Tuesday, June 12, 2007

When Democracies Torture

The world expects notoriously repressive political regimes to torture. That's part of what makes them so infamous. Since the torture and murder are open secrets, it's not difficult for liberated citizens, once the repressive regimes have fallen, to publicly acknowledge that torture was committed, denounce it, bring the perpetrators to justice, and (sometimes) offer reparations of sorts to torture survivors and families of torture victims who have disappeared. This open and honest acknowledgment and denunciation of officially sanctioned torture is a necessary condition for the healing of a traumatized body politic. Without it, no reconciliation is possible.

The world doesn't expect democracies to torture. Their heritage of affirming basic human rights is precisely what makes democracies so admirable. Citizens of democratic nations are proud of their traditions of fairness, legal protection, and respect for human dignity which are the envy of those who suffer under repressive regimes.
But here's the rub: democracies do occasionally torture. In periods of crisis, democracies torture "the enemy": British torture Irish, Israelis torture Palestinians, Americans torture Iraqis. In normal times, criminal prisoners in many democracies are also physically and psychologically brutalized. As Amnesty International notes, most torture in the world is inflicted on criminal, not political, prisoners.
Since the self-image of a democratic society is so intimately bound up with respect for human rights and a sense of fairness, the torture perpetrated by democracies, unlike the torture perpetrated by repressive regimes, is stealthy. It's done secretly, or it's outsourced. Rumors of torture may circulate, but unless there's an indisputable public revelation (such as the April 2004 60 Minutes' story on Abu Ghraib), it's easy for political authorities to deny them and for citizens to disbelieve them.
Even after indisputable evidence of torture goes public, democracies have a difficult time admitting its truth or accepting responsibility for it. Citizens of a repressive regime can always (with a fair measure of justification) blame the government for torture. But citizens of a democracy are participants, at least theoretically, in their own governing. They share the burden of responsibility. And torture is a tough burden to shoulder.
So both citizens and elected officials in democracies caught torturing typically hem and haw and rationalize, not only to protect their image around the world but also--and perhaps more importantly--to protect their own self-perception. There generally isn't the public confession of torture one finds in nations liberated from repressive regimes. It's as if democracies just can't bring themselves to speak their shame before the world. Consequently, the national wounds inflicted by torturing aren't healed, because they don't get publicly or honestly acknowledged. The bad conscience continues to nag, the wounds to fester.
In his excellent book on torture, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, John Conroy suggests that the process of rationalization and denial democracies that torture go through has nine thematic (not necessarily chronological) stages. Please note that Conroy's book was published in 2000, well before the Abu Ghraib mess. I underscore this, because Conroy's nine stages so uncannily chart the course the U.S. has followed since Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.
  • Stage 1. Absolute and complete denial.
  • Stage 2. Admission that some abuse has gone down, but minimization of both its scope and intensity.
  • Stage 3. Disparagement of the victims as dangerous thugs.
  • Stage 4. Insistence that the abuse (what "little" there was of it) was effective or appropriate under the circumstances.
  • Stage 5. Insistence that anyone taking up the cause of the tortured is aiding the enemies and undermining the security of the state.
  • Stage 6. Insistence that torture isn't occuring any more anyway, and that there's no point in keeping on about it.
  • Stage 7. If, however, the topic just won't go away, insistence that the torture wasn't official policy, but rather the shenanigans of a few bad apples.
  • Stage 8. Insistence that whatever abuse might've taken place isn't at all as horrible as the abuse perpetrated by repressive regimes.
  • Stage 9. Insistence that the victims of whatever abuse there might've been will get over it. All they suffered was a bit of temporary pain or humiliation.
Sounds all-too-familiar, doesn't it?