Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Moral Universes of Brazilian Torturers

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Moral Universes of Brazilian Torturers

Article excerpt


In 1993, a research team under my leadership began studying state sponsored--and encouraged--torture and assassinations during Brazil's period of military rule, 1964-1985. Violence Workers, the book that resulted from this research, tells many stories about how to get torturers to talk. (1) If you have some questions, I can get into this subject later; what I would rather do today is tell you some of the things that we discovered in our research so that you think about these as lawyers and future lawyers.

Among the twenty-seven Brazilian police that we interviewed, fourteen admitted to having been torturers or assassins during Brazil's military period. An important first discovery was the six conditions that we argue were associated in military Brazil with state-sponsored torture, beginning with unchecked and arbitrary executive rule. Another condition was an ideology of war--against communism, rebel guerillas, or evil. Third, secrecy of interrogation locations and procedures. Fourth, hidden identities of interrogators and of those under interrogation--through the use of caps, masks, and hidden interrogation locations--anything that disguised the victim, torturer, and/or the torture location. Fifth, a social control division of labor that accorded plausible deniability personally and outwardly to each actor within the social control system. Such a division of labor obscured the perpetrator's relationship to violence. For example, a group of Brazilian police would capture someone, bring the alleged subversive to interrogators, and then claim that, "We didn't torture anyone. We just brought the perpetrators to the interrogators. We don't know what happened to them after that." Finally, sixth, a public rendered impotent by fear.

Bringing the elements of this torture process to the current United States war against terror, last year, in an Opinion piece for the Albany Times Union, I identified the existence of some of these conditions in the War against Terror, focusing particularly on how the United States government was operating at Guantanamo Bay. (2) I argued that the torture-nurturing conditions--unchecked or arbitrary executive rule, secret interrogation locations and procedures, hidden identities of interrogators and victims, and a public rendered impotent by a culture of violence and/or fear--have the capacity to nurture and excuse torture at the Guantanamo interrogation center. (3)


However, in this lecture I will focus on Brazilian violence workers, identifying several important findings from this book's research. Most important, I discovered that understanding atrocity requires examining atrocity facilitators as well as the direct perpetrators of such violence. The facilitators include, but are not limited to, international and national political decision-makers, including such people as former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, for his role in Chile. (4)

Also included in the atrocity-facilitator category are national-level actors, including the guards who bring people to torture locations or guard them there, the doctors who certify that a prisoner was not tortured or who advise torturers about how much torture a person can take, and the notaries who verify that a prisoner has not been tortured. Is there now a precedent in international law for holding former Heads-of-State accountable for directly and indirectly facilitating terror? For example, Slobodan Milosevic? Such precedents seem to succeed or fail on a case-by-case basis, for example, the Agusto Pinochet case.

Examining further the indirect atrocity facilitators, in my previous book, Political Policing: The United States and Latin America, I studied almost one-hundred years of United States involvement with foreign police, focusing particularly on interaction with Brazilian police. (5) That book examined an AID-CIA police training program that lasted between the 1960s and 1974, through which the United States funneled technical and material aid and know-how to the police of a government under violent military rule. …

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