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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
The science of suffering
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

We know torture when we see it - the problem is those meting out the violence often don't. That's the revelatory conclusion of one expert who is attempting to understand the insidious way in which torture becomes "acceptable".

It's called degradation, mistreatment, tough interrogation. According to experts, it's often called everything except what it is - torture.

"In investigations of US abuse of imprisoned Iraqis, there has been reluctance to use the T-word," Martha Huggins, a sociology professor at New Orleans' Tulane University, told a forum on torture this week.

And when governments, military organisations and police services refuse to label "tough interrogation" as torture, it creates an atmosphere where the mistreatment of prisoners is allowed to flourish.

After studying Brazilian police from 1964 to 1985, Ms Huggins laid out the classic conditions for mistreatment of prisoners. As part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's marking United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, she spoke to a Washington, DC, conference about them.

Systemic problem

The half-day forum also heard from physicians who treat people who have been tortured and the effects of torture and detention on the families of victims.

The conference was staged less than two miles from the United States Supreme Court, where the justices were releasing a decision that said prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were entitled to challenge their custody through American courts.

The issue of torture has dominated the news since photographs of prisoners at the US-controlled Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light.

Donald Rumsfeld
Rumsfeld: The US 'cares about the detainees being treated right'

Those now-famous images show prisoners being beaten by guards, frightened by attack dogs, and sexually humiliated. Some of the soldiers have said they were told to "soften up" prisoners before interrogation.

Ms Huggins told the conference an environment like that encourages cruelty, by "establishing a climate where no explicit order to torture has to be given".

Torture, she said, is systemic and not simply the work of a few twisted people. The actions of those who torture are supported by many others, including those who feed and look after prisoners, deliver them into custody, who treat their injuries and even those who pay the guards' wages.

"Facilitators are even more essential to the long-term stability and protection of a torture system than its more visible perpetrators," she said.

According to Ms Huggins, other conditions that allow torture to flourish include:

  • Hiding or denying torture, through press censorship, the elimination of democratic institutions and popular elections.
  • Not punishing perpetrators, which Ms Huggins says, allows torture to become "systemic".
  • Competition, in which different military or police units are trying to outdo each other in acquiring information.

A key element is that national security is used as a reason to interrogate enemies of the state.


"Torture is nurtured and justified by ideologies that create an ever-expanding category of 'enemy' others," said Ms Huggins. "Where 'good' nations are threatened by 'evil-doers', and anyone could be an 'enemy' there should be no restriction on interrogation.

"Fear, whether or not deliberately instilled - as in fictions about 'weapons of mass destruction' - grants legitimacy to torture."

The conference touched on a number of issues, including questions about whether torture is ever justified, if there's any evidence to suggest that torture is in the interest of national security, and how the scientific profession can contribute to the debate.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay
The Supreme Court ruled detainees should have access to justice
Dr Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, said torture is a "worldwide public health epidemic" and noted that his program has seen more than 600 people in the past year.

He told MSNBC in a May interview that scientists are doubtful torture - moral and legal questions notwithstanding - is a viable way of obtaining information.

"It's dubious at best whether these methods are effective," he said. "What I've heard over the years from the countless torture victims I've cared for is that they will say whatever they think the torturer wants to hear in order to stop the abuse.

"So the information you get is, I think, quite often not accurate. And this is in fact what we've been hearing from a number of individuals with years of experience in interrogation, that morality aside, it really isn't effective for useful information."

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