On Being with Krista Tippett

Darius Rejali

The Long Shadow of Torture

Last Updated

November 4, 2010

Original Air Date

June 11, 2009

One of the world’s leading experts on torture, Iranian-American political scientist Darius Rejali discusses, in particular, how democracies change torture and are changed by it. In the wake of Wikileaks revelations about torture in U.S.-occupied Iraq, we explore how his knowledge might deepen our public discourse about such practices — and inform our collective reckoning with consequences yet to unfold.

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Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and author of Torture and Democracy.


November 4, 2010

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: In the wake of revelations through the website WikiLeaks about torture in U.S.-occupied Iraq, we’re revisiting an important conversation I had in 2009. My guest, Darius Rejali, is one of the world’s leading experts on torture: its history and effects, human and political, practical and moral. In his life story and in his scholarship, Darius Rejali knows how torture makes its way into democracies and how it affects the people and nations who practice it.

From American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, on Being, “The Long Shadow of Torture.” Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He’s best known as the author of the sweeping, highly acclaimed 2007 book Torture and Democracy. His expertise has been sought by legal experts, scholars, and the media, before and since the Obama administration declassified and released legal memos on torture in April 2009. These memos were written during the Bush administration and authorized practices that included waterboarding and the use of insects in cramped confinement boxes. More recently, WikiLeaks released new documentation of American complicity in and proximity to whipping, electric shocks, and other abuses by Iraqi forces.

Darius Rejali was raised in pre-revolutionary Iran with, as he tells it, an Iranian Shiite father and a Calvinist American mother. He was also raised with an awareness that a long line of his aristocratic Iranian forebears had used torture against opponents. Torture was also a known tool at the state apparatus of the king or shah who ruled Iran during Darius Rejali’s childhood.

MR. DARIUS REJALI: When I think back on my childhood, I think of a history class where — it was mandatory that all Iranians had to take Persian history, and we were taught about the old kings and how unjust they were. And this was always ended with praise of the monarchy, the shah, at the time.


MR. REJALI: And one of the famous incidents that they describe is a case of a king who walked into a rebel city about 200 years ago and he ordered a series of brutal punishments, including removing the eyes of about 10,000 people. And everybody of course was horrified, you know, as you can imagine. Kids talk about these things. For me, this was difficult in a different way because this was an ancient relative of mine. So I guess the sociologist in me was born.


MR. REJALI: You know, I come from an old aristocratic family that was accustomed to power on my father’s side. And they didn’t exercise power always particularly in a noble or just way. And yet they had these great ideals of gentlemanliness and kindness and mercy, and there was always a deep tension in those values. So, yeah, that was part of my childhood. And then, of course, growing up in Iran at that time, you know, we all knew that there was a secret service. My father worked in the official opposition, and when the king dissolved the official opposition in ’75, people disappeared. So there was a feeling that at all times you were being watched. And yet there was the irony where when Time magazine did a big expose on torture in Iran, it was available for sale at the Hilton Hotel.

You know, so there was this — everybody knew that bad things were happening and that these things weren’t incompatible with modernization, with washing machines and dry cleaners and those sort of things.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And I think this is a point you make that is important to draw, that you had a lovely childhood also in many ways and that you were in fact living in a modern society, right?

MR. REJALI: I was.

MS. TIPPETT: The fact of torture merged with — it was a modern, educated, cultured world.

MR. REJALI: Yeah. I think there’s no question about that. I lived in a very modern world. It wasn’t like I was going to school on donkeys or something like that. I had movie theaters, and there was even an ice rink that we went skating on. And so, you know, most people don’t associate these things with Tehran, but Tehran was a very cosmopolitan city in the ’70s, a very stable city, a bustling city.

And I guess the connection between modernity and violence, you know, what it is to be modern and what kinds of things that precludes was always a problem. I think this really got cemented for me about five years after I came to the United States.

MS. TIPPETT: When was that?

MR. REJALI: Well, I came to the United States in ’77 …


MR. REJALI: … to go to Swarthmore College. Then the revolution, when it came, brought many of my parents’ friends to the United States. And in the early ’80s, when I was sitting in exile communities, I met someone who was very high up in the Iranian secret police under the shah. And I can’t say for a fact that he was a torturer, but all the evidence suggested that he was certainly present when much happened. What was shocking to me was how sophisticated he was, how educated, how philosophical. How would I put it? I mean, he knew French theater and opera, and yet this extreme form of sophistication probably was combined with a deep sense of brutality.

And everybody kind of thinks that when evil walks in the door it’s going to have horns on its head and a tail and actually — I didn’t have to read Eichmann in Jerusalem or any Hannah Arendt to understand that basically much that happens in the world happens without that. Basically, when evil walks in the door it usually has a good French education or American education and invites you out for a beer and is very friendly.

I realize that understanding the history of my relatives and understanding that people make choices and they have consequences was very important to me in being able to deal with those situations.

MS. TIPPETT: Darius Rejali says there is no question that totalitarian states have applied torture across history most viciously. Yet, as he’s investigated across the past two decades, democracies have also made their mark on the history of torture, and it is subtle and double-edged. There’s been legalized torture in democracies going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In modern times, violence that left fewer marks was in part an attempt to get away from savage techniques of earlier centuries. At the same time, the monitoring of press and public in modern liberal democracies created an impetus for punishments that are ever stealthier, where it is harder to see and prove that pain has been inflicted.

Interrogation using electricity was innovated in U.S. prisons in the early 20th century. For Darius Rejali, there are echoes of torture not only on the Iranian side of his personal history but also in that of his maternal ancestors who held slaves in the American South.

MR. REJALI: The history of torture is part of the broader history of cruelty. But what is really different about torture is that it involves the public trust. That is to say, when I am held in a basement and my neighbor decides that he doesn’t like my sidewalk and decides to torture me to make sure that I improve, he applies only the physical force that he himself is capable of. When I am detained in a prison and he is a state agent, then he applies this with the full trust and public authority and all the resources that the state gives you. And that has always been, going back to the Romans, one of the characteristics of torture, that it involves the public trust. Whether you believe, as the Romans, that this is a good thing, or whether you believe, as the United Nations, that this is a bad thing, all these definitions include the use or abuse of the public trust. Because once you give someone political authority, they have a lot more power over you.

MS. TIPPETT: So in 2009, we are reckoning with a new form of this. This is from a New York Times summary of the revelations of torture in the Bush Administration, kind of trying to lay out what we had learned and we’re learning. And I want to ask you if you think this is the right way to tell this story.


MS. TIPPETT: This is written as, you know, “here are the facts.” OK? There are no conditional words in here. “In its scramble to create a system, the agency made the momentous decision to use harsh methods that the government had long condemned. It borrowed its techniques from an American military training program modeled of the torture repertories of the Soviet Union and other Cold War adversaries, a lineage that would come to haunt the agency.”

MR. REJALI: I would say that any account — and we’ll see this in about 10 or 15 years — of what happened in the last few years won’t be a simple single line.


MR. REJALI: It’s going to be multifaceted.

MS. TIPPETT: What’s kind of interesting to me about that is this idea of in its scramble to create a system …


MS. TIPPETT: … that there was nothing and then there was something. And that that something was taken from another culture, not our own. Do you know what I’m hearing there?

MR. REJALI: Yeah, that’s right. Well, I guess the first thing I would do is I would distinguish in the story between where the demand for tough techniques came from and where the supply. I feel like these days we’re all economists, so I’m talking like demand and supply.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. REJALI: But I think that that’s a really important distinction. On the one hand, I think it’s clear that in Washington there was a demand for intelligence and information and also a series of decisions were made to set prisoners outside of any kind of legal protections, which is often sort of exactly the way in which torture happens, where as soon as you put someone in a place where they’re not monitored and there are no clear rules and there are no legal protections, then bad things typically follow. So that is a predisposition.

And they didn’t know what works. And then the flip side of it is, well, once they authorized it, where did the techniques come from? And that’s the supply side. And most people think, well, these techniques actually come from people’s abnormal psychology or they come from a vault in the CIA or at SERE. Whereas, in fact, these techniques have a long history in the United States. We have similar techniques like waterboarding documented in INS detention centers in Miami in the 1990s. We have accounts of waterboarding by Texas police officers in the 1980s. These are old techniques.

It’s important to recognize that torture is a style or a craft, and torturers tend to be creatures of habit. They’re not usually abnormal. They’re usually chosen to be normal, loyal, patriotic, can-keep-a-secret kinds of people. There are really two modern traditions and one of them, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of torture, what I call Anglo-Saxon Modern, is a tradition that was certainly there among security agencies and police long before there were memos and long before there was a system. And I think when the histories are written I think they will discover — there is some evidence of this already — that torture had begun in Afghanistan as early as January 2002, long before the memos were written.

There’s a case in which I have entered in a submission in Washington, D.C., where the person who was tortured or at least, you know, whatever the techniques we now dispute over, those techniques were being used on this person and several other people in detention in Kandahar in January of 2002. That’s six months before any legal documents were ever written.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think when you read those memos, it’s clear that what’s going on is a justification. It’s finding legal language to justify something.

MR. REJALI: Right. I mean, let me give you one last example. The Bybee and the Bradbury memos, which were the …

MS. TIPPETT: These were the lawyers, the torture memos. Mm-hmm.

MR. REJALI: The lawyers — which are the torture memos. I mean, nobody else but me would be interested in this, but if you count the number of techniques that are in the Bybee memo, they are about one-third less than the techniques that appear in the Bradbury memo. And the less intrusive techniques in the Bybee memo disappear and new techniques are added in the Bradbury memo. I mean, I don’t think that Bradbury was counting the techniques, but it’s pretty clear that there is a slippery slope and things were just running out of control. The legal language gives a false sense that this is actually policy or control when it’s not.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett on Being, conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Long Shadow of Torture.” My guest, Darius Rejali, is one of the world’s leading experts on torture in general and in particular how democracies change torture and are changed by it. We’re replaying this conversation with him in light of recent revelations, through the website WikiLeaks, about torture in U.S.-occupied Iraq. I interviewed Darius Rejali in 2009, after the Obama administration had just released documents about practices in U.S. military prisons, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, and waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

MS. TIPPETT: So part of the public focus has been who knew when, right?


MS. TIPPETT: And so here’s again from that New York Times summary. Yeah, this was published earlier this year in The New York Times. “A series of high-level meetings in 2002 led to an official embracing of harsh interrogation methods. Without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the extraordinary consensus was possible largely because no one involved — not the top two CIA officers pushing the program, not the senior aides to Mr. Bush, not the leaders at the Senate and House intelligence committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.”

What I want to ask you is I wonder if that’s a common feature of the kind of decision making that sets these kinds of practices in motion or validates them. I mean, I can imagine people didn’t want to know.

MR. REJALI: I mean, I think what assists people in this is that very few of these techniques leave marks. Most people, for example, don’t know that sleep deprivation isn’t depriving someone of their naps. What it does is it actually creates deep muscle pains and aches in all your joints within 24 to 48 hours. So combined with forced standing or any kind of stress position, it can be excruciating. Let’s suppose that you really did think these techniques had gruesome origins. They never explored also what these techniques did in terms of the information you got.


MR. REJALI: So, for example, sleep deprivation was famously used for false confessions and it was used by the Soviets and the North Koreans and the Chinese for false confessions.

MS. TIPPETT: You mean across the decades.

MR. REJALI: Yes, that’s right. And that’s because basically once you’re deprived of sleep, you can’t tell where you’re getting your information from. So if I repeatedly ask you, “Did you see Mr. Smith?” You’re pretty soon going to have some vivid, vivid memories of Mr. Smith under repeated questioning. And this is why sleep deprivation, when it first emerged in the hands of Englishmen and Scots, it happened during witch hunts where you got these magnificent confessions of meeting with the devil.

Now it’s important to recognize that even the Inquisition hated sleep deprivation because they realized that it produced inaccurate information. And yet when you read these documents, it’s as if, though, this is a magical cure and that we can get accurate information from them.

So there is, regardless of whether you know the origins or not, a tremendous amount of ignorance about these techniques.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And, you know, you make a statement — just from something, you know, from all your research — that torture creates an unprofessional atmosphere. And it seems to me that that unprofessional atmosphere, that’s also one way you can describe what’s happening in these Cabinet meetings or briefings of lawmakers, where they don’t ask these complicated questions about the consequences.

MR. REJALI: Yeah. Torture is very dangerous for four professions, basically: lawyers, politicians, medical professionals, and journalists. And it’s dangerous for all of them because they can kind of get sucked into this little step by step where — they happen for two or three reasons. One is that peer pressure, which is that as a group we’re not going to notice the big elephant in the room.


MR. REJALI: And if the group basically says no, then you won’t really break the consensus. Another reason that slippery slopes in torture happen is that people feel compromised. So they’ll say, “I’ve done a little evil and so I’m already committed. So I just hope that it works through.” And lastly I think that when you have fuzzy backgrounds, when you don’t know the threat you’re confronting, when you can’t distinguish between civilians and terrorists and however that works for you, fuzzy backgrounds combined with peer pressure in a sense that we’re already implicated can really drive a slippery slope and make it much slipperier for medical officers and psychologists and politicians.

MS. TIPPETT: So I don’t know if this is what you’re thinking of when you say that, but one thing I don’t really want to talk to you about here is whether torture works or not, quote/unquote “works.”

MR. REJALI: Thank god.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But it seems to me that to the extent that there’s been a discussion all these years, either in those secret places or publicly, this is a way in which it seems to me politicians, doctors, journalists — what was the other one?

MR. REJALI: And lawyers.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, lawyers. That this question, this narrow question of does it work or not hijacked the discussion and in fact was a distraction and a narrowing from other discussions we might’ve been having about larger consequences.

MR. REJALI: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Not efficacy but consequences.

MR. REJALI: Yeah. No, it’s certainly true. Once you authorize a torture bureaucracy, it has a number of unforeseen consequences. Let’s put it in this most basic form. When you authorize torture, you give one individual, however you want to describe this, absolute power over another individual. And we can’t look at the history of slavery without knowing how corrupting that is to a society. And we can’t look at the history of torture without knowing how corrupting that is to governments that authorize it. It sets into motion a series of changes which often take 10 to 20 years for them to work out of a society, and some of them are bureaucratic. For example, a split develops in your agency between the professionals who want to do proper policing methods and the torturers who just want to whack the guy with the bat or stick his head in a vat of water. And usually one side or the other leaves. In the American case, many, many professionals, FBI, CIA, etc., left the agencies. So that’s one.

But the other problem is you train a group of people to torture, what are they going to do afterwards when they’re decommissioned? Where do torturers go?

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. REJALI: And the answer is that they go to private security and local police forces around your home and mine. And so torture that was international becomes domestic. Waterboarding was something that American forces first learned — this particular technique was learned, for the most part, during the American campaign in the Philippines in 1905. And when these troops come back to the United States, they become police officers all throughout the United States. And by the 1930s, the American Bar Association Committee documents that waterboarding is pretty common, especially in the American South. So techniques come home.

Same thing with Chicago. Torture has been documented in Chicago from 1973 to 1993. And the techniques that appear there, the electrical techniques, were first documented in American hands in southern Vietnam in 1963. So I think most people are unaware of the incredibly long shadow that torture casts, not just for a government but for a society and lastly, I think, for the families that are involved in this process. The cases of atrocity-related trauma …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. REJALI: … that are tied to torture are the domestic abuse, alcoholism, suicide rates. None of these things are calculated when people think about torture.

MS. TIPPETT: We invite you to experience the echoes my producers and I hear between this conversation with Darius Rejali and other shows we’ve produced in the past. On our website, we’ve highlighted some of these like-minded conversations, including forensic anthropologist Mercedes Doretti — she leads families of the “disappeared” towards truth and justice — and our program with research psychologist Michael McCullough on the biological bases of violence and forgiveness.

Also at onbeing.org, find my full unedited 90-minute interview with Darius Rejali. He reflected at greater length on the history of torture in the U.S. He also talked about how he retains his personal sense of vitality and hope, despite his immersion in what he calls the “dark arts of human cruelty.” Again, that’s at onBeing.org.

Coming up, Darius Rejali explains the evidence that most of us are capable of torture, given the right circumstances. Also, his practical recommendations for reckoning with the many damaging consequences of torture moving forward.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, on Being, “The Long Shadow of Torture.” We’re exploring knowledge that might deepen public discourse about torture in the U.S., and collective reckoning with domestic consequences yet to unfold. This specter, of course, has been brought newly into relief by documentation released by the WikiLeaks website of torture in U.S.-occupied Iraq.

When we first produced this program in 2009, the Obama administration had just released documents about torture as part of recent U.S. policy. In the aftermath of that, media and political discussions largely focused on who knew what when, or on whether specific techniques worked to produce intelligence. There was renewed debate following President Obama’s announcement in May 2009 that he would not release photographs of detainee abuse in U.S. military prisons, for fear of stoking anti-American sentiments and endangering U.S. troops abroad.

My guest this hour, Darius Rejali, is one of the world’s leading experts in torture. Trained in comparative political science, political philosophy, and social theory, his research, as he describes it, reflects concern for the causes and effects of violence as well as what it can tell us about the human condition. We’re exploring what he knows that might inform the way citizens assess all the roots and consequences, human and political, practical and moral, of torture enacted by democratic governments.

MS. TIPPETT: I had a conversation with Jane Mayer — who’s of course done excellent reporting on this for The New Yorker — who talked about all the military lawyers who resigned.


MS. TIPPETT: Now, maybe I haven’t been reading the right things, but I kind of feel like that’s a story that hasn’t been told: Who left because they knew. Because they had other kinds of information.

MR. REJALI: There’s a whole book to be written on that, not only who left but what happened to the whistleblowers. In fact, I think what’s really interesting about that story is that, you know, during Watergate, it was the civilian lawyers that broke with the presidency. Whereas in this case, the civilian lawyers proved to be very malleable, whereas the military lawyers who had a much stronger sense of the implications of torture — for example, for the treatment of our soldiers should they ever fall into enemy hands — they understood immediately that the consequences of these kinds of techniques would be that they would put American soldiers at risk in future conflicts.

MS. TIPPETT: I think something in your work that seems important to me now as we work through what’s happened in the U.S. is you note that the deep trauma that can be there for people who have tortured, that the trauma is deepest among those who were closest to it, so the foot soldiers rather than the commanders.


MS. TIPPETT: The facilitators are less affected than the implementers.

MR. REJALI: Right. That’s another characteristic that we find from the cases, which is that the higher up the chain of command you are, the less evidence of guilt or shame or any of these things. The lower down, the more culpable you are. And it can’t be denied, there’s something very visceral about applying pain to another human being, a putting of hand on flesh. And that is something that just stays with you, whereas if you just order it, it’s different.

MS. TIPPETT: In terms of the looking forward, the reckoning that may now happen or be happening, there are some challenging insights that you have from your work that, for example, I don’t think were applied in the way we talked about Abu Ghraib. You know …

MR. REJALI: What do you have in mind?

MS. TIPPETT: You know, we kind of treated it as a few bad apples.


MS. TIPPETT: And I’ve even heard President Obama, when he was talking about not releasing the photos, say “things that were done by a few people.” I’m not sure that was exactly the phrase he used.


MS. TIPPETT: But you’ve talked about conversations you had with lawyers of at least one of the people who were charged of Abu Ghraib, and you told them you understand that that client is not a monster or a sadist, that most of us, given the right set of incentives, would torture. That that is the evidence of 40 years of social scientific research, which is pretty chilling.

MR. REJALI: That’s right. I mean, I think this goes back to my point that evil doesn’t walk around in horns or shiny jackboots. We began the 20th century thinking that people who tortured had certain dispositions that made them cruel. And then we discovered basically two things: first of all, organizations that torture make sure that the people who torture are not sadists because sadists don’t follow rules. They choose people to follow rules and be patriotic. If you kill the guy and get pleasure out of it, you’ve kind of failed to get the information. So that’s a problem. And this is true, we discovered, not just among democratic states but, say, in Cambodia when we look at the genocide and the torture at Tuol Sleng. We actually have the torture manual from Tuol Sleng, and in it the head torturer says to his people, “You have to be more disciplined, more ideological. If you just keep on doing on the pain side of things you may kill the person before we need the information we get.” Clearly it’s a problem, even in authoritarian conditions. People get sucked up by the pain.

So part of it is that we have very little evidence that people are chosen because they’re sadists to become torturers, historically.


MR. REJALI: On top of that, we have psychological evidence that suggests that given the right set of incentive, unclear rules, two types of authority, no punishment for which set of rules you follow, no regular monitoring and no remand before a judge, we can pretty much predict that violence is going to happen. Maybe not specifically torture but once you have conditions like that, this is what the Milgram — well certainly the Zimbardo experiment shows …

MS. TIPPETT: Summarize that, would you?

MR. REJALI: Well, the Zimbardo experiment was a mock prison experiment held at Stanford in which very normal people, all American men, college students, were given two set of roles. One set were defined as guards, one set were defined as prisoners, and they were created into a mock prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford. And all they did was play out the roles. And what happened within two or three days was that they had to stop the experiment because the guards starting moving very rapidly towards violent behavior. And this was surprising, given how normal all these kids were when they went in.


MR. REJALI: So the social science on this keeps on coming back, saying it’s the situation, not the disposition, that makes people evil. All of us, given the right circumstances — having said that, there are people who can say no. I mean, that’s really important to recognize.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And you said we don’t have the social science on them as much.

MR. REJALI: Yeah. You know, we’re just so fascinated with evil and not with why people do good. I mean, Milgram is a very great example. He was interested in how far people would apply electroshock to someone under the guise of authority. And in most cases they did, but there were a significant number who didn’t. And he never did the follow-up interviews.

MS. TIPPETT: Political scientist Darius Rejali. The famous “obedience experiments” conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram beginning in the early 1960s tested whether average citizens would inflict harm on another person under instruction from an authority figure. Milgram and his staff asked participants to deliver a series of progressively intense electric shocks each time a man answered a word problem incorrectly. Before this experiment, leading psychiatrists predicted that fewer than 1 percent of participants would be willing to administer shocks at dangerous levels. As it turned out, half of the participants were ready to comply in this. Yet, as Darius Rejali notes, half did not. Like the man we’ll hear resisting instructions in the following audio. Please note that the electric shock you are about to hear is fake and the subjects of punishment in the Milgram experiment were in fact actors, though participants believed they were administering real pain.

MAN: The experiment requires that you go on. Teacher, please continue.


MAN: Incorrect. A hundred-and-fifty volts.


[Man groans]

MAN TWO: Sad face.

SUBJECT: That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please.

MAN: Continue. Go on.

SUBJECT: You’re starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out.

MAN TWO: I think we ought to find out what’s wrong in there first.

MAN: The experiment requires that you continue, teacher.

MAN TWO: Well, the experiment might require that we continue but I still think we should find out what the condition of the gentleman is.

MAN: As I said before, although the shocks may be painful, they’re not dangerous.

MAN TWO: Look, I don’t know anything about electricity. I don’t profess any knowledge, nor will I go any further until I found out if the guy’s OK.

MAN: It’s absolutely essential that you continue.

MAN TWO: Well, essential or not, this program isn’t quite that important to me that I should go along doing something that I know nothing about, particularly if it’s going to injure someone. I don’t know what this is all about.

MAN: Well, whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on until he’s learned all the word pairs correctly.

MAN TWO: Well, you can sure have your $4.50 back. I didn’t want it anyhow. I intended to give it some charitable organization. But I wouldn’t go on with it.

MAN: The $4.50 is not the issue here. That check is yours …

MAN TWO: Yeah, I realize that.

MAN: … simply for coming to the lab. It is essential that you continue the experiment.

MAN TWO: No, it isn’t essential. Not one bit.

MAN: You’ve got no other choice, teacher.

MAN TWO: Oh, I have a lot of choices. My number one choice is that I wouldn’t go on if I thought he was being harmed.

MS. TIPPETT: Learn more about the Milgram experiments on our blog, at onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today, exploring the long shadow of torture with one of the world’s leading experts on the human and cultural, political and moral aspects of torture. In life and through scholarship, Iranian-American political scientist Darius Rejali knows how torture affects the people and nations who practice it.

MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to read an e-mail that we actually just got before I walked into the studio with you, somebody telling us it’s time for us to address torture on this show. And obviously we’ve been thinking about that. So I’m just going to read this to you and ask for your response.

“It seems that America is torn between the supposed noble ends and the seemingly ugly means. Should we torture sometimes? Is it at all justifiable? If it works is it OK? What about the long-term consequences? What about the victims?” “I saw this survey,” he goes on, “that said churchgoers in the U.S. are more likely to approve the use of torture. Is this shocking only to me? What about exposing evil? Should we expose that ugliness? Is it better to air it out or keep it under the rug? The Muslim world is not angry at us only because we torture but also because of hypocrisy. We preach human rights all the time. If we release the photos and hold people accountable, it may go a long way in showing that we are serious, sincere, and that we have moral standards. But we are not perfect. We are a country of laws. Everybody’s equal before the law.”

Now, obviously this is kind of stream-of-consciousness but I think …

MR. REJALI: It certainly is.

MS. TIPPETT: … he’s really naming a lot of questions, some of which we haven’t even begun to ask collectively.

MR. REJALI: Yeah. It’s true. When I hear — let me just begin with a personal note. When I hear an e-mail like that it takes me back to my childhood and growing up under the king and growing up with all these high-minded aristocratic values.

MS. TIPPETT: The king of Iran. Shah.

MR. REJALI: Yeah. And being a shah, but also coming from an old family which had tremendous weight on doing the honorable thing and the just and merciful thing and yet with a much more mixed history. I remember, I mean, my great-grandfather turned cannons on crowds during the Constitutional Revolution, and he certainly didn’t hesitate to apply harsh methods in defense of his values. And people said of him, “Look, he talks big, but it’s pretty clear that all these values the aristocracy has are just a sham. They’re fake. And if they have to use violence to defend them what value do they have?” Nobody mourned the passing of his world, frankly.

And likewise when the king kept on attacking Khomeini for being a medieval guy, Khomeini turned around and said, “I don’t know who’s medieval. I mean, I’m not the guy who’s torturing.” And most people forget that the Iranian Revolution, one of its central features of the Islamic revolution, was that it was a revolution against torture, and it was one of the first things that was sort of introduced into the new Islamic constitution. Now, of course, obviously follow-through has been somewhat more problematic. But the point is that whenever we defend our values in that way, the charge of hypocrisy is coming. And al-Qaeda’s sort of argument against us is identical, which is that they talk human rights but it’s obviously a sham.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. REJALI: Ultimately, what this boils down to is the famous old question, which is “Is it better to be loved or feared?” Would we rather be loved for our human rights values or should we be feared because we’re a very powerful country? And I think the American answer has always been “If we fight with one hand behind our back and win, we will be both loved and feared, because if we’re merely loved for our human rights values but really can’t enforce them, then we will be despised. And if we are merely feared because we are potentially violent, fear doesn’t hold people in place or give them any respect for what you do.” And I think that’s the American answer. It’s the American way, really, is that we defeat the Germans with one hand tied behind our back, and we can do this in this case as well. I mean, I really think that that’s where we fall as a nation.

One thing I would say about the churchgoers is that …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. The listener’s assertion. And I think this idea is out there, that there are polls that show, I think, that people who attend church more frequently are more likely to support torture.

MR. REJALI: Right. One of the things that I’m very familiar with is I’ve been following American public opinion polling on torture and ticking time bombs since 2001 and there has never been a pro-torture majority in America. In fact, opposition to torture has consistently been exactly the same, roughly between 55 and 60 percent. And support for torture has always been about 35 percent with lows as low as 15 percent and high as 49 percent, depending on the question you ask. People who attend church more frequently also tend to have many other factors that might dispose them to be pro-torture. For example, they might have political affiliations. They might be more conservative. They might be more Republican. It’s sort of like saying that it turns out that people who wear blue are more likely to be, you know, human.


MR. REJALI: Or something like that. I don’t know. I mean, the point is that there are just too many factors there. What we would really need to look at to really get at this person’s question is Democratic Evangelicals, that is to say, where do they fall on the torture question? Because that would kind of control for the more conservative, the more Republican person. If, in fact, we find that they are more pro-torture, then, yeah, I would submit that that would be something that your listener should have reason to concern for. But right now it’s not clear to me that that’s the case.

MS. TIPPETT: I also know, and I’m sure you do, that there are plenty of Christian and inter-faith organizations that are mobilizing against torture and also that there’s been a real evolving discussion within Evangelical Christianity about this.

MR. REJALI: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. That’s fluid.

MR. REJALI: Absolutely. This is — I have never hesitated either way to speak before any audience on this matter, but I think it’s certainly true. And knowing how anti-torture movements emerge historically leads me to conclude that our sort of normal presuppositions that “conservatives are like this” or “democrats are like this” or “religious people are like and secular people are like this” — these stereotypes, they don’t work when it comes to torture.

MS. TIPPETT: Political scientist Darius Rejali.

MR. REJALI: 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, if you want, but the ability to turn around and confront, not the torture talk, which just simply you become more familiar with your own moral sensibilities, 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. But actually looking at these practices, developing a vocabulary, talking about them, that’s where meaning and thought and reflection really become hard and hard to get, and when you can get them, hard to preserve.

The other thing I would say is the process by which we come to terms with our past doesn’t necessarily have to involve a trial or a pinning of blame or going through all of the wicked details and thinking through these questions. I think, frankly, and this is a rather, I guess, biblical way of saying this, but since you asked …

MS. TIPPETT: OK. The Calvinist in you comes out after all.

MR. REJALI: That’s right. That’s right. I mean, I think whether you’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish for that matter, I think you can start again. And you can start again not just by rehashing the past, which then creates a condition which we call “political historicism,” which is I tell the political history that way, you tell the political history that way, and then we spend all our lives fighting over who’s got the right political history.


MR. REJALI: Right. We don’t want to go there. The only way you can start over again is by asking for forgiveness no matter where it was in the past. Or apologizing, whatever you want to say. Starting anew. And the ancients are actually much better at this than the moderns. Our modern conception of starting again is, “Well, we elect a new person.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. REJALI: Or we have a new policy. Or whatever that narrative is.

MS. TIPPETT: We move on.

MR. REJALI: We move on, whatever that language is. And that’s not what you get in the old political situations. If you really want to confront and repent about what you did, basically you kind of need two things. You need the whole nation to come together or somebody on behalf of the whole nation, and not just to say, “Well, personally I find this abhorrent but it happened on my watch and therefore, whatever, I’m going to apologize.”


MR. REJALI: What you want to have is, “I, on behalf of the American people,” or whatever people it is, “I want to say that we are sorry about this. It reflects poorly on our values and so forth.” But beyond that, it requires a new covenant. I mean, we know this from the Bible. It requires a promise not to do this again and to put into effect a series of steps that ensure that it will never happen again in the future. And here I think, you know, I look at the current political situation and I ask why aren’t we changing the Military Commissions Act so the definition of torture is back in conformity with international law?


MR. REJALI: Why aren’t we enforcing whistleblower laws or investigating how Army CID could have done a better job? Why aren’t we putting a lot more money into acknowledging the trauma that we inflicted on our own soldiers so that people can understand what we did, and what we asked of them was beyond what you should ask of any soldier? Why aren’t we changing the Army Field Manual, which was changed on interrogation, changing it back to the old standards? These are, I think, to my mind, fairly straightforward things that could be done legislatively, could have a part in making a new covenant with the world about where we are.

MS. TIPPETT: Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and author of Torture and Democracy.

At onBeing.org, you can listen again and download this show, as well as my 90-minute unedited interview with Darius Rejali. He reflected at greater length on the history of torture techniques in U.S. culture; and also on how being immersed in the subject of torture affects him personally.

Also, now at the Being Blog, the Lincoln Center in New York City announced that this year, for the first time, its fall festival will be produced around a unifying concept: that of “spiritual expression and the illumination of our large, interior universes.” They’re calling it the White Light Festival. And we’re featuring our interview with Jane Moss. She is the person who conceived the White Light Festival. She answers questions about how her yearning for space and silence became an exciting new series of programming — a fascinating mix of musical experiences and tastes, ranging from Brahms’ “Requiem” and Meredith Monk to the Latvian National Choir. Find the Being Blog at onBeing.org.

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MS. TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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