January 2018

Darius Rejali: Torture and democracy: What now?!


Darius Rejali’s Democracy and Torture is an exhaustively researched book on the history of torture in democratic societies. Although democratic governments torture their citizens less than nondemocratic ones, they have developed their own “democratic tradition” of torture techniques that focus on inflicting pain while leaving no visible marks. These techniques include sleep deprivation, water torture, electric shock, and even the use of popular music, a practice explored in Tony Cokes’ video “Evil.16.Torture Musik.”

Democracies have also spread these torture techniques through colonial expansion. The democratic rights guaranteed to the citizen seemed to increase proportionally with the rights taken from colonized people. In “The African Roots of War,” W.E.B. du Bois described this situation as a “paradox which has confounded philanthropists, curiously betrayed the Socialists, and reconciled the Imperialists and captains of industry to any amount of ‘Democracy.’ It is this paradox which allows in America the most rapid advance of democracy to go hand in hand in its very centers with increased aristocracy and hatred toward darker races, and which excuses and defends an inhumanity that does not shrink from the public burning of human beings.” Du Bois suggests that this is a bargain between capital and labor that democratic societies made: egalitarianism and freedom at home, exploitation abroad.

While we tend to think of states as authoring colonial expansion and the torture of human beings, Rejali demonstrates that the demand for torture really comes from society and that this demand remains constant through transitions of government or administrations. In other words, torture is a democratic problem, not a security state problem. Torture is never popular, but nonetheless, the assumptions that underlie the theory of torture are widely held; the belief in the body-in-pain as a site of veridiction, or the production of truth, remains strong, as does a feeling of insecurity and the demand for invulnerability.

Rejali begins his lecture with the example of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Rejali connects torture in the military to torture by domestic police and, in both cases, links torture to a general breakdown in professional ethics inside the organization. He asks us to consider if the outcry against the LAPD after King’s beating would have been as strong if there had been no visual evidence, no videotape or visible injuries. This point is echoed later in his lecture when discussing the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. Is it possible that democracy’s relationship to images of torture is changing as attitudes about torture change? While the photographs of prisoners abused by the United States military at Abu Ghraib function as damning evidence, might they also simultaneously circulate as symbols of American power?

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