BOSTON — As Dr. Luke Tedeschi sifted through the bones of hundreds of political prisoners tortured and killed by Argentina's former military regimes, he was astonished at how swiftly a modern society was brought to its knees.
During the seven-year period that ended in 1982 with Argentina's loss of the Falkland Islands war to Britain, an estimated 9,000 Argentines disappeared.
"What shocked me most was that a sophisticated, industrialized country went . . . to a complete dictatorial country, where people had no human rights at all so quickly," said Tedeschi, a medical examiner from Massachusetts.
He is one of seven members of a forensic science team invited to Argentina by President Raul Alfonsin to help document civil rights violations committed under previous governments.
"There but for the grace of God go us," he said after returning.
Argentina's experience is not the only example of government-sanctioned torture in the world today. Recent estimates indicate that one in three governments torture their citizens. Information collected by human rights groups indicate that the number of regimes terrorizing their citizens is clearly growing.
"Torture is a growth industry," said Larry Cox, deputy director of Amnesty International U.S.A. "We don't know how many (nations are involved). They don't always come forward. But there are growing numbers."
In reaction, scientists, doctors and human rights organizations have begun an ambitious international project to use the knowledge and resources of the scientific community to eradicate torture worldwide.
The project seeks to eliminate torture in three ways:
--Persuade doctors not to assist in torture. Large-scale torture is difficult to conduct without the participation of doctors, who are needed to keep prisoners healthy and to sign death certificates.
--Use the international network of doctors and scientists to spread the word when torture occurs.
--Export forensic experts to document evidence of torture so that torturers can be brought to trial.
The U.S. team flown to Argentina is considered a spearhead of this movement.
'Tell the World'
"It's a unique experience. It's the first time forensic scientists have been invited into a country where torture recently occurred," said Tedeschi. "They were saying: 'This is what happened to us. Tell the world.' "
Advocates hope the Argentina trip will set a precedent. In the future, they foresee teams of forensic scientists that can be called upon anytime to fly anywhere in the world to investigate complaints of torture, much as investigators quickly descend upon mass disasters, like plane crashes.
Countries said to be participating in torture would be forced to open their doors to investigators by world economic sanctions against them, organizers hope.
Abolishing an act as widespread as torture, which has been going on probably ever since people began forming small social groups, is an enormous task. But those involved believe they have the resources to do so.
Hope for Eradication
"It is not too idealistic to believe that with the full support of the global medical community, eventual eradication of this social disease can be achieved," Tedeschi wrote in the introduction to the winter issue of The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.
The issue, which Tedeschi edited, is devoted to the subject of investigating human rights violations.
"For this goal to be achieved, like in the elimination of many other dreaded diseases over the years, exhaustive research and scientific developments must be coordinated," he wrote.
The American Assn. for the Advancement of Science is closely involved in the project.
Eric G. Stover, a member of the association's committee on scientific freedom and responsibility, said that aside from the moral obligation people have to stop human rights violations, combating torture is in scientists' self-interest.
"The general consensus among scientists is that science needs to take place in an atmosphere in firm defense of human rights," said Stover, who just returned from a two-month stay in Argentina. "Science knows no frontiers. Scientists need to have free and open communication."
New Tortures Devised
In some cases, scientists are pitting their skills against other scientists. With the help of scientists and doctors, torturers are developing new insidious ways of torturing people that increase the human suffering yet reduce the physical evidence of torture.
For instance, human rights advocates complain that psychiatrists in the Soviet Union use drugs to drive dissidents temporarily insane. In other countries, new electric-shock devices cause extreme pain without obvious signs of physical injury.
Modern psychiatric findings about body rhythms and the need for consistency and human contact are also being used to create new methods of torture.