Torture leaves a long shadow

Iranian-American political scientist Darius Rejali tells Kirsta Tippett on American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith about the emotional and spiritual costs of torture.

Most people are unaware of the incredibly long shadow that torture casts, not just for a government but for society and lastly, I think, for the families that are involved in this process. The cases of atrocity-related trauma that are tied to torture are the domestic abuse, alcoholism, suicide rates. None of these things are calculated when people think about torture.

Tippett writes in her journal:

In the post-September 11th era, torture became an aspect of U.S. identity, a defining part of our national repertoire of intelligence gathering and military detention. This is something we knew on some level long before April, when the Obama administration released Bush administration memos that functionally sanctioned it.

Those memos semantically parse just how far an interrogator could go, how much lasting psychological or physical pain he or she must inflict, to breach international definitions of “torture.” Without stridency, Darius Rejali’s knowledge sets such parsing in human and historical context. Most importantly, he helps us understand the damage such calibrations — and the policies they engender on a slippery slope of rationalization — did to the soldiers who received the orders and to the nation that now carries this legacy. What it does, in other words, to us.

She describes Rejali’s immersion in 40 years of social scientific research into the history of torture and the effect it has on the victim, the torturers and their families as well as on society as a whole.

[His research] also yields the plain, unsettling message that these men and women who have perpetrated torture were probably not sadists, not just a “few bad apples” who defied the norm. The demonstrated if shocking norm of human behavior is that at least half of us are capable of inflicting harm on another human being under orders, in the right circumstances, with the right kind of authority behind the orders. I’m reminded here of a similar observation made to me recently, and discerned in killing fields the world over, by the forensic anthropologist Mercedes Doretti.

The upside of facing this malleability of human nature, however, is that the right systems of accountability and reckoning can make a profound and immediate difference moving forward. Darius Rejali also proposes some very practical steps for lawmakers and citizens as we reckon with the unfolding consequences of what has been done in our name in recent years. This reckoning is in all of our interest, whatever side of the political divide we are on, and whether photographs are released or some individuals brought to trial.

Rejali says torture is a part of the history of human cruelty. It is applied by officials of a state, claiming public trust. Rejali finds echoes of torture not only on the Iranian side of his family lineage but also in that of his maternal ancestors who held slaves in the American South. We know that slavery was the systemic and socially sanctioned subjugation of a whole people, but we often forget that the so-called “Jim Crow” era from the end of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era was also a period of state-sanctioned terrorism. Torture, including waterboarding and lynchings, were part of that system, and so apart of our history and heritage whether we live in the South or not..

Interrogation using electricity was innovated in U.S. prisons in the early 20th century. Even “waterboarding,” or simulated drowning, — the most notorious and controversial method of interrogation to enter our public vocabulary recently — appeared domestically, inside U.S. prisons, early in the last century. In the 1980s, a Texas sheriff and his deputies were convicted of using waterboarding to extract confessions from prisoners. This is not a new or foreign invention.

It is, rather, a prime example of the “long shadow” of torture that this conversation attempts to trace as a foundation for collective reckoning and healing. Waterboarding first took root in local police forces, mostly in the American South, after U.S. soldiers were exposed to it in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Its impact becomes manifest in the inner trauma, the family lives, and the future work in security firms and prisons of soldiers who were ordered to do something — as Rejali sees it — that no human being should ever be ordered to do.

Read the rest here.

You may download an MP3 of the broadcast here , listen to the broadcast on RealPlayer here and read a transcript here. The podcast is here.

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