New Internationalist

Up For It

Issue 327

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Torture / THE PERPETRATORS

ILLUSTRATION FROM `AI – A Hundred Drawings for Freedom 1984' Up for it
Monsters or ordinary people - who are the
torturers? John Conroy has met several.

In January 1991 I went to Zimbabwe to meet Bruce Moore-King, a fellow writer. We had much in common. Moore-King had published a novel about life in the Rhodesian army. I had written a book about life in west Belfast. We had at different points argued with the same publishing conglomerate.

We were the same height, roughly the same age, and some of our ancestors came from the same part of Ireland. I had gone to some extent to meet him because I wanted to learn how, as a young man, he had come to torture both adults and children.

He attributed his willingness to take on that profession to four factors. He'd attended a boarding school, run on a British model, which he said imparted a colonial mentality and exerted a certain rigid discipline. He'd swallowed whole the state's propaganda, which depicted the guerrillas as Communists who would ruin the nation. He also admitted to suffering from a certain naïveté - he saw army life as glamorous ('I dreamed of being an officer with a sword,' he told me). And, finally, he had been tortured himself as part of his army training.

The torture came at the end of an escape and evasion course. Moore-King and the others on the course were 'captured', handcuffed, hooded and taken to a room that was flooded with ten inches of cold water. Through the night they remained handcuffed and hooded, not allowed to talk or touch a wall for support. Every half-hour a light was switched on and two soldiers hosed down the prisoners with cold water.

In the morning Moore-King was taken out of the room and was made to kneel on rough cement. Protruding stones cut into his knees. An interrogator asked questions, Moore-King refused to answer and his captors then put a hose to his forehead. Water streamed down the front of the hood that covered his face.

'You can almost breathe,' he recalled. 'The bag goes into your mouth and nose and you can suck a bit of air through it, but not enough to keep you going. The feeling of asphyxiation, of drowning, builds up slowly, so it hits you quite hard. The main thing is the fear. I was scared, and deep down inside I knew it was an exercise, but for some guy who doesn't know if he is going to be killed or shot or whatever, the fear must be tremendous.'

After that training Moore-King eventually joined the Grey's Scouts, a branch of the army set up to track guerrillas in the countryside, and he rose to the rank of sergeant. The Grey's Scouts were on horseback, the guerrillas were on foot. When the tracks led into a kraal - a small village in the bush - it would be impossible to separate the guerrillas' tracks from the local residents', and in that situation Moore-King would pull a young man from the crowd and ask where the guerrillas had gone. If the man pleaded ignorance, Moore-King might pull a dynamo from his pack, attach alligator clips to the man's ears and turn the crank.

As years passed and the conflict escalated, the Grey's Scouts often found themselves in villages populated only by women, children and old men. The usual suspects - young males - would all be away with the guerrillas. In that instance, Moore-King would find the village elder. The most efficient method of questioning, he says, was not to torture the elder but to find the elder's grandson. Once the grandson was in hand, Moore-King would order a soldier to hold the child by the ankles and lower his head into a bucket of water. The boy would be brought up for air just before he drowned and would be set on the ground, where he would spew water, writhe in pain, and weep from fear. The process would be repeated until the old man talked.

'Beating people up, physically assaulting people, that happened fairly irregularly,' Moore-King told me. 'Because that sort of thing requires anger, or a particular sort of mentality that could take someone and cold-bloodedly beat him to a pulp, and we didn't operate on anger or sadism or anything like that. And this is probably more horrific. It became a function. It became a part of the job. It became standard operating procedure.'

Moore-King's progression to the point of casual torturer was similar, in some ways, to the paths of two Greek torturers I'd interviewed the previous year. They bought into the state propaganda, they believed they were the cornerstone of a regime threatened by communists, and they had been tortured during their training. Like Moore-King, they went on to torture others dispassionately, often not knowing even the names of their victims.

But after interviewing other torturers I came to doubt the necessity of the severe training. Hugo Garcia, who worked as a torturer in Uruguay, told me that he had been selected for the torturer's unit precisely because he had had no military training at all. He'd been a clerk on the same army base that housed the unit. They were looking for someone who could follow alleged subversives without being noticed, and they thought that someone who had no military background might be less suspect. Similarly, the men I interviewed from the Israeli Defence Forces who gave orders to break the arms and legs of Palestinians at the outset of the intifada had no complaint about their training. They received an order and they obeyed, knowing nothing about the men whose bones would be broken.

It is easier to torture if the victim is from that segment of the population, demonized, dehumanized, and beyond the pale of our compassion

Don Dzagulones, an American who served as an interrogator in Vietnam, told me that he was not trained, that torture was simply the milieu. Upon arrival at his post at Duc Pho in January 1969, Dzagulones was assigned to observe other interrogators before he did it himself.

One of the first interrogations he witnessed was the questioning of a Viet Cong suspect whose leg had been blown off by an artillery shell. A team of interrogators was questioning the man while they waited for a helicopter to evacuate him. The brigade intelligence officer became frustrated at the interrogators' lack of progress and took over, prodding the man's wounds with a pencil as he posed his questions. 'This is a major,' Dzagulones told me, 'and he was surrounded by captains, lieutenants, doctors, nurses... . Nobody gave a shit. Torturing prisoners was wholesale, rampant, at every level.'

So what then makes a torturer? It seems to me that in most cases it takes nothing more than an order. An authority figure commands. We obey. Stanley Milgram was right: most of us are sheep. In his obedience studies in the 1960s, the Yale psychologist had volunteers, acting as teachers, read lists of questions to a learner. For every wrong answer, the teacher flipped a switch that gave the learner an electric shock. As the shocks got higher, the learner began to scream in protest (the learner was actually in league with the experimenters and received no shocks at all). Milgram found that as long as an authority figure was present insisting that the experiment must continue, 60 per cent of the volunteers flipped switches ranging from 'Very Strong Shock' to 'Danger: Severe Shock' and finally 'XXX' the designation above the switch for 450 volts. Males and females had equal rates of obedience.

Water torture: a technique widely used during the Vietnam war.
JAMES PICKERELL / CAMERA PRESS

There are certainly other contributing factors in the making of a torturer. It is perhaps easier to do it if you have been brutalized yourself. It is certainly easier to torture if you understand that none of your comrades will turn you in for it and if the victim is from that segment of the population, demonized, dehumanized and beyond the pale of our compassion, that makes up the torturable class.

In Chicago, my hometown, the torturable class is made up of African Americans with criminal records. They were tortured for more than a decade by detectives from the Area 2 Violent Crimes unit, a conclusion reached by the Chicago Police Department's own investigation. That study was released in 1992, yet seven years passed before the city's two leading daily newspapers called for an inquiry, and that lack of concern is merely a reflection of the attitudes prevalent in the broader community. Ten of the men who claimed to have been tortured at Area 2 sit on death row, having landed there as a result of confessions that are now quite suspect. Even today, ten years after the first revelations of torture, there is no broad-based movement calling for a review of the victims' convictions and for censure of torturers still serving on the police force.

It is thus easier to torture if the broader society sanctions what you are doing or looks the other way. The torturer feels absolved of responsibility - he carries out the wishes of his fellow citizens and the citizens, of course, feel equally blameless. Among Milgram's variations on his basic experiment was a version with two teachers, one reading the questions, the other (a secret confederate of the experimenters) flipping the switches. In the two-teacher variation, 92 per cent John Conroy of the volunteers carried out their duties even as their peer applied the most extreme shock on the instrument panel. Though the learner begged and screamed, the obedient subjects felt little responsibility - after all, they weren't flipping the switches.

Some no doubt wondered what kind of monster could inflict such pain.

John Conroy (Jconroy329@aol.com) is a staff writer for the Chicago Reader and the author of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, published by Knopf in the US and by Vision in Britain. His articles on torture by the Chicago police can be found at www.chicagoreader.com/torture/index.html


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