Violence pretty much forces a silence on people. When everyone sees a violent act, the first reaction they have to it is, ‘Well, it’s bad and it should stop.’ And then that’s kind of where the brain ends. There’s a lot of moral torture talk…but the ability to turn around and confront, not the torture talk, … but to actually look at the practice, pay attention to it, understand its details, consider what would it take if I took a tool and I did this to such a person, what would its effects be, that’s a pretty horrifying thing. Nobody really wants to go there.
With new reports of detainee abuse in Iraq emanating from WikiLeaks, we’re going to broadcast/podcast an encore version of Krista’s interview with Rejali in the coming weeks. Rejali argues that, with the right circumstances in place, torture is a likely outcome and that it’s the “situation, not the disposition, that makes people evil.”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Only in a state of great powerlessness, weakness, fear, and anxiety does the idea of justified torture sound even remotely reasonable to an otherwise good and moral man.
— Geoffrey Cornish, who quotes his father’s friend who helped soldiers escape from Japanese work camps in WWII, in response to our blog post about Darius Rejali’s personal interest in the torture debate.
The rest of his comment is well worth reading.
“All Words Have Connotations”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
We’ve been talking about covering the difficult topic of torture for quite a while now, and the idea resurfaced again in staff meetings with the recent release of the Bush administration memos on interrogation techniques. About the time we were renewing our efforts to find a voice on the topic, I opened up the Sunday paper to find Clark Hoyt’s editorial "The Brutal Truth" — an account of the linguistic evolution of The New York Times' torture and interrogation coverage.
Hoyt outlines the decision to use the word “brutal” to describe what the Bush administration had labeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the reader mail they received in response. Some thought the word was a cop-out, one reader writing “Why can’t The New York Times call torture by its proper name?” While another writes “The Times has simply placed itself as one actor in a political fight, not a neutral media outlet.”
This sort of criticism was in our heads as we produced this week’s program "The Long Shadow of Torture".” Unlike The Times, we don’t get to hash out our editorial choices over a series of articles — we pretty much have one chance to get it right, and then have to live with our decisions after broadcast. I found that many of the questions asked during production mirrored the ones posed in Hoyt’s editorial; as a journalist, when does your choice of words compromise the integrity of your reporting? Using harsher terminology may seem to impart a biased viewpoint, while softer words might be complicit in obscuring the truth. Is “detainee abuse” more accurate than “torture,” or vice versa?
Perhaps my favorite part of Hoyt’s account is the linguist Deborah Hannon’s response to his presentation of the “brutal” issue:
"The search for words that are not in any way evaluative is hopeless," she told me. "All words have connotations."
This statement makes the prospect of objective journalism a daunting one. What do you think, did we we come out OK on this program? What kind of connotations did we inevitably inject into the conversation?
Rejali Reprise and Why Resistors Resist
» download (mp3, 3:19)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
Recently, Krista sent around an e-mail saying she wanted to look into Darius Rejali as a possible show guest to explore the topic of torture. I was about to fire up Google when I realized I was already familiar with Rejali’s voice and ideas. Last year I worked on an American RadioWorks documentary called "What Killed Sergeant Gray" about Iraq veterans who’ve been psychologically devastated by their experiences with detainee abuse. Rejali was tapped as a voice for the program.
In that interview, as well as in his more recent conversation with Krista, I found myself drawn to his discussion of when and why people resist the group-think pressure to go along with what Rejali calls a “torture bureaucracy.” Rejali says that while these resistors haven’t been formally studied, they do seem to have in common an affiliation with a belief system — whether it’s derived from their family, religion, or a political party — that conflicts with whatever the torture bureaucracy is telling them to do.
Above is some audio from the unedited interview from the documentary in which Rejali talks more about these conflicts. Here, Rejali makes reference to French soldiers who refused to perpetrate torture during the French-Algerian war in the 1950s and early 60s. He also mentions social science experiments that would be illegal today but have taught us about the power of social situations in determining people’s propensity to obey or defy authority — specifically the famous Milgram obedience study. We decided to use some audio from the these experiments in our upcoming show.
*Thanks to American RadioWorks for permission to use this source audio and Michael Montgomery, Joshua Phillips, and Catherine Winter.
A Guest with a Personal Interest in the Torture Debate
» download (mp3, 1:00)
Trent Gilliss, online editor
As we look for guests for each show, we seek authoritative voices who not only have the expertise to speak about delicate subjects but a personal investment in that subject as well. In this week’s show, “The Long Shadow of Torture” (available via podcast on June 11), we found that voice — Darius Rejali, a professor of Political Science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
He’s written several books on the topic of violence and torture, including Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran and, most recently, Torture and Democracy. In the preface to the latter, Rejali writes about his personal stake on this subject:
Perhaps as a child, I was more disposed to thinking differently about violence than others. My relation to violence was more intimate. On my Iranian side, royal autocrats in my family had no difficulty ordering torture or genocide when it served their interests. Stories of their deeds are, to say the least, unforgettable. On my American side, we remember General Sherman’s march through Georgia. In September 1864, as cannons shelled Atlanta, my ancestor, Harriet Yarbrough, dug a hole in a bank and hid there with her two children. Afterward, she was one of 446 families who stayed behind; she had opposed the war passionately from the outset, but when Union soldiers destroyed the Yarbrough home for firewood, that was the last straw. Undaunted by the situation in which she found herself, she went to find Sherman and unleashed all her fury at him. It did no good, and the site of her home is now part of Olympic Park. She filed for reimbursement from the War Department, and pursued the claim until 1891. She never forgot.
Being an Iranian aristocrat — American Southerner, a Shiite Muslim — Calvinist with a keen sense of history, presents unique intellectual and moral challenges. If you had told me early in childhood that I would write a book on Iranian torture — as I did — I would not have believed you. And I am just as surprised, I think, that this new book is also on torture.
But it seems my family’s tales of the dark side of human life have put me in a good position to understand where we find ourselves today. Exactly a hundred years ago, my Iranian great-grandfather fought to defend his autocratic way of life. He did not hesitate to turn cannons on crowds or torture people he considered terrorists and anarchists. His opponents said, there you see, his way of life is a sham, and these people disguise barbaric force behind high-minded talk of honorable values. And who was to say they were wrong? For if honorable men cannot fight fairly and win, who on earth are they, and what do they represent? In the end no one, except a handful of sycophants, mourned the passing of his way of life.
A hundred years later, believers in democracy seem to be ready to make the same mistake as my autocratic ancestor, and I am here to urge them not to. I hope I have written a story that makes us take a second look at ourselves as we enter a new century primed to treat our enemies inhumanely.