Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People:
The Dynamics of Torture
, by John Conroy
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)

Review by Adam Jones
Published in Human Rights Review, 2: 3 (April-June 2001)

For the last several years, an exhibition of torture methods and instruments has been touring the world. This author recently viewed it in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. Predictably, there was plenty on display to churn the stomach. But perhaps the most disturbing exhibits were those that employed no innovative design or devices -- merely an intimate understanding of human pain. There was, for example, the triangular-shaped wooden apparatus on which victims would be sat, with weights attached to their legs. As the point of the triangle dug into the victim's groin, the pain would quickly grow excruciating. Hannah Arendt's phrase, "the banality of evil," leapt to mind.

Such commonplace evil is amply on display in John Conroy's exceptional new book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People. Conroy draws on three case studies of torture to make plain that the phenomenon is not limited to "them" rather than "us," but that each of us might, under the wrong circumstances, be drawn as perpetrators into the web of torture and atrocity.

His case is the more powerful for refusing to concentrate on those benighted Third World regimes that have become synonymous with torture and human degradation (Iraq, Algeria, Pakistan, and Sudan, to cite just a handful). "Those looking for a balanced ranking of human rights violators should look elsewhere," Conroy cautions in his introduction. "When I embarked on this project ... dozens of people asked me if I was going to visit various nations well-known for their use of torture. It seemed to me that many of these well-meaning men and women had the idea that torture was something done in some backward civilization by the barely human and certainly ignorant. I was gradually becoming aware, however, that torture is something that most of us are capable of, and so I decided to use case studies that I thought American readers could identify with -- 'people like us' who deployed the brutal methods I'd heard associated with the Third World" (pp. ix-x).

Accordingly, Conroy concentrates on Northern Ireland (where he served as a correspondent and compiled materials for his previous book, Belfast Diary); the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza; and his home city of Chicago. The book divides each of these cases into separate chapters, shifting back and forth among them, so that a fragment of the Belfast story is followed by a slice of the Occupied Territories, which in turn gives way to a profile of the inner workings of the Chicago police department. Interspersed are more general treatments of "History and Method," "Torturers," "Victims," and "Bystanders," all of which draw on evidence well beyond the three case studies. The format, which could easily have led to a scattered and disorganized text, in fact works very well, thanks to Conroy's (and perhaps his editors') tenacious hold on the underlying narrative. The overall effect is almost novelistic, making this book a first-rate introduction for general readers who might be turned off by a more academic treatment, as well as a useful resource for scholars and students of human rights and state terror.

In all three cases studied here, agents and leaders of the state bear direct responsibility for the torture inflicted on helpless and usually innocent victims. In Belfast, on August 9, 1971, 341 Irish men were rounded up in a security sweep by British forces, marking the onset of "internment," "a policy that empowered the government to arrest anyone in the province without charge or evidence and to incarcerate them for an unlimited period" (p. 4). Conroy follows the fate of fourteen of the detained men -- all the victims, and perpetrators, in these case studies are male -- who were subjected to brutal beatings and to the so-called "five techniques" of torture: hooding (designed "to contribute to [a] sense of isolation and to mask the identity of the torturers" [p. 5]); "absolute and unceasing" noise (p. 6); food and sleep deprivation; and standing at a wall spread-eagled, "a position that, if held for a long period, produces enormous strain" such that "some of the men were later unable to hold a mug of tea or write a letter" (p. 6). None of the men was ever charged with a crime; most had no involvement with the Irish Republican cause.

The analysis of Israeli torture in the Occupied Territories centers on the grim events in the West Bank towns of Beita and Hawara on January 20-21, 1988 -- only a few weeks after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising that would come to be known as the Intifada. At Beita, Israeli soldiers rounded up eight village men, "not one ... suspected of any serious offense or of any involvement in terrorist activity" (p. 13). In line with the new policy announced by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, that opposition to Israeli rule would be countered with "force, might, and beatings," the soldiers dragged their captives into nearby woods and attacked them "with clubs, with rifle butts, with kicks, [and] with fists," according to one of the soldiers present (p. 15). They then "walked back to the bus and departed ... trusting, somehow, that the eight Palestinians would not die from their wounds, from internal bleeding, or from exposure" (p. 15). A similar scene was repeated the next evening at Hawara, when twelve men who voluntarily answered an Israeli summons were taken to an open field, bound, gagged, and brutally beaten until limbs and bones were broken. "It all went like clockwork," Conroy reports. "... When the job was finished, twelve men lay in the field, some moaning, some unconscious, some floating in and out of reality" (p. 19). They were only a few of the estimated 20,000 Palestinians tortured in Israeli custody between 1987 and 1994, according to the Israeli rights group B'Tselem (p. 214).

The torture inflicted in the Chicago case is in some ways closest to Conroy's heart: he covered the allegations of widespread police brutality for the Chicago Reader over a period of some fifteen years. The case that sparked the wider reverberations was the 1982 arrest of a black man, Andrew Wilson, for the murder of two Chicago police officers, William Fahey and Richard O'Brien -- a crime of which Wilson was later convicted. In their decision granting Wilson a retrial on the murder charge, the Illinois Supreme Court wrote that "when the defendant was taken by police officers to Mercy Hospital ... he had about fifteen separate injuries on his head, chest, and leg. The inescapable conclusion is that the defendant suffered his injuries while in police custody ..." Wilson, indeed, alleged that he had not only been beaten but burned by a radiator and tortured with electric shocks, "the shock delivered by two different devices applied to his genitals, his ears, his nose, and his fingers" (p. 26). When an inquiry was finally launched into the events, dozens of other prisoners and ordinary individuals -- overwhelmingly minority males -- came forward to testify that they, too, had been beaten and shocked in police custody.

The long-term impact of such atrocities is generally severe. In perhaps the most powerful chapter in his book, "Life Sentences," Conroy follows the detained men of Belfast through the often-agonizing years that followed their release. Sean McKenna, described by his physician as displaying "gross symptoms of anxiety," died of a heart attack at 45. The fate of another detainee, Michael Montgomery, was described by his wife Doris: "When he came out [of prison], we had a terrible life. I couldn't turn on the Hoover [vacuum cleaner]. If you were turning a page in the newspaper, it affected him. The electric kettle, opening or closing a door affected him. If you dropped a spoon on the floor he went mad. He never slept. He twisted, turned, shouted, bawled at night. I was scared of him. After he came out he used to put a gun to my head and threaten to shoot me" (p. 189). Montgomery died, also of a heart attack, at 49.

If the details of the individual cases are deeply disturbing, though, few in positions of authority seemed disturbed. When the Northern Ireland case came to light, the British government responded by defaming the tortured detainees: they were nothing more than "thugs and murderers," claimed Defense Minister Lord Carrington (though, again, none was ever charged with a crime). As a result, despite concerted attempts by the Irish government to press the case through the European Commission of Human Rights, "the perpetrators, instigators, and defenders of the five techniques ... escaped unscathed, their reputations untarnished" (p. 187). Lord Carrington's Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Rabin, likewise defended the injunction to torture Palestinian men as a just "punishment" for their presumed opposition to Israeli rule. The task of those who defended the Chicago police in the Andrew Wilson case was made easier by Wilson's criminality. Although all of these cases sparked judicial inquiries, investigative commissions, or courts-martial, not one perpetrator spent a day in prison for his crimes; all appear to be leading comfortable lives today, largely untroubled by pangs of conscience.

Public reaction was also notably muted, if the Chicago example is anything to go by. When, in July 1996, a court awarded Andrew Wilson a million dollars in damages for his torture at police hands, not "a single newspaper, television, or radio station report[ed] that the most remarkable case of torture in the city's history had been settled in favor of the plaintiff" (p. 235). As for the sixty or so others who had made allegations of torture against the Chicago police -- ten of whom had received death sentences -- "years passed with no public acknowledgment that many had been convicted by evil means, no notion that some of those convicted might be innocent, no wringing of hands about the impending execution of men whose guilt was questionable" (p. 236). "I found I did not have to journey far," Conroy comments acerbically, "to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably someone we like who lives in another country" (p. 240).

It may also be done by someone we like. "When most people imagine torture," Conroy writes in his chapter on "Torturers," "they imagine themselves the victim. The perpetrator appears as a monster -- someone inhuman, uncivilized, a sadist, most likely male, foreign in accent, diabolical in manner. Yet there is more than ample evidence that most torturers are normal people, that most of us could be the barbarian of our dreams as easily as we could be the victim ..." (p. 88). The vignettes of confessed torturers provided throughout the text bolster these assertions. Indeed, with commendable honesty, Conroy records his own generally favorable reactions to the torturers he interviewed. He found Yehuda Meir, who oversaw the torture at Beita and Hawara, unexpectedly "gracious company" (p. 202). Likewise, Jon Burge, who presided over the police torture chamber in Chicago, "had a good sense of humor and didn't seem to take himself too seriously; I enjoyed his company" (p. 241). Much the same could probably be said of the ordinary people studied by Stanley Milgram in a series of famous psychological experiments in the 1960s. Some 60 percent of subjects were willing to deliver (fake but seemingly extreme) electric shocks to other individuals upon command -- women as readily as men -- and "those who did have the inner resources to disobey," Conroy notes, "paid a considerable psychic cost" for doing so (p. 101).

Nor does one need to be a stereotypical monster in order to stand idly by while torture is committed in his or her name. Conroy's literature review in the final chapter, "Bystanders," will not surprise those familiar with the relevant psychological and sociological research; but, like the other general chapters in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, it serves as a fine point of access for readers new to the topic. The findings of John Darley and Bibb Latane, for instance, suggest that individuals are less likely to intervene when responsibility is diffused among a large number of onlookers (hence the notorious paralysis that gripped witnesses of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York). "People tend to look to others to define events," Conroy avers (p. 250).

This last chapter offers some grounds for hope. Many people do seek to assist and intervene. Those most likely to do so, Conroy writes (citing J. Macaulay and L. Berkowitz), tend to exhibit one or more of the following personality traits: "a spirit of adventurousness, an intense identification with a parent who set a high standard of moral conduct, and a sense of being socially marginal" (p. 252). The last of these apparently reduces the "fear of losing [an] attachment to the majority group" (p. 253), and increases identification with victims. After all, the victims themselves are likely to be drawn from the ranks of the marginalized, or as Conroy succinctly puts it, "the torturable classes" (p. 251) -- "gooks, niggers, Paddies, Arabs, Jews, criminals, agitators, heretics, labor organizers, stone throwers, flag wavers, singers of nationalist songs, terrorists, friends of terrorists, and so on" (p. 244). Fortunately, when bystanders act conscientiously, their altruism can be infectious, as Ervin Staub argued in The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (1989).

Still, as Conroy reminds us at the close of his powerful and compassionate book, "while helping is infectious, so is torture" (p. 255). Governments, their agents, and their citizens have done little to halt the resurgence and spread of this barbaric practice; in fact, they have proved more than ready to institutionalize it and protect the perpetrators from scrutiny. If confronting torture is possible, the task must surely center on raising awareness and generating widespread indignation. The release of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People by a major publishing house marks an important contribution to this cause.

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