The Greatest Innovator of Torture is Democracy Not Dictatorship

Various forms of torture employed by federal troops in the 19th century

When we think of torture, we usually think of brutal methods as being invented by dictators, but in this Boston Globe article, Darius Rejali argues that the opposite is true: the modern torture is mainly a democratic invention!

We think torture is mainly the province of dictators and juntas - the kind of thing that happens behind the iron doors of repressive regimes. In a democracy, with open courts and a free press, torture should be a relic. In the words of an American World War II poster, torture is "the method of the enemy."

But a closer look at the modern history of torture suggests that exactly the opposite is true. Torture isn't an alien force invading our democracy from the benighted realms of dictatorships. In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.

In one instance after another, democracies developed new torture techniques, refined them, and then exported them to more authoritarian regimes. Americans didn't just develop electric power; they invented the first electrotorture devices and used them in police stations from Arkansas to Seattle. Magneto torture, a technique favored by the Nazis involving a portable generator, was actually developed and spread by the French. Waterboarding and forced standing owe their wide use to the Americans and British.


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If you must know, I got through to page 2 and gave up. Maybe I identified a different agenda than you did, DDT.

As I said earlier, the author is blaming "democracies" for inventing and perfecting new torture methods. If this were done about any identifiable group of people, it would be considered a hate crime. Since it is about "western" democracies, I made the not-so-huge leap to label it as such. Your reaction to my comment is predictable.

If you're going to pretend you know more than I do, try not to show your ignorance in the same comment. There is no "encyclopedia". The author is saying that American newspaper accounts and trial transcripts form a virtual encyclopedia of water torture techniques.

Maybe you should have read the article more closely.

And my hands are clean. I don't recall torturing an insect as a child, much less any POWs recently.
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Ted, did you even read the article?

The article recognizes torture has been around for thousands of years, but it was countries such as the British, French and the United States that "perfected it", meaning, developed torture to the point that it would not leave any trace or recognizable wounds. Therefore, whenever one would claim they've been tortured there'd be no visible proof. The key word is "modern".

Historically, torture had 2 reasons; the primary use was to make example of people of the power of the king, queen, chief, leader, etc. as a way of brute force, and law, in a Leviathan - Thomas Hobbes sort of way. The other was to extract information out of POWs. Today, the roles are more reversed. New torture techniques are being developed to try on our enemies, which this article is stating, will be brought back here to be used when dealing with people with legal issues.

Yes, water torture has been around for hundred of years, however, the article claims that "by the 1920s, one can find the full encyclopedia of modern water torture already written up in American newspaper accounts and trial transcripts."

What annoys me with articles is they tend to not clearly say what this encyclopedia is, and give a page number. I know that may sound stupid but at least then we can go and read the real facts.

Why should this be considered a hate crime? What's the matter? Can't take the fact that the most important countries in the Western point of view in the last 100 years hand's aren't clean? I bet you didn't know that the Allies during world war 2 were responsible for killing and murdering German POWs. But, the typical American, defending patriotism and turf dismisses the notion right away by stating facts such as "the Germans had it coming to them", "they started it", "we were fighting for freedom" jargon, and they simply don't ask, "if it happened, why did it happen, and how can we give a better name to ourselves, as this reflects upon the world as who we might be, and our ethics."

No one's hands are clean.
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This just looks like an excuse to bash democracy, rather than a balanced article.

Torture has been going on for thousands and thousands of years, but this article implies that "democracy", namely, the USA and Britain, perfected it. This is a blatant misrepresentation of the facts to malign a particular group of people (i.e. people who live in a democratic society), and the article should be classed as a hate crime.
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