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Director's Note: Talking Torture

Saturday, January 14, 2017TOPICS: US-Mexico Border

The leaders of local NGOs in Baja California discuss human rights education
begin quoteRecognizing the reality of torture as terror is critically important to how we teach human rights and peacebuilding in the field.

Everard Meade, PhD is Director of the Trans-Border Institute

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky depicts a conversation between the sensitive and guileless Alyosha and his cunning older brother Ivan. Ivan asks Alyosha if he would allow for “one tiny creature…a little child” to be tortured to death, if it would produce the happiness of the great collective of humanity.  “‘No I would not consent,’ said Alyosha, softly.”

The playwright Ariel Dorfman and others point to Alyosha’s apparent hesitation, hanging on the adverb “softly.”  They see a principled, but tormented rejection of torture, and a generation of law professors have taught it this way.  But, this interpretation misses the broader context of the novel.  Ivan is cruel and manipulative, a bully who often offers false choices, not an oracle.

Rather than a principled rejection of torture that acknowledges some sacrifice of security or happiness, Dostoevsky shows us the false choice that often justifies torture.  It’s a nineteenth-century critique of the ticking-bomb scenario popularized in the twenty-first century by Jack Bauer on Fox’s 24 or the various fashion model/ninja spies on ABC’s Alias.  In the Post-911 environment, these cartoonish ticking-bomb scenarios offered simplified, sexed-up versions of the imminent threats used to justify very real torture perpetrated against suspects nabbed from the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq.    

In practice, torture is more about terror than information or security.  Survivors’ memoirs and careful academic studies of a diverse array of regimes of torture make this plain – whether we’re talking about the Area 2 police station in Chicago in the 1980s, the naval brig in dirty-war Argentina, Evin prison in Iran, the Soviet Gulag, or safe houses run by Mexican drug cartels – torture is primarily about imposing a kind of physical and psychological dominance upon subject peoples, and maintaining a sense of collective incrimination among the torturers, whether they are shadowy intelligence agents, occupying forces, corrupt cops, or drug cartels.

Recognizing the reality of torture as terror is critically important to how we teach human rights and peacebuilding in the field.  It should move us from heroic narratives of international human rights to a thicker description of how violence and tyranny work, the harm they create, and how to undo and prevent that harm from recurring.   

Despite all of the excellent studies of regimes of torture, genocide, and gross human rights violations, there’s still a tendency to present a heroic narrative of the postwar human rights revolution.  The universal prohibition of torture in the decades following World War II is a prime example. 

The legal history is certainly important.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976) paved the way for both individual cases, such as the landmark Ireland vs. UK (1977) decision in the European Court of Human Rights, and the gradual prohibition of torture in the national legislation of nearly every country in the world, culminating in the UN Convention Against Torture (1984).    

The problem is that in the very same period, torture proliferated like never before.  Much of Algerian journalist Henri Alleg’s famous 1958 account of torture at the hands of French forces in The Question, could have taken place in almost identical fashion in almost any late Cold War dictatorship or counterinsurgency campaign.  The script followed by more recent torture regimes is but an updated version.  The clandestine facilities, the euphemistic language, the participatory experience, the invocation of other regimes of terror (like the Nazis), sleep deprivation and psychological manipulation, threats to his family, drugging – the experience was totally generic and it had nothing to do with information or intelligence.  As Alleg put it, “You knew what was going to happen.” 

In Mexico, where we do most of our work, this kind of morbid familiarity is ubiquitous.  People know what it means to be levantado [taken] and tortured – whether it’s by police, the military, vigilantes, organized crime, or some combination thereof.  And it’s precisely the vagueness of who is doing the torturing and how it connects to the revelation of any specific information that makes this regime of torture representative of the broader modalities of power in contemporary Mexico, what makes it much more about terror than law enforcement. (*For more on this, check out The Taken, by TBI partner and Sinaloa journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas).

Mexico’s official human rights ombudsmen – the national and state human rights commissions – do a good job of collecting and investigating citizen complaints of torture, but they report almost exclusively on government actors, and their method is classic name-and-shame human rights reporting.  The problem isn’t just that they miss non-state actors, or that they lack the authority to impose meaningful punishments on violators.  The framing of torture as an overreach of government power in pursuit of law enforcement misses how and why most torture really happens. 

There are a lot of different directions one could take this critique – social trauma and memory, truth and reconciliation, restorative justice, the diffusion of power in the post-Cold War world, U.S. duplicity and blowback, etc. 

From a peacebuilding perspective, talking about torture as terror creates at least the possibility of new spaces for citizen participation. 

When we frame torture as an overreach of law enforcement, people think that maybe they can file a complaint or sign a petition if they’re particularly incensed. But absent some very strong civil society institutions, they’re not the real actors in the drama, and they know it. Human rights becomes a field for lawyers, and human rights reporting becomes a contest between large institutions, disarticulated from the daily struggles of living amidst chronic violence.

In Mexico, this framing of torture is a subset of the framing of the “drug war.”  After hearing that TBI was running a certificate program in applied peace education in Sinaloa, a reporter from a national news outlet asked me if we thought we could actually do any good  in “a place like that” – meaning a place firmly in the grip of drug traffickers and corrupt politicians.  I’ve heard the same thing from many quarters, often couched in broader narratives of corruption and imperialism. 

More to the point, critical peacebuilding tools like active accompaniment with victims, testimonial and truth telling, and restorative practices that heal victims and perpetrators are not mere palliatives, but rather than preconditions for larger social change.  Acknowledging victims and survivors at a personal level and documenting their cases, reaching out to perpetrators and learning why and how they did what they did, and creating safe spaces for the broader society of witnesses and bystanders to come to grips with what they’ve seen – these are processes that can begin at the micro level and they don’t require a bunch of specialized knowledge.  

Whatever happens over the next decade in Mexico, tens of thousands of people have participated in the violence of the drug war and practices of torture in particular, as victims, perpetrators, and witnesses of various kinds.  They are not going to disappear.  Unless and until there’s a reckoning with this reality, broader goals for peace, progress, and democracy will be mere illusions.

As for the United States, well, we’ve got our own pending conversation about torture, and like Mexico’s, it has little to do with intelligence or information.


Ev Meade
(619) 218-5946

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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