Torture and Truth

Is There Truth in Pain?

by Darius Rejali

The essay begins:

The general problem is one familiar to many scholars whose careful work founders on public resistance. The particular form that interests me concerns scholarly work on torture. Many scholars feel there is truth to be discovered in pain, and therefore torture reveals or extracts truths, at least sometimes. I’m interested in reflecting on this disposition.

Scholarly work in this area seems to break repeatedly on the rocks of what Aristotle calls endoxa, items of thought that might be based on empirical observations, perceptual evidence, or things that we might not call observations at all—such as propositions that strike people as true or commonly said or believed. For Aristotle, these include common dispositions like “the many are wiser than the few” or “the fewer are wiser than the many” or, as he discusses in the Rhetoric, the belief that “torture works.”

Some scholars also argue sincerely that torture “works,” and they make arguments in service of their political or moral views. These scholars don’t concern me here. They share in a community of reason, where their arguments and evidence can be evaluated. What interests me instead is how many people simply don’t care about these pro-torture arguments. They don’t cite the pro-torture scholars, nor do they pay them much attention. They already know that torture works to produce truth. They believe pain yields truth, and thus torture works. Maybe not always, but torture works sometimes, they say. Even people who oppose torture sometimes privately confess: I would have confessed the truth under torture even if you say it won’t work. Secretly, they feel that pain and discovering the truth are related.

I find this curious. So in 2008 I began to itemize the cultural elements that subtly, in their own way, support the belief that there is truth in pain. In this paper, I’m going to talk about four endoxa. For three of them, I can’t claim any originality; they are well known—all I do is link them to torture specifically. I will not endeavor to offer their genealogies—though I will gesture to their necessary components. The fourth, the story of Zahra and the saints, arises from my own research in the psychiatric files of torture victims.

In what follows, I speak of torture. For my purposes, I don’t think it matters whether we are talking about torture for confessions or information, or as a means of deterrence—in fact, the endoxa I identify cloud the distinction and merge them by various means. Likewise, I would argue that one reason the definition of torture is hazy and contested is because these endoxa blur the edges between what we do publicly and privately, between what is true of us and true of others, between torture and other ordinary activities. Continue reading …

In this essay Darius Rejali explores four ways in which we believe truth can be found in painful experiences, even among those people who doubt that torture “works.” These endoxa, or commonplace beliefs, tap into deep human anxieties—about manhood, the maintenance of a just world, the meaning of suffering, and the possibility of transcending injustice. As such, they make it difficult for people to hear arguments against torture, including coerced interrogation. The essay suggests alternative ways of engaging these beliefs while acknowledging the challenge of dislodging them.

DARIUS REJALI is Professor of Political Science at Reed College and the author of the award-winning book Torture and Democracy (2007). Interviewed widely, Rejali is an internationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation, and he has submitted testimony for Guantanamo- and Abu Ghraib-related cases.