Torture 101

September 5, 2004

Nick Marinello
Phone: (504) 865-5714

By now, most Americans have seen the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The images of prisoners subjected to demeaning and sexually humiliating treatment are hard to look at.

tortureThe photos of their smiling guards are, in some ways, harder to take.

And according to her years of research on torture and those who torture, those guards may be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, says Martha Huggins, the Charles A. and Leo M. Favort Professor of Human Relations, who joined the faculty in the sociology department last January.

In a presentation at a forum on torture held in Washington, D.C., in late June, Huggins shared information she collected while researching her 2002 book, Violence Workers: Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities.

"Torture is systemic and not the work of a few 'bad apples,'" Huggins told the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which sponsored the forum to mark the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. "Such violence is persistent and widespread, supported by legal and ideological frameworks, incorporated into an official agency with its multiple and intersecting divisions of labor, nurtured and protected by secrecy and by absence of any official action against it."

In her paper, "Torture 101," Huggins outlines 10 conditions that lay "a foundation for statesanctioned torture," and suggests that these conditions have all been met in U.S.-run prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Huggins says that the model she has developed to predict torture focuses not on the "image of the kinds of people who are likely to torture, but on the political, social and cultural facilitating conditions that promote, encourage and excuse it." It's a model based not only on her scientific research, but on research done during the last 50 years, Huggins told Inside Tulane.

"Ever since World War II, psychologists have done research on people's obedience to authority and have shown how people behave in certain situations when they are the authority figure."

Huggins points to the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment in which normal college students were given roles as prisoners and guards. By the time the five-day experiment was over, the "guards," who were given complete authority, had employed increasingly degrading measures to humiliate the "prisoners," including stripping them, hooding them and ultimately forcing them to simulate sodomy. While the parallels between what happened in the Stanford experiment and photos from Abu Grahib are obvious, Huggins says the images may reveal something else.

"In my research I've talked to people in similar situations who have snapped pictures. They say you won't get in trouble for it because you have approval from above."

In her paper, Huggins asserts that those who facilitate the persons perpetrating the abuse are more important to systemic torture than the actual abusers. "Understanding that direct perpetrators' violent actions can only occur within a system that includes facilitators and their organizations, makes it clear that facilitators are even more essential to long-term stability and protection of the torture system than its more visible direct perpetrators."

According to Huggins, other conditions conducive to systemic torture include:

  • Avoiding the use of the word "torture" or mislabeling it as "softening up," "tough interrogation," or other euphemisms; 
  • Advancing ideologies of "national security," so that "good" nations are not restricted in interrogating "evil-doers;" 
  • Employing official executive-level decisions that make torture seem legitimate.

While Huggins believes all these conditions have existed in U.S. prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, she cites four factors that distinguish the United States from other "terror systems" she has studied: a free media, Congressional scrutiny, a relatively non-partisan judiciary and a strong culture of non-governmental organizations.

"Without these, or to the extent that any one is weakened, there will be more 'scandals' and more torture," she says.

Huggins, who will this fall be teaching seminars on Brazilian society and on "Marginality and the Other," will also co-teach a TIDES course on forensic investigation. Huggins had been at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., for 25 years before coming to Tulane. Her book, Violence Workers, won two scholarly prizes in 2003.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000