from the book

Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People

by John Conroy

University of California Press, 2000, paper


... 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.

When a dictatorship is overthrown by a democratic regime, torture squads typically elude punishment because the new government is not entirely secure. After the junta fell in Argentina, for example, the new government lived in constant fear of a coup; the leaders of the ruling junta were prosecuted, but to avoid riling the armed forces further, there was no great purge of torturers, no indictments of whole companies of men. In other countries in which civilian governments have taken over from a regime that practiced torture, the new leaders, seeing the need for order and continuity, have decided it was not practical to replace every judge, prosecutor, and policeman who held office during the dark ages; as a result, the bureaucracy that supported or tolerated torture remains in place, a bureaucracy understandably not interested in investigating the sins of the past. In other nations where torture has been systematic, reform governments have become convinced that what their country needs is reconciliation and healing, that prosecution of torturers would once again polarize society, that the best course is to avoid indictments for human rights violations. Other liberating governments have declined to prosecute either because they quickly find the torturer's tools quite useful or because the liberators have a history of torture themselves.

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. A judge or jury choosing between an erect and courageous torturer and an unpopular victim often has an easier time identifying with the torturer.

In various nations in which notorious regimes have fallen, there has been a public acknowledgment that people were tortured. In democracies of long standing in which torture has taken place, however, denial takes hold and official acknowledgment is extremely slow in coming, if it appears at all. 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. Northern Irish Prime Minister Brian Faulkner announced that there had been "no brutality of any kind." The London Sunday Times was denounced for printing "the fantasies of terrorists."

The second stage was to minimize the abuse. The government referred to it not as torture but as "interrogation in depth." Home Secretary Reginald Maulding proclaimed that there was "no permanent lasting injury whatever, physical or mental, to any of the men." The majority report of the Parker Commission proclaimed that any mental disorientation should disappear within hours, and, if it didn't, it might be the men's own fault, the product of anxiety caused by "guilty knowledge" and "fear of reprisals" from comrades for having allegedly given information. In the Compton Report, Sir Edmund Compton and his colleagues concluded that part of the torture had been done for the men's own good: the hooding kept the prisoners from identifying each other, thus preserving each man's security. The beating of Joe Clarke's hands had not occurred; his hands had been massaged by guards in order to restore circulation. The guards who forced men to perform strenuous exercises were merely trying to keep the prisoners warm.

A third stage is to disparage the victims. Lord Carrington judged them to be "thugs and murderers," while Reginald Maulding proclaimed, "It was necessary to take measures to fight terrorists, the murderous enemy. We must recognize them for what they are. They are criminals who wish to impose their own will by violence and terror." Yet after extensive torture and ostensibly extensive confessions about their acts of "violence and terror," none of the hooded men were charged with any crime.

A fourth stage is to justify the treatment on the grounds that it was effective or appropriate under the circumstances. Lord Balniel, junior minister of defense, said that there was no evidence of torture, ill-treatment, or brainwashing, and that the methods employed had produced "invaluable" information about a brutal, callous, and barbaric enemy. Compton proclaimed that the five techniques had been used on the men because it was "operationally necessary to obtain [information] as rapidly as possible in the interest of saving lives." On November 2I, 197l, the Sunday Times poked holes in the apologists' claims, pointing out that if the interrogation methods used on the hooded men "were approved for use in any British police station, where the need for information is sometimes just as urgent as in Ulster, there would be universal outrage." The Sunday Times editorial staff dismissed the claim that cruel treatment was justified if it saved lives. How can you be sure, the paper asked, that the prisoner has the information you seek, that the lack of that information will indeed mean someone will die, and that cruel methods extract reliable information ? The claim that lives were saved became even more suspect as time passed. The IRA was invigorated by new recruits inspired by the cruel treatment accorded the Catholic community, and in the calendar year following the introduction of internment, the number of shootings rose by 605 percent, the number of armed robberies increased 44 1 percent, and the number of deaths rose 268 percent.

A fifth component of a torturing society's defense is to charge that those who take up the cause of those tortured are aiding the enemies of the state. So when the Republic of Ireland persisted in its suit against the United Kingdom on behalf of the victims, the Guardian argued that the republic's government was "torturing Northern Ireland" by "force feeding the Provisionals [the Provisional IRA] with propaganda."

A sixth defense is that the torture is no longer occurring, and anyone who raises the issue is therefore "raking up the past." Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees leveled that charge at the Irish government when it persisted in its pursuit of the victims' cause five years after their ordeal. Fifteen years later, there was widespread support throughout the United Kingdom for the War Crimes Bill, which became law in May 1991 and which allowed for the prosecution of former Nazi officials for crimes committed fifty years earlier. (Lord Carrington and former Prime Minister Edwin Heath opposed the bill.) It 's always easier to see torture in another country than in one's own.

A seventh component of a torturing bureaucracy is to put the blame on a few bad apples. In defending themselves before the European Court, the British proclaimed that it was not an administrative practice, but rather a few men exceeding their orders. If this had been the case, however, there would seem to be no reason why the torturers could not have been publicly named and prosecuted.

An eighth stage in a society's rationalization of its policy of torture is the common torturer's defense, presented to me by most of the former torturers I interviewed, that someone else does or has done much worse things. When the subject of the hooded men arose, it was common for the British government spokesmen and many editorial writers to respond by denouncing the IRA for its callous campaign of random murder, as if that justified the torture of randomly chosen men who, on the whole, were not members of the IRA. In the wake of the European Commission decision labeling the five techniques torture, the Times of London hastened to point out that Britain should not be "lumped together with regimes past or present in Greece, Brazil, Iran, Argentina." The Times argued that the techniques employed by those regimes put the victim in terror of the continuation of pain, and that that terror forced the victim to submit to the interrogator. The British techniques, the Times said, were not as evil because they were not designed to induce terror, but rather to induce a state of mental disorientation so that the victim's will to resist was lost.

A final rationalization of a torturing nation is that the victims will get over it. In a I982 interview, General Harry Tuzo, the Oxford-educated commander of the army in Northern Ireland at the time Jir.. Auld and the others were tortured, claimed that the victims, who in Tuzo's words had suffered not torture but "acute discomfort and humiliation," had been "very well compensated and looked after." "I personally would have thought," Tuzo said, "that they had got over it by now." Similarly, General Jacques Massu, the French commander who throughout his life staunchly defended the widespread use of torture by his troops during the Algerian war, dismissed the pains suffered by Henri Alleg, the European-born Jew who wrote a book about his experience as a victim of Massu's policy (The Question, George Braziller, 1958). Massu saw Alleg in 1970, thirteen years after he was tortured, and based on that viewing discerned that the torture survivor was in "reassuringly vigorous condition."

It is perhaps understandable that public officials accused of a crime as heinous as torture would react defensively and follow a predictable route of denial. What is perhaps more difficult to understand is the rampant indifference that grips most societies in the face of revelations of torture.

The indifference demonstrated by bystanders in the face of other people's suffering has been widely studied, particularly since the murder of twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964, in Queens, New York. The murder was witnessed by thirty-eight of the victim's neighbors. During the thirty minutes that it took the killer to complete his act, not one of those thirty-eight people called the police or came to the young woman's aid.

In considering that incident, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane wondered if Genovese might have fared better had there been fewer onlookers. The two psychologists then designed a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that the greater the number of people who witness an emergency, the less likely it is that anyone will do anything about it.

In one experiment, New York University students were led, one by one, to small rooms. Each was told that he or she was part of a group of students, all sitting alone in similar rooms, all connected by microphones and headsets. During the course of a discussion about the pressures that students faced, the subjects heard one student-actually a confederate of the experimenters confess that he was prone to seizures when tense. A few minutes later, subjects heard that same student break down and plead for help. The subjects had been led to believe that no instructor would be monitoring their conversation, so no one hearing the seizure was clearly in charge.

In an article on the experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Darley and Latane reproduced a portion of the victim's speech, the ending of which went as follows: "I-er-if somebody could help me out it would-it would-er-er s-s-sure be-sure be good . . . because-er-there-er-er-a cause I-er-I-uh-I've got a-a one of the-er-sei-er-er-things coming on and-and-and I could reallyer-use some help so if somebody would-er-give me a little h-helpuh-er-er-er-er-er could somebody-er-er-help-er-uh-uh-uh [choking sounds].... I'm gonna die-er-er-I'm ... gonna die-er-help-er-erseizure-er [chokes, then quiet]."

The experiment was designed so that the subjects believed they could not communicate directly with each other-all believed that their microphones were turned off when it was not their turn to speak. Some subjects believed that they were part of a two-person group, and that therefore they alone had heard the young man's seizure. Other subjects believed that one other student had also heard the victim's pleas (a three-person group), and still others thought that four other people were listening when the breakdown occurred (a six-person group). The dependent variable was the time elapsed from the start of the victim's fit until the subject sought help. If six minutes passed after the end of the fit and the subject had not left his or her room, the experimenter entered the room and terminated the session.

Darley and Latane's theory about bystanders proved to be correct. All of the subjects who thought that they alone had heard the victim's seizure tried to get help, most leaving their room before the victim had even finished his speech. Eighty percent of those in the three-person groups sought help, albeit it a little more slowly than those in the two-person groups. But only 62 percent of those in the six-person groups left their room, and they moved at a considerably slower pace: 50 percent of the single bystanders bolted from the room within forty-five seconds of the start of the seizure, by which time none of the people in the six-person groups had yet reached the door. Males and females responded to the emergency with almost exactly the same frequency and speed.

Surprisingly, Darley and Latane did not find that the subjects who stayed in their seats were apathetic or unconcerned; in fact, those who did not respond to the emergency seemed more upset than those who did, often asking the experimenter who entered their rooms if the victim was all right. The two psychologists concluded that non-intervening subjects had not responded because they were mired in a state of indecision and internal conflict: "On the one hand, subjects worried about the guilt and shame they would feel if they did not help the person in distress. On the other hand, they were concerned not to make fools of themselves by overreacting, not to ruin the ongoing experiment by leaving their intercom, and not to destroy the anonymous nature of the situation which the experimenter had earlier stressed as important.... Caught between the two negative alternatives of letting the victim continue to suffer or the costs of rushing in to help, the non-responding bystanders vacillated between them rather than choosing not to respond. This distinction may be academic to the victim, since he got no help in either case, but it is an extremely important one for arriving at an understanding of the causes of bystanders' failures to help."

Darley and Latane concluded by saying that individuals are not "non-interveners" because of some flaw in their personality, but rather because responsibility is diffused. As in the murder of Kitty Genovese, isolated individuals, knowing that others were also aware of the emergency but not knowing how those others were responding, did not attempt to intervene because they did not feel personally responsible.

Darley and Latane wondered if the results would be different if those individuals were not isolated, if they could talk to other bystanders. A layperson might imagine that when strangers are able to talk to each other about an emergency, they will be more likely to arrive at a decisive course of action-the old notion that two or three or six heads are better than one. Darley and Latane, however, suspected that the opposite might be true.

To test their beliefs, they established a situation in which varying numbers of male Columbia University students filled out forms in a room that slowly filled with smoke. The students were witnessing a potential emergency that threatened themselves as well as others. It was not a subtle process: many of the subjects noticed the smoke within five seconds of its introduction, and after four minutes, subjects were coughing, rubbing their eyes, and attempting to open the window. At six minutes, when the experiment was terminated if no one had bothered to seek help, vision was obscured by the amount of smoke in the room.

In their sample of students, three out of four of those tested alone reported the smoke, but only one out of eight students who were tested in groups of three saw fit to report the emergency.

In their accounts of the experiment, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Psychology Today, Darley and Latane wrote that when the subjects who reported the smoke were debriefed after the experiment, they often mentioned that they had considered the possibility that the building was on fire. By contrast, those who sat through the six minutes without moving came up with an astonishing variety of alternative explanations for the smoke, none of which mentioned the word "fire." Two students from different groups actually suggested that the smoke was a truth gas deployed to induce them to answer the questionnaire accurately. (Darley and Latane reported that the two who offered this explanation did not seem in the least disturbed by it.) In essence, the inactive bystanders were concocting reasons why they should be absolved for their inaction.

The two psychologists concluded that individuals are less likely to engage in socially responsible action if they think other bystanders are present. "If each member of a group of bystanders is aware that other people are also present, he will be less likely to notice the emergency, less likely to decide that it is an emergency, and less likely to act even if he thinks there is an emergency."

Darley and Latane's experiments and others inspired by the Genovese murder have led psychologists to conclude that people tend to look to others to define events. Someone who sees something that may be an emergency looks to see if other witnesses are also alarmed. If everyone seems calm or indifferent, the observer often concludes that no emergency is taking place. The group defines the event, and most people follow the spoken and unspoken norms of the group and are unwilling to risk the embarrassment-of overreacting in public. Furthermore, even if people recognize that they are witnessing an event in which help is called for, they remain unsure who is responsible for providing that help: in a group of strangers there is no captain. Responsibility is therefore diffused, and so is the guilt felt by those who do nothing.

Social psychologists also explain the passivity of human beings in the face of emergencies by citing the human tendency to believe that there is some order to the universe-that the guilty are punished, the innocent are rewarded, and justice prevails. Various studies indicate that most of us are given to this " just world thinking," and that we will rearrange our perception of people and events so that it seems as ~ though everyone gets what they deserve. Upon seeing an innocent per- j son punished, for example, most people will ad just their interpretation of what they have witnessed: the person being punished "must have done something," must somehow be inferior or dangerous or evil, or must be suffering because some higher cause is being served.

This phenomenon was illustrated in an experiment conducted by psychologists Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons in which seventy-two female undergraduates watched a peer receive severe and painful electric shocks when she gave wrong answers to questions put to her. (The "victim" was in league with the experimenters and was not actually shocked.) Some observers were told that they could stop the shocks after the experiment's first ten-minute session, and that for the second session they could place the victim in a position to earn a fair sum of money for her participation. Other participants were told that they had no control over the experiment, and after witnessing the first session of painful shocks, they believed their colleague was going to suffer more of the same. The students who thought that they controlled the fate of the victim described her in much more positive terms than those who thought they had no influence. Lerner and Simmons concluded that those who believed the suffering was unstoppable devalued the victim so that they could justify what they had witnessed.

Psychologists are also quick to point out that helping often conflicts with norms or rules of appropriate behavior. A man escorting a woman to a dark place in a park could seem like a cause for alarm, but it is considered perverse and impolite to follow a couple into the bushes. Speaking out for a man unjustly imprisoned sounds noble in the abstract, but when that man is from one of the torturable classes, those who speak for him can expect few pats on the back.

The Chicago cases seem to speak to all of these points. It wasn't a case of five people hearing a seizure and doing nothing or acting slowly; it was a case of millions of people knowing of an emergency and doing nothing. People looked about, saw no great crusade forming, saw protests only from the usual agitators, and assumed there was no cause for alarm. Responsibility was diffused. Citizens offended by torture could easily retreat into the notion that they lived in a just world, that the experts would sort things out, that the press, prosecutors, the judiciary, the legislature, or the police department's Office of Professional Standards would take care of the matter. Furthermore, the victims were easily devalued. Some were on death row, many were gang members with extensive police records, and those who were neither were tainted by their association with those who were-"if they were tortured, they must have been guilty because look who else was tortured."

Seeing this play out in my hometown made me wonder: If the Area 2 victims could not rely on public outrage, on the press, on state or federal prosecutors, on politicians, or on the judiciary, what hope is there? Who does help?

... One small study of people who helped Jews during the Holocaust, described by Perry London in "The Rescuers: Motivational Hypotheses about Christians Who Saved Jews from the Nazis" (a chapter in the I970 book Altruism and Helping Behavior, edited by J. Macaulay and L. Berkowitz), found evidence to indicate that altruistic behavior was related to three personal traits: a spirit of adventurousness, an intense identification with a parent who set a high standard of moral conduct, and a sense of being socially marginal. In London's small sample, the spirit of adventurousness was perhaps best exemplified by a man whose prewar hobby was to race motorcycles on courses that required driving over narrow boards that spanned deep ditches. Once the war began, that man and his friends got a kick out of putting sugar in the gas tanks of German army vehicles, a practice that disabled the engines. The identification with a parent with high moral standards was prominent in the case of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister from the Netherlands whose father had gone to jail for his beliefs; the minister described himself as mildly anti-Semitic, but during the war he organized a large-scale operation for rescuing Jews, believing simply that it was a Christian's duty. That minister, who belonged to a religious group with an extremely small number of followers in Holland, was also cited as an example of what the researchers called "social marginality": a social separateness, a feeling of being an outsider, that seemed to allow the rescuers to have less fear about losing their attachment to the majority group. One highly effective German rescuer, also part of London's sample, had been a stutterer as a child and in an interview confessed that he had always felt friendless. The residents of the French village of Le Chambon, who saved thousands of Jews during the war, also had a certain social marginality: they were Huguenots in overwhelmingly Catholic France.

Amherst professor Dr. Ervin Staub, perhaps the world's foremost authority on bystanders, has staged his own experiments designed to identify the qualities of those who help during emergencies. In one of those experiments, described in "Helping a Distressed Person: Social, Personality, and Stimulus Determinants" (a chapter in the book Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by L. Berkowitz), male undergraduates filling out a questionnaire became aware of moaning coming from the next room. Some of the students believed they were working on a timed task, while others had been given no directions concerning time. If the student went into the room to discover the source of the noise, he found another male undergraduate complaining that his stomach was "killing him" and that he had run out of pills. If the subject did not investigate the noise, the allegedly ill confederate eventually entered the testing room, mentioned his ailment and his lack of pills, and asked if he could sit on a couch nearby.

Some of those who helped the ailing student were so enthusiastic that, in an attempt to get medicine at a nearby pharmacy, they ran down twelve flights of stairs rather than wait for an elevator, and one student was so fast that the experimenters didn't catch up with him until he actually got to the drugstore. Those helpers, however, were a small minority. In the sample of I22 students, 73 percent did little or nothing.

While other psychologists have had a hard time gathering results that show any correlation between personality and helping behavior, Staub found a strong correlation in this particular experiment. Subjects who valued cleanliness highly were generally less helpful. Staub interpreted this to indicate that college students "who endorse cleanliness may be highly conventional, and conventional values seem to be different from concern for others." Students who ranked ambition highly as a value were less willing to interrupt their work on the assigned task for longer periods of time (Staub believed that the more ambitious may have experienced more conflict in determining a course of action). The subjects whose personality profiles showed a significant prosocial orientation were more likely to help, but only when the circumstances permitted it: the prosocial students who believed they were working on a timed task were less responsive than those who were unconcerned about the passage of time. Subjects who valued courage highly were more apt to initiate action in response to the moans, those who were taken with adventure and novel experiences seemed more likely to initiate help, and those who valued helpfulness tended to be more responsive when they were asked to collect a prescription.

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.

It also seems, however, that helping is an infection that is not easily spread. Those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust were often personally approached by someone in dire need, and the same can be said of those who helped the student in pain in Dr. Staub's experiment. Most men and women who are tortured are like the Chicago victims locked up, unable to knock on anyone's door. Dr. Staub's work indicates that if it is easy to escape without helping, most people will escape: in one Staub experiment in which a confederate feigned a heart attack on a public street, far fewer people helped when the victim was across the street than when he was in their path. Staub noted that some of his subjects observed the victim in agony and then immediately turned their heads and looked away, never turning back.

Furthermore, in places where torture takes place, it is often well known to thousands and sometimes millions of people. That means that responsibility is diffused. Many bystanders simply don't know what to do, how to help, even if they are inclined to-certainly a situation faced by many good Germans during the years of the Holocaust-and they remain immobilized, like the students in the Darley and Latane experiment who heard a colleague plead for help with his seizure. It is not so difficult for many bystanders to adapt their beliefs, to buy into the idea that what is being done is not an abomination, but a service to humanity-that, for example, innocent lives are being saved because men and women are being tortured. Observe, for example, the case of Israel, where there is no large-scale protest over the widely reported torture of more than twenty thousand Palestinians, many of them mere stone throwers.

While helping is infectious, so is torture. The Soviet Union, China, and North Korea provided the inspiration for the British use of the five techniques. The British methods inspired the Israelis. Israeli methods have in turn inspired the Palestinians, who now have their own torturable class in the West Bank and Gaza.

... for most torture victims, there can be little hope of help from their fellow citizens or outsiders. A few will be rescued by the clamor of human rights activists and the chain of events that that clamor initiates, but for most, any rescuing done will be done by the victims themselves, using their own internal resources, shoring up ~ themselves and their fellow victims as best as they can during the process, and perhaps-if they or their families are very resourceful- getting some psychological help if they are released. Only a tiny fraction of working torturers will ever be punished, and those who are can expect their punishment to be slight compared to their crime.

It seems a very small leap to argue that torture is the perfect crime. There are exceptions, yes, but in the vast majority of cases, only the victim pays.

Torture watch

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