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UNSPEAKABLE ACTS, ORDINARY PEOPLE The Dynamics of Torture
By John Conroy; Alfred A. Knopf: 306 pp., $26

Will It Ever End?

September 03, 2000|NEIL BELTON | Neil Belton is the author of "The Good Listener" (Pantheon), which was awarded the Irish Times Literature Prize in 1999

The title of John Conroy's fine book insists on a paradox that is meant to disturb us: Torture is often carried out, and tolerated, by normal people, some of them decent and even courageous, like the Chicago police lieutenant who is one of Conroy's perpetrators, a man who received numerous commendations for bravery. If the rhetoric of the title seems tired, it is not necessarily the author's fault. The last half century has deadened most forms of writing about atrocity. We know that cruel acts are all too speakable; that prefix "un-" for which we always reach, meant to keep reality at bay, has become a desperate attempt to negate what people are capable of doing to each other. Torture and the threat of torture have become staples even of Hollywood movies, full of atrocious acts designed to evoke heartlessly ironic retribution. Cruel and unusual punishment is, unfortunately, far from unimaginable.

What is torture? My old Oxford English Dictionary defines torture as "the infliction of excruciating pain . . . by cruel tyrants, savages, brigands . . . or for the purpose of forcing an accused or suspected person to confess." It is not a bad definition but, as Conroy's book shows, it is also far from adequate.

Conroy's book is organized around three events, one each from Great Britain, Israel and the United States, all of them allegedly upholders of United Nations declarations and resolutions denouncing torture. Conroy, a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, shows real moral courage in his choice of cases. It is one thing to write about documented, well-known examples of injustice, say, the practices of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's secret police, for which he is now almost universally held responsible. It is quite another to soberly document the torture carried out by the police department of the writer's own city. The victim was an unpleasant double murderer named Andrew Wilson, who was given electric shocks, beaten and burnt after his arrest by colleagues of the Chicago police officers whom Wilson had shot to death in February 1982.

In choosing such an unsympathetic victim, Conroy is making a point of extreme importance: Even the most violent people have a right to have their own bodies protected from deliberately inflicted pain. The self-restraint of the powerful has been axiomatic since the general acceptance by modern states of the norms of evidence and punishment worked out during the Enlightenment. But it is often violated when an unstable state (or city) is faced with an emergency, particularly if that crisis can be translated into the language of subversion and terror, the panic-stricken vision of the enemy within. Torture can then become a fantasized means of "saving lives," of getting to that ticking bomb before it explodes.

Despite its sometimes sinister modern reputation, Chicago may seem an unlikely venue for a collapse of civilized legal standards, but Wilson is black, and relations between America's police departments and its black communities have sometimes resembled those between an occupying army and an alienated population. That was the atmosphere of the city's South Side, as described by Conroy, in the days after Wilson's senseless murder of the two officers. Police operating in an environment of endemic poverty and crime are tempted to take shortcuts to secure convictions, and Conroy shows how Wilson's subsequent lawsuit against the police led to the exposure of at least 62 other cases of torture for information or revenge by police detectives.

The other two cases that Conroy describes are, however, more familiar torturing scenarios, in that the political relationships they embodied were more frankly colonial and coercive. The British Army in Northern Ireland chose 14 men from its botched internment sweep in August 1971, placed them in hoods, beat and dehydrated them and subjected them to prolonged sensory and sleep deprivation. It was a maniacally sped-up version of what the NKVD used in the time of the Soviet Great Purge. Conroy seems most emotionally engaged with the Irish material: His interviews with the victims make better testimony than anything else in the book and deepen our understanding of the effects of torture on its survivors--that damnable litany of insomnia, depression, spinal problems and ruined lives that is covered by the word "stress." But this engagement makes the book feel slightly unbalanced, and Conroy is not quite as alert as he might be to exaggerated claims. One of the hooded men, Kevin Hannaway (a relative of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams), asserts that "nothing has changed," that the British have refined their techniques of torture in the intervening decades; but there is very little evidence for this claim. Torture has not been used as a matter of policy in the interrogation of paramilitary suspects since the mid-'70s, and no reputable human rights organization claims otherwise.

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