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History of Modern Torture - Input Junkie
August 31st, 2010
06:29 am

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History of Modern Torture
I'm reading Torture and Democracy by Darius Regali, and I'll be posting about it, but meanwhile I have a small question. The author describes his view of the development of modern torture as being more accurate than some other commonly held beliefs. I doubt that most people have beliefs about the history of torture, but I could be wrong.

So, do you have ideas about what sort of government uses torture? Whether anything about torture has changed significantly? How torture techniques get promulgated?

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From:nancylebov
Date:August 31st, 2010 11:06 am (UTC)
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I'm planning to post about the author's view in a day or so, but I want to find out what people think before I pollute the research pool.

As for telling you to read the book, I wouldn't be reading it myself if there wasn't someone I want to beat about the head and shoulders with it [1] [2] convince that torture which doesn't cause permanent damage is actually torture and is a bad thing all around.

[1] It's a big book. The Chicago police used to(?) use hitting with a local phone book as part of the third degree.

[2] The tag for crossing out words is "strike".

Edited at 2010-08-31 01:57 pm (UTC)
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From:nancylebov
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
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You did, and thanks again.

The person I'm planning to argue with has admitted that damage to the hippocampus counts as permanent damage, and I intend to expand on that.
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From:subnumine
Date:September 2nd, 2010 09:39 pm (UTC)

Patriotism, the last refuge....

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In the meantime, give him Darkness at Noon, which vividly portrays sleep deprivation - or 1984, come to think of it; the worst thing in the world need not cause physical damage.

Since one of them is SF, and both of them are anti-Stalinist, they may get past the usual defenses.

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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:August 31st, 2010 11:04 am (UTC)
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So a few fairly incoherent ideas:

1. All governments use torture. Liberal democracies are more secretive about it and more inclined to somewhat distance themselves from it by, for example, outsourcing to less hypocritical countries.

2. Torture has probably become more "scientific". For example, the use of pharmaceuticals and techniques like waterboarding.

3. I'm reasonably sure there is a sort of "torture underground" whereby practitioners share techniques pretty much regardless of ideology though I doubt there is direct contact between obvious "enemies".
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From:filkerdave
Date:August 31st, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
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RE your 3rd point:

What like Torturer's Guild International trade shows? Annual conventions?

(Now I'm imagining the badge that says, "Hi! My name is Severian")
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:August 31st, 2010 12:51 pm (UTC)
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Nice idea but I was thinking less formally. Seems to me that people in all occupations have ways of keeping up with the "state of the art". Why wouldn't torturers? Actually the CIA almost certainly have overly long Powerpoint slide decks on it since Powerpoint seems to have replaced thought throughout the US Military and Intelligence services.
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:August 31st, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
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Come to think of it, CIA Powerpoint decks probably are a form of torture.

Edited at 2010-08-31 12:52 pm (UTC)
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From:terriwells
Date:August 31st, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
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Okay, whether or not such conventions actually exist, I see the potential for a science fiction story here, or at least a setting of some kind. Still needs characters and a conflict to flesh it out, but yeah, it's there. (Only I'm thinking a funny story, and this is really no laughing matter. Oh well).
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From:siderea
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
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Famously, Gaiman has a serial killer convention played for black humor in Sandman.
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From:nancylebov
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
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IIRC, one of Disch's later novels has some pretty funny conversation between serial killers. It may not be realistic, but I liked a serial killer say that he didn't keep count because that would make it too much like a job.
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From:terriwells
Date:August 31st, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I'll have to check that out. I don't read enough different authors.
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From:siderea
Date:August 31st, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
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Sure! It's not a thought out, considered opinion, but I don't expect the CIA to be using the same gizmos as the Spanish Inquisition, e.g. Like everybody, my impression of who tortures is based on whom I've heard of having tortured, and absent more systematic examination (as in my case) the sample gets biased by the preference for reporting torture by cultures who are being identified as enemy not ally. Also, I assume it's been passed on in the same ways as all profession techniques: books and mentoring.
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From:siderea
Date:August 31st, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
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You'll note that I didn't say "I don't expect the Spanish Inquisition to be using the same techniques as the CIA", I said "I don't expect the CIA to be using the same gizmos as the Spanish Inquisition". Since you didn't note the difference, allow me to explain. The Spanish Inquisition was famous for its specialized single-application devices, e.g. the rack, the iron maiden. The CIA notably eschews devices which betray their purpose, using techniques and approaches which only rely on everyday tools, for the sake of plausible deniability.

Furthermore, not only do I know they recorded everything, I've actually read some Inquisition depositions.

Why don't you lecture someone else, hmm?
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From:siderea
Date:August 31st, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry I snapped at you, my apologies. I'm having an off day and lost the leash on my peevishness. As to depositions, I'm trying to remember. I've only read translated into English, and the book title which is leaping to mind has excerpts from a different branch of the Inquisition and it wasn't torture (dammit) (Montaillou: Promised Land of Error, if it's helpful.) It was probably one of my readers. Let me get back to you.
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From:siderea
Date:August 31st, 2010 06:29 pm (UTC)
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I read that back in the first year of graduate school! I think.

Probably. The local used academic books bookseller has historically had an approximately infinite supply of paperback copies for $4 ea -- I think it's being used as an introductory text for a bunch of classes, including freshman anthropology at Tufts.

(Uh, hi! I'm from the Albigensian Crusade! Nice to meet you!)

I read Lu Ann Honza's documentary history of the Inquisition

"The Spanish Inquisition, 1478-1614"? Looks intriguing.

but it did interest me that the Inquisitors did a lot of the things the CIA is accused of doing. (Except on a smaller scale, of course, and with less frequency.)

And apparently with better record keeping.
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From:bradhicks
Date:August 31st, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
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Since reading Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect, my thinking about the causes of torture is grounded less in political theory or even individual psychology of what kinds of government officials order torture or participate in torture, and more grounded in social psychology: put government officials, whoever they are, whatever the basis of their government, under certain circumstances and the will engage in torture. The following list, by Zimbardo, is derived from Milgram's obedience experiment and follow-up research on how to get people to suspend their conscience:
- - - - -
1. Prearranging some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to control the individual's behavior in pseudo-legal fashion. (In Milgram's experiment, this was done by publicly agreeing to accept the tasks and the procedures.)

2. Giving participants meaningful roles to play ("teacher," "learner") that carry with them previously learned positive values and automatically activate response scripts.

3. Presenting basic rules to be followed that seem to make sense before their actual use but can then be used arbitrarily and impersonally to justify mindless compliance. Also, systems control people by making their rules vague and changing them as necessary but insisting that "rules are rules" and thus must be followed (as the researcher in the lab coat did in Milgram's experiment or the SPE [Stanford Prison Experiment] guards did to force prisoner Clay-416 to eat the sausages).

4. Altering the semantics of the act, the actor, and the action (from "hurting victims" to "helping the experimenter," punishing the former for the lofty goal of scientific discovery)--replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric, gilding the frame so that the real picture is disguised. ...

5. Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes; others will be responsible, or the actor won't be held liable. (In Milgram's experiment, the authority figure said, when questioned by any "teacher," that he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the "learner.")

...
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From:bradhicks
Date:August 31st, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
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...

6. Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the easy "foot in the door" that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures, and leads down a slippery slope. (In the obedience study, the initial shock was only a mild 15 volts.) ...

7. Having successively increasing steps on the pathway that are gradual, so that they are hardly noticeably different from one's most recent prior action. "Just a little bit more." (By increasing each level of aggression in gradual steps of only 15-volt increments, over the thirty switches, no new level of harm seemed like a noticeable difference from the prior level to Milgram's participants.)

8. Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure (the researcher, in Milgram's study) from initially "just" and reasonable to "unjust" and demanding, even irrational. This tactic elicits initial compliance and later confusion, since we expect consistency from authorities and friends. Not acknowledging that this transformation has occurred leads to mindless obedience. ...

9. Making the "exit costs" high and making the process of exiting difficult by allowing verbal dissent (which makes people feel better about themselves) while insisting on behavioral compliance.

10. Offering an ideology, or a big lie, to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal.
- - - - -
The SPE chapters in the book add an 11th one, related to #5: grant anonymity, or the appearance of anonymity. People who wear uniforms, making them harder to tell apart, are easier to get to do awful things; so are people who hide any part of their face, wearing (for example) oversized mirrored or dark sunglasses or any kind of mask; so are people who are allowed or required to identify themselves only by job title or only by number or only by codename.

So, yeah: put people in an "ends justify the means" situation, allow anonymity, diffuse responsibility, create a slippery slope, obtain buy-in, and make the exit costs high, and no matter who's in charge or what their theory of government is, and (almost) no matter who the subordinates are and what their moral scruples are (or were), in the end, they'll commit atrocities, and not be able to explain why they did it. The reason they won't be able to explain why they did is that they never consciously decided to do so, the situation decided their actions for them by short-circuiting their ability to reason.
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From:nancylebov
Date:August 31st, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)
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Thanks-- very interesting, and probably has some interesting overlap with emotional abusers in general-- in particular, "the rules are the rules".

I think Rejali is getting into why it's so common for people to set up that sort of situation, and I'm still chewing on the question of why some significant proportion of people like causing pain so much.

Any thoughts about what structures are conducive to people thinking clearly?
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From:bradhicks
Date:August 31st, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC)
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Oddly, that's what Zimbardo says the focus of his current research is. He's gathering data on the people who didn't succumb in Milgram-style obedience experiments, who didn't abuse in Zimbardo-style prison experiments, and so forth, in hopes of formulating a testable hypothesis as to how we could raise human beings or treat them so that they become less susceptible to situational or social influences to do evil.

I wish I was working with him on this; he's one of the only scientists out there whose work I really, really wish I could be part of. And I say this even though my gut instinct is that no, we don't want people to be immune to these kinds of pressures, because the coping mechanisms that result in that immunity have horrific side effects like inability to work in teams and/or severe social isolation. The more likely solution would be in crafting social technologies that detect toxic situations and intervene before people succumb, in teaching the people who craft our social situations not to put people in those situations.

(Zimbardo testified in the guards' defense over Abu Grahib, saying that the only person who actually exercised free will was the prison commandant, who ran the prison in a way guaranteed to produce abuse even after she'd been warned, by someone who knew about the SPE and subsequent research, what would likely happen. The judge threw out his testimony, arguing that basically nothing in US law allows a defense of psychological coercion, that US law assumes that all people always have free will and nobody ever does anything evil except of their own free will. Zimbardo is scathing about this in The Lucifer Effect.)
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From:nancylebov
Date:August 31st, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
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Maybe it's there in your point 10, but I don't think your Milgram drift model covers the amount of gusto and invention I see in the history of torture.

Also, there's a aspect of keeping low status people in their place (I'm not sure if this applies to Abu Graib) which goes into some torture.

Does Zimbardo cover whether real world torturers generally need such a gradual initiation?
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From:bradhicks
Date:September 1st, 2010 08:45 am (UTC)
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The thing about the Stanford Prison Experiment is that it showed that if you give people responsibility for results but not enough power or authority or resources to achieve them, threaten to hold them accountable if they fail to get the results, render them semi-anonymous or anonymous, depersonalize the people they're supposed to work on or with, and give them the illusion of being absolved of blame for any bad things they do, no, really, they don't have to have started out with evil motives or as generally evil people to get really, really creative with torture. Physical and psychological torture don't need to be taught, they're something 2 out of 3 humans (or more) put in a pro-torture situation will resort to, and innovate at length on, on their own.

In the situations that have been studied by situational psychologists and other social psychologists, the first person to conclude that there is no other way to avoid the perceived harsh consequences of failure other than torture will instinctively and rapidly come up with the rest of the formula, obtaining buy-in, reframing the language, enforcing arbitrary rules, and bringing the reluctant along with them gradually.

It's not a matter of studying the people who do this; it's so common, automatic, wide spread that Zimbardo is absolutely right that we need to be studying the rare occasions where it doesn't come to this, where somebody (whether among the victims or among the torturers' peers) manages to stop or prevent it or at least bring the torturers to justice. (Zimbardo said that he was starting with the soldier who, in the face of VERY dangerous consequences, took the CD of Abu Grahib photos he was given up and up the chain of command, which ended that soldier's career and brought death threats from the torturers and their families, wanting to know how and why they did it.)
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From:nancylebov
Date:September 1st, 2010 12:09 pm (UTC)
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Got it.

There still may be something requiring explanation about why the higher status people keep setting up those sorts of situations-- there's a chapter in Rejali that I haven't gotten to yet about why people keep not learning that torture isn't a source of reliable information.
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From:subnumine
Date:September 2nd, 2010 09:45 pm (UTC)
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Uses torture for what?

The Athenians used torture on slaves before accepting their testimony in court, but not otherwise.
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From:nancylebov
Date:September 3rd, 2010 11:00 am (UTC)
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The book gets into that-- I think there are three main categories, which may overlap: information, false confessions, and keeping low status people in their place.
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