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Books: Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People

Author John Conroy investigates the unspeakable.

By Tom Hayden, Contributor
August / September 2000

A book about a subject most of us want to ignore.

℘℘℘

When the British government imposed internment without trial in 1971, army personnel at the Castlereagh Interrogation Centre carried out an experiment known as “the five techniques” on 14 men. They covered their heads with hoods, bombarded them with “white noise,” deprived them of food and sleep, and forced them to lean with arms raised against a wall. The effect was to cause psychosis, but without the telltale marks of rack or whip.

In Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, John Conroy traces the story of the hooded men, connecting its themes with two other cases. One is the tale of Israeli soldiers beating, kicking, and breaking the hands of Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli Defense Forces had adopted the British “five techniques” wholesale, according to Conroy. The third case was that of Chicago police in the late 1960s using electrodes to burn and scar African-Americans suspected of violence against police officers.

In each case, the torture was carried out intentionally on individuals selected by stereotyping, not by confirmed evidence.

Conroy searches out the 14 hooded men 25 years later to assess the long-term effects. Three had died between the ages of 45 and 54. Two had been shot by loyalists because their names appeared in the paper, and shots were fired at another’s house. All had experienced their hair turning prematurely white, had trouble sleeping, and had recurring flashbacks and hallucinations. One couldn’t stand even the sound of a comb being placed on a shelf. Another was so erratic that his child suggested that family life would be better if he went back to jail.

The 1976 European Human Rights Commission found the British guilty of torture in the case of the hooded men, but the 1978 European Court of Human Rights concluded that they had only caused “intense physical and mental suffering” which was inhuman and degrading, but not torture. This finding caused much relief, even celebration, in London, where “the five techniques” were still being taught.

“Torturer” is a label which democratic societies will reject. But there are ways to circumvent the designation while still inflicting physical and psychological punishment. Decades ago, the British architect of counter-insurgency, Frank Kitson, counseled governments against “the ruthless application of naked force,” for obvious public relations reasons, but noted that “conditions can be made reasonably uncomfortable for the population as a whole.”

Conroy challenges the reader by choosing Britain, Israel, and the United States for his case studies. We are forced into exploring the shame of our own contradictions instead of projecting the torture label onto rogue nations. We of the West are civilized people who cannot intentionally and rationally carry out torture. Conroy’s radical assertion is that we can and do.

There are several stages in the social management of torture, Conroy says, the first being flat-out denial, as in the case of the 14, when British Prime Minister Brian Faulkner declared there was “no brutality of any kind” and denounced the media for printing the “fantasies of terrorists.” The next fallback is to euphemize the practice with labels like “interrogation in depth.” Or disparage the victims, as when Lord Carrington called the hooded men “thugs and murderers” (although none were ever charged with a crime). If the facts come out, the next stage is to blame a “few bad apples,” and contain the damage by scapegoating an isolated handful.

When the facts are finally acknowledged, the authorities then justify its “necessity.” In the case of the hooded men, the British hinted that the techniques yielded “invaluable information,” although in the year after internment, shootings increased by 605 percent and deaths by 268 percent. It is added that the “other side is worse,” as in the I.R.A. killed, therefore torture of those not in the I.R.A. is justified.

Finally, there comes a call to stop “raking up the past” and move on. In 1982, General Harry Tuzo, the Oxford-educated British Army commander, claimed that the hooded men had been “very well compensated and looked after,” adding that he “personally would have thought that they got over it by now.”

It is very difficult for most people who are saturated in the ethos of Western civilization to imagine a rational, articulate authority figure ordering a torture session for a detained person. We are prone to believe that the accused must have done something to deserve it.

Conroy reviews the psychological literature on why so many citizens are passive towards torture. These include studies of eyewitnesses’ indifference to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, the 1960 experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in which undergraduates applied electric shocks to themselves when ordered, and interviews with individuals who helped rescue Holocaust survivors. Citing Milgram’s conclusions, Conroy says, “even when it is patently clear that they are inflicting harm, relatively few people have the resources to resist authority.”

In noting the types of individuals who do help oppose torture, Conroy identifies three personality traits: (a) an inherent spirit of adventurousness, (b) an identification with a parent who set high standards of moral conduct, and (c) a personal sense of being socially marginal oneself, though not necessarily from a “torturable class.” He fails to ask why so many people have the bravery to stand out or join movements to oppose torture where pain, suffering, ostracism, and isolation are the certain result of being arrested. In concentrating only on the dynamics of torture, he neglects the fortifying dynamics of hope and heroism and ignores the evidence that human rights movements at least succeeded in stigmatizing and delegitimizing the torturer class. Just this year, for example, the U.S. government was cited by the United Nations Committee Against Torture for the use of stun belts, police brutality, and chain gangs which “almost invariably leads to breaches” of a 1984 international treaty.

The globalization of conscience, and movements to enforce human rights standards even in societies like the U.S., Northern Ireland, and Israel, is perhaps of no solace to the victims. But they are at least welcome signs that plucky individuals like Conroy need not feel so alone. ♦

(304 pages / $26 / Knopf)

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