"Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People" by John Conroy

Why do torturers torture? An author goes in search of answers.


Patricia Kean
March 15, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Jim Auld was a 20-year-old unemployed dental hygienist living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, when he was picked up by the British army in 1971 and subjected to a combination of tortures known as "The Five Techniques." A hood was placed over his head, he was deprived of food and sleep and was made to stand spread-eagle against a wall for days on end while white noise buzzed all around him. In the midst of his ordeal, Auld asked the question that haunts John Conroy's "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People": "How can anybody do this to another human being?"

Though Conroy pulls off the feat of writing a book that brings torture victims' suffering to life without being too painful to read, his answer is disappointingly familiar: Torturers torture because they can, he reports, and because they think they must. Ultimately, despite an exhaustive survey of torture's long history and its underlying psychology, as well as a close look at three occasions on which it was used, what Conroy leaves out of his book overshadows what he squeezes in.

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Torture is the perfect crime, Conroy asserts, because in most cases "only the victims pay." The British government, for example, was forced to admit that it used the "Five Techniques," yet, in a stunning display of linguistic abuse, denied that these actions constituted torture. None of the perpetrators was ever identified or prosecuted.

Next, Conroy turns his attention to the actions of some Israeli soldiers in 1988, when the intifada was in its infancy. Acting on orders they were reluctant to carry out but nevertheless obeyed, the soldiers rounded up a group of unarmed Palestinians, transported them to a field and beat them bloody. Only one of the soldiers was "punished." (Stripped of his rank, this colonel left the army, started his own security firm and is now a very wealthy man.)

Finally, in his own city of Chicago, Conroy follows the long and winding court case filed by Andrew Wilson, a man who killed two policemen in 1982 and was then beaten and tortured with electric shocks by enraged detectives. Again, the torturers received only the mildest of reprimands, and there was little public outcry. "I found I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably in another country," Conroy concludes.

How true -- and yet in the cases of both the British and the Israelis, Conroy himself commits sins of omission by examining the cruelties of just one side of a protracted struggle. The fact that "the enemy" was also engaging in torture doesn't excuse the horrors depicted here. But by ignoring the cruelties of the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinians, and thereby making the British and Israelis villains by default, the author becomes guilty of the selective blindness he decries in others.

After all, the IRA has always been very good at killing and maiming the innocent. It was Irish terrorists who perfected the art of "kneecapping," shooting victims in the knees so that they would never walk again. The Palestinians, too, have a long history of relying on terrorism and other morally indefensible measures to further their cause. What were the people who carried out these orders thinking? Their crimes are mentioned only in passing. Though Conroy takes pains to depict the Israeli soldiers sympathetically, he also uses them to prop up his not terribly original thesis that torture is often the handiwork of "people like us."

Recent history is also a casualty. Though torture continues unabated, in this book, time grinds to a halt somewhere in the early '90s -- the date of Conroy's most current interviews. Of course, a book cannot aspire to the immediacy of daily journalism. But one story in particular cries out for at least some analysis. The case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant tortured and sodomized by Brooklyn detectives in 1997, shocked New York and aroused a storm of protest that led one police officer to turn in fellow cops -- exactly the opposite result of the Chicago case recounted here.

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Throughout "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People," morality is at war with psychology, and the result is a stalemate. On one hand, Conroy eloquently condemns torture and society's general willingness to look the other way. On the other, he summarizes a host of studies, most of them familiar to anyone who has ever glanced at a psychology textbook, to explain why torture persists and why it is so easy to ignore. Simply put, when faced with the gentlest of pressures from an authority figure, most people tend to follow orders first and ask moral questions later.

Forty years ago, Hannah Arendt (whose name, oddly enough, is barely mentioned here) attended the trial of Karl Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and recognized the banality of evil. Sadly, not much has changed. But Conroy, who is surprised to learn that men who have done terrible things do not usually appear to be terrible men, doesn't seem to have heard the news.


Patricia Kean

Patricia Keans has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lingua Franca and other publications.

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