from the book
Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People
by John Conroy
University of California Press, 2000, paper
... It takes no genius to see a pattern ... and that pattern
is repeated throughout the world: torturers are rarely punished,
and when they are, the punishment rarely corresponds to the severity
of the crime.
When a dictatorship is overthrown by a democratic regime,
torture squads typically elude punishment because the new government
is not entirely secure. After the junta fell in Argentina, for
example, the new government lived in constant fear of a coup;
the leaders of the ruling junta were prosecuted, but to avoid
riling the armed forces further, there was no great purge of torturers,
no indictments of whole companies of men. In other countries in
which civilian governments have taken over from a regime that
practiced torture, the new leaders, seeing the need for order
and continuity, have decided it was not practical to replace every
judge, prosecutor, and policeman who held office during the dark
ages; as a result, the bureaucracy that supported or tolerated
torture remains in place, a bureaucracy understandably not interested
in investigating the sins of the past. In other nations where
torture has been systematic, reform governments have become convinced
that what their country needs is reconciliation and healing, that
prosecution of torturers would once again polarize society, that
the best course is to avoid indictments for human rights violations.
Other liberating governments have declined to prosecute either
because they quickly find the torturer's tools quite useful or
because the liberators have a history of torture themselves.
Democracies and authoritarian regimes sometimes offer the
same rationales for failing to prosecute torturers. The morale
of the security forces, for example, is as sacred in a democracy
as it is in an undemocratic regime. Putting soldiers or policemen
on the witness stand is politically dangerous. They might, after
all, name high-ranking officers or public officials who sanctioned
Furthermore, it is often difficult to mount an effective prosecution.
Torture usually occurs in a closed room without independent witnesses.
Sometimes the victims have been blindfolded or they are dead,
so although their in juries indicate they were tortured and it
is not hard to determine what unit was responsible for their custody,
it may be impossible to determine which man in particular attached
the electrodes, performed the rape, the near drowning, or the
severe beating. Without predetention medical examinations, it
is often difficult to prove that a victim's injuries were sustained
A prosecutor's task is made more difficult by the fact that
torturers are often decorated soldiers or policemen who have served
their country in time of need, men who often represent popular
belief: they were tough on crime, or they were saving the country
from subversion or immorality. The victims, on the other hand,
may hold political or religious beliefs not in favor in the larger
society, or they may come from some lesser class that is viewed
as a threat to the society at large 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. A judge or jury choosing between
an erect and courageous torturer and an unpopular victim often
has an easier time identifying with the torturer.
In various nations in which notorious regimes have fallen,
there has been a public acknowledgment that people were tortured.
In democracies of long standing in which torture has taken place,
however, denial takes hold and official acknowledgment is extremely
slow in coming, if it appears at all. The response of those societies
is fairly predictable and can be charted in thematic, if not chronological,
Consider, for example, the British reaction to the revelations
that they were torturing the Northern Irish in 197I. The first
stage of response was absolute and complete denial, accompanied
by attacks on those who exposed the treatment. Northern Irish
Prime Minister Brian Faulkner announced that there had been "no
brutality of any kind." The London Sunday Times was denounced
for printing "the fantasies of terrorists."
The second stage was to minimize the abuse. The government
referred to it not as torture but as "interrogation in depth."
Home Secretary Reginald Maulding proclaimed that there was "no
permanent lasting injury whatever, physical or mental, to any
of the men." The majority report of the Parker Commission
proclaimed that any mental disorientation should disappear within
hours, and, if it didn't, it might be the men's own fault, the
product of anxiety caused by "guilty knowledge" and
"fear of reprisals" from comrades for having allegedly
given information. In the Compton Report, Sir Edmund Compton and
his colleagues concluded that part of the torture had been done
for the men's own good: the hooding kept the prisoners from identifying
each other, thus preserving each man's security. The beating of
Joe Clarke's hands had not occurred; his hands had been massaged
by guards in order to restore circulation. The guards who forced
men to perform strenuous exercises were merely trying to keep
the prisoners warm.
A third stage is to disparage the victims. Lord Carrington
judged them to be "thugs and murderers," while Reginald
Maulding proclaimed, "It was necessary to take measures to
fight terrorists, the murderous enemy. We must recognize them
for what they are. They are criminals who wish to impose their
own will by violence and terror." Yet after extensive torture
and ostensibly extensive confessions about their acts of "violence
and terror," none of the hooded men were charged with any
A fourth stage is to justify the treatment on the grounds
that it was effective or appropriate under the circumstances.
Lord Balniel, junior minister of defense, said that there was
no evidence of torture, ill-treatment, or brainwashing, and that
the methods employed had produced "invaluable" information
about a brutal, callous, and barbaric enemy. Compton proclaimed
that the five techniques had been used on the men because it was
"operationally necessary to obtain [information] as rapidly
as possible in the interest of saving lives." On November
2I, 197l, the Sunday Times poked holes in the apologists' claims,
pointing out that if the interrogation methods used on the hooded
men "were approved for use in any British police station,
where the need for information is sometimes just as urgent as
in Ulster, there would be universal outrage." The Sunday
Times editorial staff dismissed the claim that cruel treatment
was justified if it saved lives. How can you be sure, the paper
asked, that the prisoner has the information you seek, that the
lack of that information will indeed mean someone will die, and
that cruel methods extract reliable information ? The claim that
lives were saved became even more suspect as time passed. The
IRA was invigorated by new recruits inspired by the cruel treatment
accorded the Catholic community, and in the calendar year following
the introduction of internment, the number of shootings rose by
605 percent, the number of armed robberies increased 44 1 percent,
and the number of deaths rose 268 percent.
A fifth component of a torturing society's defense is to charge
that those who take up the cause of those tortured are aiding
the enemies of the state. So when the Republic of Ireland persisted
in its suit against the United Kingdom on behalf of the victims,
the Guardian argued that the republic's government was "torturing
Northern Ireland" by "force feeding the Provisionals
[the Provisional IRA] with propaganda."
A sixth defense is that the torture is no longer occurring,
and anyone who raises the issue is therefore "raking up the
past." Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees leveled that
charge at the Irish government when it persisted in its pursuit
of the victims' cause five years after their ordeal. Fifteen years
later, there was widespread support throughout the United Kingdom
for the War Crimes Bill, which became law in May 1991 and which
allowed for the prosecution of former Nazi officials for crimes
committed fifty years earlier. (Lord Carrington and former Prime
Minister Edwin Heath opposed the bill.) It 's always easier to
see torture in another country than in one's own.
A seventh component of a torturing bureaucracy is to put the
blame on a few bad apples. In defending themselves before the
European Court, the British proclaimed that it was not an administrative
practice, but rather a few men exceeding their orders. If this
had been the case, however, there would seem to be no reason why
the torturers could not have been publicly named and prosecuted.
An eighth stage in a society's rationalization of its policy
of torture is the common torturer's defense, presented to me by
most of the former torturers I interviewed, that someone else
does or has done much worse things. When the subject of the hooded
men arose, it was common for the British government spokesmen
and many editorial writers to respond by denouncing the IRA for
its callous campaign of random murder, as if that justified the
torture of randomly chosen men who, on the whole, were not members
of the IRA. In the wake of the European Commission decision labeling
the five techniques torture, the Times of London hastened to point
out that Britain should not be "lumped together with regimes
past or present in Greece, Brazil, Iran, Argentina." The
Times argued that the techniques employed by those regimes put
the victim in terror of the continuation of pain, and that that
terror forced the victim to submit to the interrogator. The British
techniques, the Times said, were not as evil because they were
not designed to induce terror, but rather to induce a state of
mental disorientation so that the victim's will to resist was
A final rationalization of a torturing nation is that the
victims will get over it. In a I982 interview, General Harry Tuzo,
the Oxford-educated commander of the army in Northern Ireland
at the time Jir.. Auld and the others were tortured, claimed that
the victims, who in Tuzo's words had suffered not torture but
"acute discomfort and humiliation," had been "very
well compensated and looked after." "I personally would
have thought," Tuzo said, "that they had got over it
by now." Similarly, General Jacques Massu, the French commander
who throughout his life staunchly defended the widespread use
of torture by his troops during the Algerian war, dismissed the
pains suffered by Henri Alleg, the European-born Jew who wrote
a book about his experience as a victim of Massu's policy (The
Question, George Braziller, 1958). Massu saw Alleg in 1970, thirteen
years after he was tortured, and based on that viewing discerned
that the torture survivor was in "reassuringly vigorous condition."
It is perhaps understandable that public officials accused
of a crime as heinous as torture would react defensively and follow
a predictable route of denial. What is perhaps more difficult
to understand is the rampant indifference that grips most societies
in the face of revelations of torture.
The indifference demonstrated by bystanders in the face of
other people's suffering has been widely studied, particularly
since the murder of twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese on March
13, 1964, in Queens, New York. The murder was witnessed by thirty-eight
of the victim's neighbors. During the thirty minutes that it took
the killer to complete his act, not one of those thirty-eight
people called the police or came to the young woman's aid.
In considering that incident, psychologists John Darley and
Bibb Latane wondered if Genovese might have fared better had there
been fewer onlookers. The two psychologists then designed a series
of experiments to test the hypothesis that the greater the number
of people who witness an emergency, the less likely it is that
anyone will do anything about it.
In one experiment, New York University students were led,
one by one, to small rooms. Each was told that he or she was part
of a group of students, all sitting alone in similar rooms, all
connected by microphones and headsets. During the course of a
discussion about the pressures that students faced, the subjects
heard one student-actually a confederate of the experimenters
confess that he was prone to seizures when tense. A few minutes
later, subjects heard that same student break down and plead for
help. The subjects had been led to believe that no instructor
would be monitoring their conversation, so no one hearing the
seizure was clearly in charge.
In an article on the experiment published in the Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, Darley and Latane reproduced
a portion of the victim's speech, the ending of which went as
follows: "I-er-if somebody could help me out it would-it
would-er-er s-s-sure be-sure be good . . . because-er-there-er-er-a
cause I-er-I-uh-I've got a-a one of the-er-sei-er-er-things coming
on and-and-and I could reallyer-use some help so if somebody would-er-give
me a little h-helpuh-er-er-er-er-er could somebody-er-er-help-er-uh-uh-uh
[choking sounds].... I'm gonna die-er-er-I'm ... gonna die-er-help-er-erseizure-er
[chokes, then quiet]."
The experiment was designed so that the subjects believed
they could not communicate directly with each other-all believed
that their microphones were turned off when it was not their turn
to speak. Some subjects believed that they were part of a two-person
group, and that therefore they alone had heard the young man's
seizure. Other subjects believed that one other student had also
heard the victim's pleas (a three-person group), and still others
thought that four other people were listening when the breakdown
occurred (a six-person group). The dependent variable was the
time elapsed from the start of the victim's fit until the subject
sought help. If six minutes passed after the end of the fit and
the subject had not left his or her room, the experimenter entered
the room and terminated the session.
Darley and Latane's theory about bystanders proved to be correct.
All of the subjects who thought that they alone had heard the
victim's seizure tried to get help, most leaving their room before
the victim had even finished his speech. Eighty percent of those
in the three-person groups sought help, albeit it a little more
slowly than those in the two-person groups. But only 62 percent
of those in the six-person groups left their room, and they moved
at a considerably slower pace: 50 percent of the single bystanders
bolted from the room within forty-five seconds of the start of
the seizure, by which time none of the people in the six-person
groups had yet reached the door. Males and females responded to
the emergency with almost exactly the same frequency and speed.
Surprisingly, Darley and Latane did not find that the subjects
who stayed in their seats were apathetic or unconcerned; in fact,
those who did not respond to the emergency seemed more upset than
those who did, often asking the experimenter who entered their
rooms if the victim was all right. The two psychologists concluded
that non-intervening subjects had not responded because they were
mired in a state of indecision and internal conflict: "On
the one hand, subjects worried about the guilt and shame they
would feel if they did not help the person in distress. On the
other hand, they were concerned not to make fools of themselves
by overreacting, not to ruin the ongoing experiment by leaving
their intercom, and not to destroy the anonymous nature of the
situation which the experimenter had earlier stressed as important....
Caught between the two negative alternatives of letting the victim
continue to suffer or the costs of rushing in to help, the non-responding
bystanders vacillated between them rather than choosing not to
respond. This distinction may be academic to the victim, since
he got no help in either case, but it is an extremely important
one for arriving at an understanding of the causes of bystanders'
failures to help."
Darley and Latane concluded by saying that individuals are
not "non-interveners" because of some flaw in their
personality, but rather because responsibility is diffused. As
in the murder of Kitty Genovese, isolated individuals, knowing
that others were also aware of the emergency but not knowing how
those others were responding, did not attempt to intervene because
they did not feel personally responsible.
Darley and Latane wondered if the results would be different
if those individuals were not isolated, if they could talk to
other bystanders. A layperson might imagine that when strangers
are able to talk to each other about an emergency, they will be
more likely to arrive at a decisive course of action-the old notion
that two or three or six heads are better than one. Darley and
Latane, however, suspected that the opposite might be true.
To test their beliefs, they established a situation in which
varying numbers of male Columbia University students filled out
forms in a room that slowly filled with smoke. The students were
witnessing a potential emergency that threatened themselves as
well as others. It was not a subtle process: many of the subjects
noticed the smoke within five seconds of its introduction, and
after four minutes, subjects were coughing, rubbing their eyes,
and attempting to open the window. At six minutes, when the experiment
was terminated if no one had bothered to seek help, vision was
obscured by the amount of smoke in the room.
In their sample of students, three out of four of those tested
alone reported the smoke, but only one out of eight students who
were tested in groups of three saw fit to report the emergency.
In their accounts of the experiment, which appeared in the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Psychology Today,
Darley and Latane wrote that when the subjects who reported the
smoke were debriefed after the experiment, they often mentioned
that they had considered the possibility that the building was
on fire. By contrast, those who sat through the six minutes without
moving came up with an astonishing variety of alternative explanations
for the smoke, none of which mentioned the word "fire."
Two students from different groups actually suggested that the
smoke was a truth gas deployed to induce them to answer the questionnaire
accurately. (Darley and Latane reported that the two who offered
this explanation did not seem in the least disturbed by it.) In
essence, the inactive bystanders were concocting reasons why they
should be absolved for their inaction.
The two psychologists concluded that individuals are less
likely to engage in socially responsible action if they think
other bystanders are present. "If each member of a group
of bystanders is aware that other people are also present, he
will be less likely to notice the emergency, less likely to decide
that it is an emergency, and less likely to act even if he thinks
there is an emergency."
Darley and Latane's experiments and others inspired by the
Genovese murder have led psychologists to conclude that people
tend to look to others to define events. Someone who sees something
that may be an emergency looks to see if other witnesses are also
alarmed. If everyone seems calm or indifferent, the observer often
concludes that no emergency is taking place. The group defines
the event, and most people follow the spoken and unspoken norms
of the group and are unwilling to risk the embarrassment-of overreacting
in public. Furthermore, even if people recognize that they are
witnessing an event in which help is called for, they remain unsure
who is responsible for providing that help: in a group of strangers
there is no captain. Responsibility is therefore diffused, and
so is the guilt felt by those who do nothing.
Social psychologists also explain the passivity of human beings
in the face of emergencies by citing the human tendency to believe
that there is some order to the universe-that the guilty are punished,
the innocent are rewarded, and justice prevails. Various studies
indicate that most of us are given to this " just world thinking,"
and that we will rearrange our perception of people and events
so that it seems as ~ though everyone gets what they deserve.
Upon seeing an innocent per- j son punished, for example, most
people will ad just their interpretation of what they have witnessed:
the person being punished "must have done something,"
must somehow be inferior or dangerous or evil, or must be suffering
because some higher cause is being served.
This phenomenon was illustrated in an experiment conducted
by psychologists Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons in which seventy-two
female undergraduates watched a peer receive severe and painful
electric shocks when she gave wrong answers to questions put to
her. (The "victim" was in league with the experimenters
and was not actually shocked.) Some observers were told that they
could stop the shocks after the experiment's first ten-minute
session, and that for the second session they could place the
victim in a position to earn a fair sum of money for her participation.
Other participants were told that they had no control over the
experiment, and after witnessing the first session of painful
shocks, they believed their colleague was going to suffer more
of the same. The students who thought that they controlled the
fate of the victim described her in much more positive terms than
those who thought they had no influence. Lerner and Simmons concluded
that those who believed the suffering was unstoppable devalued
the victim so that they could justify what they had witnessed.
Psychologists are also quick to point out that helping often
conflicts with norms or rules of appropriate behavior. A man escorting
a woman to a dark place in a park could seem like a cause for
alarm, but it is considered perverse and impolite to follow a
couple into the bushes. Speaking out for a man unjustly imprisoned
sounds noble in the abstract, but when that man is from one of
the torturable classes, those who speak for him can expect few
pats on the back.
The Chicago cases seem to speak to all of these points. It
wasn't a case of five people hearing a seizure and doing nothing
or acting slowly; it was a case of millions of people knowing
of an emergency and doing nothing. People looked about, saw no
great crusade forming, saw protests only from the usual agitators,
and assumed there was no cause for alarm. Responsibility was diffused.
Citizens offended by torture could easily retreat into the notion
that they lived in a just world, that the experts would sort things
out, that the press, prosecutors, the judiciary, the legislature,
or the police department's Office of Professional Standards would
take care of the matter. Furthermore, the victims were easily
devalued. Some were on death row, many were gang members with
extensive police records, and those who were neither were tainted
by their association with those who were-"if they were tortured,
they must have been guilty because look who else was tortured."
Seeing this play out in my hometown made me wonder: If the
Area 2 victims could not rely on public outrage, on the press,
on state or federal prosecutors, on politicians, or on the judiciary,
what hope is there? Who does help?
... One small study of people who helped Jews during the Holocaust,
described by Perry London in "The Rescuers: Motivational
Hypotheses about Christians Who Saved Jews from the Nazis"
(a chapter in the I970 book Altruism and Helping Behavior, edited
by J. Macaulay and L. Berkowitz), found evidence to indicate that
altruistic behavior was related to three personal 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. In London's small sample, the spirit of adventurousness
was perhaps best exemplified by a man whose prewar hobby was to
race motorcycles on courses that required driving over narrow
boards that spanned deep ditches. Once the war began, that man
and his friends got a kick out of putting sugar in the gas tanks
of German army vehicles, a practice that disabled the engines.
The identification with a parent with high moral standards was
prominent in the case of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister from
the Netherlands whose father had gone to jail for his beliefs;
the minister described himself as mildly anti-Semitic, but during
the war he organized a large-scale operation for rescuing Jews,
believing simply that it was a Christian's duty. That minister,
who belonged to a religious group with an extremely small number
of followers in Holland, was also cited as an example of what
the researchers called "social marginality": a social
separateness, a feeling of being an outsider, that seemed to allow
the rescuers to have less fear about losing their attachment to
the majority group. One highly effective German rescuer, also
part of London's sample, had been a stutterer as a child and in
an interview confessed that he had always felt friendless. The
residents of the French village of Le Chambon, who saved thousands
of Jews during the war, also had a certain social marginality:
they were Huguenots in overwhelmingly Catholic France.
Amherst professor Dr. Ervin Staub, perhaps the world's foremost
authority on bystanders, has staged his own experiments designed
to identify the qualities of those who help during emergencies.
In one of those experiments, described in "Helping a Distressed
Person: Social, Personality, and Stimulus Determinants" (a
chapter in the book Advances in Experimental Social Psychology,
edited by L. Berkowitz), male undergraduates filling out a questionnaire
became aware of moaning coming from the next room. Some of the
students believed they were working on a timed task, while others
had been given no directions concerning time. If the student went
into the room to discover the source of the noise, he found another
male undergraduate complaining that his stomach was "killing
him" and that he had run out of pills. If the subject did
not investigate the noise, the allegedly ill confederate eventually
entered the testing room, mentioned his ailment and his lack of
pills, and asked if he could sit on a couch nearby.
Some of those who helped the ailing student were so enthusiastic
that, in an attempt to get medicine at a nearby pharmacy, they
ran down twelve flights of stairs rather than wait for an elevator,
and one student was so fast that the experimenters didn't catch
up with him until he actually got to the drugstore. Those helpers,
however, were a small minority. In the sample of I22 students,
73 percent did little or nothing.
While other psychologists have had a hard time gathering results
that show any correlation between personality and helping behavior,
Staub found a strong correlation in this particular experiment.
Subjects who valued cleanliness highly were generally less helpful.
Staub interpreted this to indicate that college students "who
endorse cleanliness may be highly conventional, and conventional
values seem to be different from concern for others." Students
who ranked ambition highly as a value were less willing to interrupt
their work on the assigned task for longer periods of time (Staub
believed that the more ambitious may have experienced more conflict
in determining a course of action). The subjects whose personality
profiles showed a significant prosocial orientation were more
likely to help, but only when the circumstances permitted it:
the prosocial students who believed they were working on a timed
task were less responsive than those who were unconcerned about
the passage of time. Subjects who valued courage highly were more
apt to initiate action in response to the moans, those who were
taken with adventure and novel experiences seemed more likely
to initiate help, and those who valued helpfulness tended to be
more responsive when they were asked to collect a prescription.
In his book The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and
Other Group Violence, Staub argues that helping is infectious,
that helpful bystanders, if they are not devalued by the perpetrators
and inactive bystanders, break the uniformity of views, chip away
at widespread antagonism toward a particular group, affirm the
humanity of the victims, call attention to values disregarded
by perpetrators and passive bystanders, and make it clear that
persecution can have consequences for the persecutor. Staub points
out that the citizens of Le Chambon seemed to have a profound
effect on the Vichy police charged with rounding up the Jews:
anonymous callers, believed to be policemen, warned the local
pastor of impending raids.
Staub argues that helpful bystanders can also inspire victims.
Staub points out that during World War II, Belgians resisted the
Third Reich's anti-Semitic orders, and Belgian Jews did more on
their own behalf than Jews in other Nazi-dominated countries because
they did not feel abandoned, helpless, and alone.
It also seems, however, that helping is an infection that
is not easily spread. Those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust
were often personally approached by someone in dire need, and
the same can be said of those who helped the student in pain in
Dr. Staub's experiment. Most men and women who are tortured are
like the Chicago victims locked up, unable to knock on anyone's
door. Dr. Staub's work indicates that if it is easy to escape
without helping, most people will escape: in one Staub experiment
in which a confederate feigned a heart attack on a public street,
far fewer people helped when the victim was across the street
than when he was in their path. Staub noted that some of his subjects
observed the victim in agony and then immediately turned their
heads and looked away, never turning back.
Furthermore, in places where torture takes place, it is often
well known to thousands and sometimes millions of people. That
means that responsibility is diffused. Many bystanders simply
don't know what to do, how to help, even if they are inclined
to-certainly a situation faced by many good Germans during the
years of the Holocaust-and they remain immobilized, like the students
in the Darley and Latane experiment who heard a colleague plead
for help with his seizure. It is not so difficult for many bystanders
to adapt their beliefs, to buy into the idea that what is being
done is not an abomination, but a service to humanity-that, for
example, innocent lives are being saved because men and women
are being tortured. Observe, for example, the case of Israel,
where there is no large-scale protest over the widely reported
torture of more than twenty thousand Palestinians, many of them
mere stone throwers.
While helping is infectious, so is torture. The Soviet Union,
China, and North Korea provided the inspiration for the British
use of the five techniques. The British methods inspired the Israelis.
Israeli methods have in turn inspired the Palestinians, who now
have their own torturable class in the West Bank and Gaza.
... for most torture victims, there can be little hope of
help from their fellow citizens or outsiders. A few will be rescued
by the clamor of human rights activists and the chain of events
that that clamor initiates, but for most, any rescuing done will
be done by the victims themselves, using their own internal resources,
shoring up ~ themselves and their fellow victims as best as they
can during the process, and perhaps-if they or their families
are very resourceful- getting some psychological help if they
are released. Only a tiny fraction of working torturers will ever
be punished, and those who are can expect their punishment to
be slight compared to their crime.
It seems a very small leap to argue that torture is the perfect
crime. There are exceptions, yes, but in the vast majority of
cases, only the victim pays.