Torture and Democracy

Torture and Democracy

Torture and Democracy

Torture and Democracy


This is the most comprehensive, and most comprehensively chilling, study of modern torture yet written. Darius Rejali, one of the world's leading experts on torture, takes the reader from the late nineteenth century to the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, from slavery and the electric chair to electrotorture in American inner cities, and from French and British colonial prison cells and the Spanish-American War to the fields of Vietnam, the wars of the Middle East, and the new democracies of Latin America and Europe.

As Rejali traces the development and application of one torture technique after another in these settings, he reaches startling conclusions. As the twentieth century progressed, he argues, democracies not only tortured, but set the international pace for torture. Dictatorships may have tortured more, and more indiscriminately, but the United States, Britain, and France pioneered and exported techniques that have become the lingua franca of modern torture: methods that leave no marks. Under the watchful eyes of reporters and human rights activists, low-level authorities in the world's oldest democracies were the first to learn that to scar a victim was to advertise iniquity and invite scandal. Long before the CIA even existed, police and soldiers turned instead to "clean" techniques, such as torture by electricity, ice, water, noise, drugs, and stress positions. As democracy and human rights spread after World War II, so too did these methods.

Rejali makes this troubling case in fluid, arresting prose and on the basis of unprecedented research--conducted in multiple languages and on several continents--begun years before most of us had ever heard of Osama bin Laden or Abu Ghraib. The author of a major study of Iranian torture, Rejali also tackles the controversial question of whether torture really works, answering the new apologists for torture point by point. A brave and disturbing book, this is the benchmark against which all future studies of modern torture will be measured.


In 2001, I returned to Iran after twenty-four years. This was in itself a risky undertaking. As a feisty publisher said to me, “Dr. Rejali! How nice to meet you! How did you get in? How do you plan to get out?” I had, after all, written a book on modern Iranian torture. On my first day back, still disoriented by travel, I had a further shock. Like all others who have had their lives disrupted, my first instinct was to see the place I used to live. The house no longer existed, of course. The taxi driver chose a route that went right by the gates of the notorious prison at Evin. It had figured prominently in my book, and to see it again and the crowds of anxious relatives milling in front of it, was bracing. Adjacent to it now was a large garden that was rented out for weddings and other festive occasions. I asked about it. “Oh,” said the taxi driver, “that is to make it easy for everybody. First you have a wedding and then everybody gets arrested and taken next door!”

Iranians relate to torture as a familiar event of modern life. They know it exists, and they never imagine that it is logically incompatible with telephones, central heating, weddings, elections, and other occasions of modern life. I grew up this way as well. Perhaps this Iranian attitude arose from centuries of violence as successive civilizations burned through the country. The summer I returned, I climbed out to Turab Tapeh, the remains of the great medieval city of Neishabur, with its thirteen libraries and the world's only international university of its time, except Al Azhar in Cairo. In 1221, Mongols executed all 1,747,000 inhabitants and every cat and dog in the city. Historians record about 5 million deaths throughout the region. Neishabur was but one of many places that was devastated; entire cities disappeared. Archaeologists dub a whole section . . .

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