so on.

The response of those societies is fairly predictable and can be charted in thematic, if not chronological, stages.

Consider, for example, the British reaction to the revelations that they were torturing the Northern Irish in 197I. The first stage of response was absolute and complete denial, accompanied by attacks on those who exposed the treatment.
[... spooky, eh?]

The second stage was to minimize the abuse. The government referred to it not as torture but as "interrogation in depth"
[ ... "abuse"]

A seventh component of a torturing bureaucracy is to put the blame on a few bad apples.

[And finally, a helpful, hopeful note:]

In his book The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, Staub argues that helping is infectious, that helpful bystanders, if they are not devalued by the perpetrators and inactive bystanders, break the uniformity of views, chip away at widespread antagonism toward a particular group, affirm the humanity of the victims, call attention to values disregarded by perpetrators and passive bystanders, and make it clear that persecution can have consequences for the persecutor. Staub points out that the citizens of Le Chambon seemed to have a profound effect on the Vichy police charged with rounding up the Jews: anonymous callers, believed to be policemen, warned the local pastor of impending raids.

Staub argues that helpful bystanders can also inspire victims. Staub points out that during World War II, Belgians resisted the Third Reich's anti-Semitic orders, and Belgian Jews did more on their own behalf than Jews in other Nazi-dominated countries because they did not feel abandoned, helpless, and alone.

Go and read it all.