Case Studies in Brutality: The Ugliness of Ordinary Folk

Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture , by John Conroy. Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $26.

If the Abner Louima case had anything to teach New York, it was that the practice of torture, which an enlightened age and society were supposed to have abolished, was alive and well in 1997 in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

In Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People , John Conroy examines three instances of torture practiced in so-called civilized societies: Northern Ireland, the West Bank during the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada and (rather than the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn) the Area 2 police division on Chicago’s South Side. From court reports and interviews with both torturer and torturee, Mr. Conroy draws conclusions about the formation and toleration of torturers that make uncomfortable reading.

In 1971, the British Government, faced with an insurgency among the Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, introduced the policy of “internment,” which permitted security forces to imprison suspects without charge. Early on Aug. 9, 1971, 342 Catholics were taken into custody. Of those men, 14 were separated, hooded, spread-eagled against a wall till they collapsed under their own weight, deprived of food and sleep and subjected to continuous noise. The combination of assaults, which appear to have originated in the Soviet Union and may have been part of a British experiment in interrogation, became known as the “five techniques.”

After several days, the men were transferred to the Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast. One of the men, an unemployed dental technician named Jim Auld, remembers on the faces of the “the screws” or warders who took him off the military helicopter “sheer horror at my appearance.”

In the ensuing weeks and months, the 14 began to show symptoms of disintegration. Another of the men, Pat Shivers, a plasterer, remained so sensitive to noise that he could be exasperated by the sound of a comb placed on a shelf in his bathroom.

Mr. Conroy contends that in democracies people are sometimes reluctant to attribute wrong to their institutions of authority, such as the armed forces or police or judiciary. He quotes an academic experiment that found that the larger the group of bystanders to an act of violence the less likely was one individual to act to halt it. Peter Carrington, then British Defense Minister and a man still respected as a gentleman of the old school, called Mr. Auld and the other victims “thugs and murderers” on television without any justification. A commission of inquiry appointed by the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, found that no brutality had taken place and that hooding, for example, provided “security … for the detainee.” When in 1977, on the suit of the Government of the Republic of Ireland, the “five techniques” were found by the European Court of Human Rights to constitute merely inhuman and degrading treatment, not torture, the Daily Telegraph in London said it was a “triumph.”

Whereas neither the court nor Mr. Conroy was able to examine the individuals who abused Mr. Auld and the others, he recorded long interviews with the perpetrators in the Israeli case. On Jan. 20, 1988, paratroopers of the Nahal Brigade were set upon by stone-throwers in the Palestinian village of Beita. That night, a company took eight men away to woods nearby and broke their arms and legs with clubs and rifle butts. The following night in the village of Hawara, another 12 men were taken away and badly beaten. The incidents were investigated by the military police of the Israel Defense Forces, or I.D.F., and eventually one officer, Lieut.-Col. Yehuda Meir, was court-martialed and reduced to the rank of private.

Mr. Conroy shows how the virtues of the Israeli Army–discipline, obedience, vigor, high morale–can be transformed into vices when an evil policy filters down the chain of command. In fact, Mr. Conroy attributes a portion of responsibility to the high command of the I.D.F. and the late Yitzhak Rabin (a man more sainted even than Lord Carrington), who proclaimed a policy of “force, might and beatings” to deal with the intifada .

The torturers themselves appear in all other respects to be admirable men: even what the Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in his experiments with obedience in the 1960’s, called “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs.” While torture is a terrifying mystery to us, individual torturers need not be. “The worst part of these interviews, was that they were not difficult,” Mr. Conroy writes. “I never met the monster I anticipated.”

The third case arises from Mr. Conroy’s work as a reporter in Chicago and concerns Andrew Wilson, who claimed he had been subjected to beatings and violent electric shocks while in police custody in February 1982. He was later convicted of the murder of two police officers. In January 1991, Amnesty International issued a report alleging that Area 2 detectives had systematically tortured criminal suspects between 1972 and 1984. Eventually, Jon Burge, a highly decorated officer at the heart of the allegations, was cashiered, and in 1996, a judge ordered the city to pay Mr. Wilson $1 million in damages, almost all of which was to go to his lawyers.

In each of these cases, the victims came from what Mr. Conroy calls a “torturable class”–poor Catholics in Ulster, Palestinian Arabs, illiterate African-American convicts–which can be portrayed as beyond the civilized pale. (Presumably, a Haitian immigrant such as Abner Louima would fall into that category.) The tormentors had various purposes, including gathering evidence about subversion, punishment, deterrence, vengeance, rage, “doing something about it” and terror.

Yet in each of these cases, the torture was probably fruitless. The I.R.A. continues to exist and to trouble the British Government; the West Bank beatings did more damage to Israel’s prestige and self-confidence than the intifada ; the Chicago police could have gained a conviction without a generator and crocodile clips. Mr. Conroy quotes a U.S. interrogator in Vietnam, Don Dzagulones, as saying he knew of no incident where torture had saved American lives. “Like Prisoner X comes in, you beat the living snot out of him. He tells you about a Vietcong ambush … [Y]ou relay this information to the infantry guys, and they counter-ambush and the good guys win.… Never happened. Not to my knowledge.”

The reverse of that coin is that torturers are rarely brought to book. The British interrogators have never been prosecuted. Colonel Meir, though he regrets his expulsion from the army, now operates a successful private security business. The life sentence in the Louima case would appear to be exceptional.

It is with the victims that torture lives on and that is what you would expect. Mr. Conroy followed the “hooded men” in their later careers in Ulster: sad catalogues of joblessness, illness, fear and early death.

From the descendants of the victims of Nazi persecution, Mr. Conroy concludes that a torturer can ruin not only his victim but his progeny. It is his single exercise in rhetoric: “The man who feels ‘nothing personal’ against his victim, who takes comfort in the belief that he is not as bad as some other torturer, who believes that he was not so bad because his victim did not die, never sees the extent of his damage, never considers that he has assaulted generations yet unborn.”