Making the transition to 'clean' torture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 April, 2009, 12:00am

There is a widely held belief that democratic governments do not, with some exceptions, sanction torture and that only authoritarian or dictatorial ones such as China, Iran and Syria routinely use it as an interrogative method and a political instrument. A new report by the International Committee of the Red Cross should dispel any such notion. It makes clear that torture is an integral part of the United States' so-called 'war on terror' and its worldwide system of detention and interrogation. It documents the torture and mistreatment of 14 terror detainees held by the CIA.

So what, you ask? Everybody knows that about the George W. Bush presidency and its misdeeds, which have been extensively documented by human rights groups and investigative US reporters, including Jane Mayer in The Dark Side and Barton Gellman in Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, among others. We are now in the new era of Barack Obama. That may be so. But it would be wrong to assume that Mr Bush's de facto torture policy is an aberration in the history of American or western democratic governments. In a recent book, Torture and Democracy, US political scientist Darius Rejali convincingly demonstrates that democratic regimes do torture and have always done so, only they do it differently.

He distinguishes between 'clean' torture and torture that leaves permanent marks, and argues that western torture techniques tend to fall within the first group. Writing in, an online magazine, he argues that the techniques documented by the Red Cross fit into this century-old pattern. These techniques include: wrapping the victim in ice; prolonged confinement in extremely cold or hot and/or tiny cells; water boarding; and, prolonged stress or duress positions. These are favoured chiefly because they do not leave permanent marks. Yet, victims who survive them - some of the stress positions can be fatal - will tell you they are no less brutal than those which leave permanent marks.

Bloody torture, on the other hand, is practised by dictatorial countries because they are more or less unaccountable and can afford to make a mess with their victims. I will leave contemporary China until later because it falls somewhere in between these two general torture categories.

Many people believe that torture in western countries is now obsolete. Even someone as critical of western power practices as the late French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault had argued that democracies tend to use surveillance in place of torture to exercise political control and produce information. That may be so with their own citizens, but what about overseas?

Colonial France, Professor Rejali finds, preferred to use water and electricity in torture. Americans and British have always favoured methods similar to the ones documented by the Red Cross. The simple reason is that democratic regimes are accountable to domestic law and international conventions; and so deniability - not leaving marks - is essential. Within this context, the Bush presidency's sanctioning of torture is unexceptional. The real difference is what I would call Mr Bush and Dick Cheney's 'legal fetishism' - their use of secret and outlandish legal doctrines to justify the indefensible. This is worse than simple deniability because it leads to the corruption of language, political discourse and the law. Torture has to be defined away or called something else, such as 'enhanced interrogation techniques'; long-standing laws and international conventions against torture have to be subverted and watered down.

Where does this leave China? It could once afford messy and unaccountable torture but, as an emerging power with increasing global responsibility and representation in multilateral organisations, it is open to scrutiny by independent media, human rights bodies and other governments. In time, it too must adjust to 'clean' torture and 'enhanced interrogation methods'.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post