Ordinary Betrayals:
Conceptualizing Refugees who Have Been Tortured
In the Global Village

Darius Rejali
Associate Professor
(503) 771-1112 ext. 7346
(503) 777-7776 (fax)

Darius Rejali is the author of Torture and Modernity. He teaches political philosophy and comparative politics at Reed College.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Darius Rejali, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author at rejali@reed.edu.

Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, depend for their existence on a very active working of this force. Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of Satyagraha. Two brothers quarrel; one of them repents and reawakens the love that was lying dormant in him; the two again begin to live in peace; nobody takes note of this. But if two brothers, through the intervention of solicitors or some other reason take up arms or go to law- which is another form of the exhibition of brute force, -- their doings would be immediately noticed in the Press, they would be the talk of their neighbors, and would probably go down to history. What is true of families and communities is true of nations. There is no reason to believe that there is one law for families and another for nations. History, then, is a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Satyagraha, being natural, is not noted in history.

Mahatma Gandhi
Hind Swaraj

This paper is about efforts to understand refugees who are victims of torture and their plight. It does so by elaborating themes introduced in my book, Torture and Modernity: State, Society and Self in Modern Iran. One of the main arguments of this book was that torture is not an atavistic remainder from an archaic past. On the contrary, empirical evidence suggests that torture draws on and assembles practices constitutive of modernity and that it is characterized by a distinct rationalizing logic that sets it apart from economic or disciplinary rationality. In this paper, I elaborate what I believe constitutes at least one central feature of modern torture, what I call ordinary betrayals. With this background in place, I shall tease out assumptions that underlie international and national responses to refugees who have been tortured, assumptions about human agency, which in my view are deeply misguided. I shall argue then that neither international refugee services nor the nation-state is currently well-situated to address this kind of trauma to identity. My examples assume a certain detailed familiarity with modern torture, particularly from Iran, but I have tried to keep the technical elements down to a minimum. I believe the arguments I make here have a much broader application and occasionally I draw on examples from Bosnia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

I. Ordinary Vices, Ordinary Betrayals

Let me begin with a story. This morning, I reached for my brush and my hand grasped nothing but air. My brush was not there. Immediately a minor project was imperiled, and I wondered who took my brush: the dog? The cat? We rarely notice the substrata of our lives until something goes missing and we grasp air. I want to call events like this ordinary betrayals, and they have a very important place in understanding the kind of trauma torture produces and the forms of identity that emerge from this trauma.

Ordinary betrayals are not like the great betrayals (heresy in religion, treason in politics, let us call these the "Rushdie events") that characterize public life. Ordinary betrayals happen in our private lives and they are not often remarked upon. Yet they can cut deeper than we think. Recently my old alarm clock failed to buzz. This was bad enough because I woke up late and as a consequence my day was put into crisis. But there was more. This alarm clock happened to be the alarm clock I had used for some 22 years. One second of its awful buzz can be better than many cups of espresso. I associate this sound with college exams and airplane flights. What is more, this alarm clock was one of three items my mother bought for me when we first arrived from Iran in the United States. So when my alarm clock failed, I was effected on several registers: I was upset that my life had been put into chaos; I worried that I would not find a substitute noise as awful to which my body would respond, and I was saddened by the loss of a part of my past.

Ordinary life has a rhythm that is embodied in the way our bodies reach or hear sounds, things that are second nature to us. This embodied agency confers intelligibility to the experiences we have. Ordinarily we don't notice this embodied universe in which we live; we do notice it when the structures and rhythms are interrupted, that is, in the course of ordinary betrayals. When ordinary betrayals occur, when habits that are second nature cease to make sense of our world, we experience our finitude. I do not mean that we discover that our body is causally finite. It is true enough that I cannot walk through the wall before me, but that is not very interesting. It is rather that I cannot act or reach as I used to without wondering simultaneously who I am, what I am doing, where I am because each time I do so, my hand falls on thin air. We live in a world of concerned relatedness to objects around us and their first and primary relationship to us is not as neutral objects, but as thing that are part of our projects and goals, what we might call, our form of life. When these involvements are gone and when the things no longer lie at hand, we experience our finiteness in a far more profound sense than a simple causal one. The world becomes simply less intelligible.

What does this have to do with violence or torture? Often when we reflect upon torture, analysis focuses on the grand betrayals. Did he confess the names of his conspirators? Did she commit treason against the state? What I want to talk about in this paper are the ordinary betrayals that happen in the course of violence, when one reaches for something and finds that it is not at hand or that it has changed. The scale of these betrayals seems greater than the loss of my brush, but yet perhaps not as great one might think. For some people, this experience, where ordinary people behave in ways they never did, where ordinary places become nightmares, where ordinary things, like brushes, are used to do horrible things, when all this is going on, one is inclined to say it is a kind of madness. But that would only signal the fact that we have given up trying to make sense of our experiences. And in general, in the study of violence, we get no closer to understanding violence by saying how horrible it is. Rather, we get closer by comparing it to the ordinary, showing its similarities and differences.

Another way in which we are misled is when we inquire into the violence itself. We often get stuck on why the torture happened, when to my mind an equally important question is how the torture happened. In the study of civil war, or torture or mass rape, the whys are so many, it is often bewildering. "How" is a much more simple question to answer, and much more relevant to understanding the relationship between trauma and identity.

Let me illustrate the point. Why, for example, do governments torture? To find information maybe, but this does not happen as often as one might think. At times, it is to secure a public confession of a crime one never committed before the state media. Or it might be to send a message to sympathizers. Or it might be part of a military strategy to undercut sympathy for guerrillas and undercut your willingness to support them. Or it might be because the legal system puts a premium on confessions. Or simply because one was in the wrong place at the wrong time and irritated the wrong person . The "whys" of torture are overdetermined. But the way torture happens in a country, that often remains consistent despite changes in government or policy. It often has a logic, a set of standard operating procedures. It involves the same people and often produces the same effects. One could, I think, make the same point regarding mass rape. .

Governments torture for many reasons, neighbors rape and kill each other for many reasons, but it is the way that it is done that often leaves some of the deepest traces and the greatest impediments to healing. Let me list some of the ordinary betrayals. First, in many cases, you are being tortured by your neighbors, people with whom you have interacted daily for many years. Second, you are betrayed by ordinary professionals, by the doctor for example who attends to torture session and takes your pulse or the nurse who sticks the IV in after your torture session. Third, there is the role played by ordinary objects, not just dental drills and hypodermic needles, but the field telephone used to shock you or the music played while you were tortured. Fourth, there is the questioning itself, the bureaucratic solicitations for information, which are delivered in a calm reassured voice. Fifth, there are the bureaucratic professionals who attend the session, the secretary outside the colonel's office or the stenographer who writes out your profession of guilt. Sixth, there are the exercises that you are compelled to do or the machines to which you are strapped. Seventh, there are the forms of self-expression that are implicated, such as writing out your confession. And finally, there is the betrayal of the body itself, as you lose control over your bodily processes or when you find the pain unbearable. The most powerful example I know comes from Sri Lanka, where a tortured Tamil had his tongue repeatedly cut on both sides. He was never able to tell the full account of his torture, and he was left withdrawn and prone to periodic suicidal episodes.

Torture then gathers to itself accomplices, and these accomplices are not just other human beings, but ordinary things for which bodies reach and are familiar. They are the large kitchen rice paddles used to beat one in Sri Lanka, the kindergarten chairs to which Palestinians are tied for the Shabeh torture in Israel. They also include the things forensic pathologists working at gravesites refer to as the "Associated Objects," the clothing, crosses, toys and shoes that somehow found their way into the grave. Again it is often said that torture destroys communities, families, and identities, but less frequently that torture also destroys many other forms of relatedness, things like cooking, dancing, writing, or simply moving. These too constitute ordinary betrayals that follow from modern torture.

Why is torture characterized by ordinary betrayals? I think the point can be made quite plainly: torture itself is now ordinary and routinized cruelty in most parts of the world. There are to be sure many different ways in which torture is routinized, but all these modes of rationalization should not disguise the fact that torture is now assuming once again its traditional place within the apparatus of the state. In some countries, Israel for example, it is now explicitly legally acknowledged, and it is more likely that even more countries will now follow this example. It should be no surprise that a process that draws on so many practices (medicine, bureaucracy, anthropology) constitutive of modern life should also have such disruptive effects on substrata of so many lives.

II. Ordinary Consequences

I now want to spell out the implications of such ordinary betrayals for refugees of torture, many of which are now well known. Clinicians have been aware for some time now that there is one major type of therapy for refugees from torture that can produce major adverse psychiatric complications. This therapy, known as "flooding," exposes the refugee to high intensity real or imaginary events reminiscent of the original trauma.

Not surprisingly, there is in general a concern that the therapy for refugees from torture not inadvertently or indirectly create events or situations directly reminiscent of the original trauma. But this is more easily said than done. As Peters puts it:

One of the most striking difficulties recorded by therapists who have treated victims of torture is the extraordinary degree of tact that must be used in therapeutic situations that bear even a slight surface resemblance to the original circumstances of torture. Questioning of victims must not be intensive; methods of physical therapy and medical examination must not be used if these (e.g., swimming or traction therapy or EKG analysis) too strongly resemble the original methods of torture used. The temporary confinement in hospital quarters sometimes reminds patients involuntarily of their original confinement. Since torture victims' only previous contact with medical personnel may have been in the place of torture itself, the medical personnel involved in rehabilitation work under this further strain and further irregular aspect of their normal professional treatment of patients.

It would seem that so many things that we would think as signs of safety were just recently agents of a hostile group or state.

Above all, what is lost in the sequence of ordinary betrayals is one's context. It is not just that we have lost the life we once led, we have lost our life-world. Here I would like to quote the words of a survivor of violence. The quote is not from a refugee from torture, but nevertheless, it is helpful for its remarkable clarity of self-understanding:

Anyone trying to deal with the reality of crime, as opposed to the fantasies peddled to win elections, needs to understand the complex suffering of survivors of traumatic crimes and the suffering and turmoil of their families. I have impressive physical scars...a broad purple line from my breastbone to the top of my public bone, an X-shaped cut into my side where the chest tube entered...But the disruption of my psyche is more noticeable. For weeks, I awake each night agitated, drenched in perspiration. For two months, I was unable to write...Thought to all appearances normal, I feel at a long arm's remove from all the familiar sources of pleasure, comfort and anger that shaped my daily life...What psychologists call post-traumatic stress disorder is, among other things, a profoundly political state in which the world has gone wrong, in which you feel isolated from the broader community by the inarticulable extremity of experience...As a crime victim and a citizen, I want the reality of a safe community-- not a politician's fantasy land of restitution and revenge.

This survivor, Bruce Shapiro, complains here of two misleading strategies for dealing with violence, one in which the survivor is individualized and one in which the sufferer is communalized. In constituting the subject of violence in these ways, he believes, correctly, as I shall argue, that one is led to look for misleading things and to treat refugees from violence in misleading ways.

In what follows, I want to spell out three misleading strategies, two of which Shapiro has already mentioned. The third is the process by which the refugee from torture is universalized. This leads me to engage critically juridical and clinical psychological discourse, the project of the 'national' response to torture as healing; and finally, the limitations of international refugee services respectively. In each case, a particular understanding of refugees from torture drives the presence of ordinary betrayals into the background. And a critical purchase in each case is achieved by recognizing the engaged agency of such refugees and bringing it back to the foreground.

III. Individualizing Refugees from Torture

By "atomism," I mean the process by which refugees are removed from contexts and seen as complete cases in themselves. Atomism involves three interrelated processes: the atomism of informational inputs, where the individual is said to receive stimuli that uniquely belong to him; the atomism of meaning, where the pain one experiences is said to uniquely belong to her and inaccessible to others; and the atomism of self, where one is conceived monologically, as an individual in whom thought and cognition happen first in him and then only accidentally in others who share his thoughts.

There are many forces that drive atomism in the case of refugee services. Chief among these is the legal context in which refugees find themselves. Refugees applying for political asylum are confronted by judges who want to know what the state torturer did to the refugee that makes their pain or torture particularly exceptional and so deserving of political asylum. It follows that every refugee claimant must make an exceptional plea about the uniqueness of their pain quite apart from the general pain suffered by the community they come from. The upshot of refugee hearings often is, "you don't understand my individual pain."

As a result, the trauma of torture as a disruption of life-relationships fades into the background. This conclusion is reinforced by expert testimony which constantly underlines the individual's condition. The key clinical term used for accounting for what refugees from torture suffer is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a great improvement over its predecessor concept in clinical discourse, namely, shell-shock syndrome. PTSD allows experts to determine whether a refugee does or does not suffer from a certain nosology. But the very features that make PTSD such a valuable diagnostic and legal tool are factors also serve to atomize torture refugees and set them apart.

A similar sort of pressure towards atomism arises out of a typical human rights model pioneered by Amnesty International. This is the model which identifies unique cases of detainees who are held in captivity and tortured by some state. Descriptions of the detainee and his or her suffering or conditions of arrest are presented in the form of a particularly exceptional case around which public outrage is mobilized.

Lurking behind all of these juridical and clinical accounts is a model of what torture "is." Torture on this view happens between a torturer and a victim. Here the individual received certain stimuli, processed them alone, was released, and then arrived at the healing center. Within the model, there are only two rooms: the place in which the individual was tortured and the place where he or she now waits to be healed. There are also only two relevant relationships: the relationship of the refugee to the torturer and the relationship of patient to the therapist.

This account misses a great deal. It misses in the first place the fact that torture is not dyadic, that there is no such thing as "THE torturer." Empirical evidence suggests that torture is a difficult time-consuming mechanical process involving numerous torturers who rotate in and out. It is characterized, like every bureaucracy, by a division of labor. To speak of the torturer abstracts the fact that the torturers are all situated in an institution known as the State. It disguises a complex institutional and social relationship as a relationship between two individuals.

What is more, it misses the embeddedness of the kinds of things that constituted the stimuli, the ordinary relations torturers used to cause pain, what I have called the ordinary betrayals. The things that often constitute the most pain to refugees from torture is not the violence, but say, the removal of a veil from a woman or the removal of a turban from a Sikh. Torturers put thought into exactly what certain relations mean to their victims, and drawing from historical and anthropological understandings, how to turn these relations against them.

This account also misses the fact that the refugee has traveled thousands of miles from the torture room, through many spaces, to arrive at the healing room. The refugee has crossed borders, been held in camps and detention rooms, been crowded with others in uncomfortable machines, and so on. Torture in other words is embedded in a journey, a journey which has a beginning and an end, a journey in which one established relationships with things and people. And, as has been observed, the quality of this journey can mitigate or expand the effects of torture on refugees.

Finally this model does not capture the fact that a great deal of torture occurs not in the course of individual detention but in the course of massive population displacement, what is now referred to as ethnic cleansing. Torture in this context is experienced not as an individual trauma, but as the trauma of a whole community. (Meintjes, 1999; Lopez, 1999:4)

I am reminded here of the account of a psychologist who went to Bosnia related to me. He introduced himself to a group of Bosnians saying that he was aware that some had been tortured and he was available to counsel them. There was, he said, an extended period of silence. Then a very old woman got up and said, "We have fear in our bones." The simple observation had two facets. First, that for them, torture was not inscribed in their minds, but in their bodies. It was a somatic, not a psychological, condition. Second, that this somatic experience was experienced collectively, everyone had fear in their bones. In this way, he found his normal assumptions about PTSD as an individualized psychological experience profoundly challenged. He indicated that for the remainder of the time, he met the entire group at once and only he and the old woman talked. She was the voice through which the group as a whole conducted its therapy.

There are of course refugee centers in the West that treat refugees from torture for PTSD. But is not often appreciated that people who walk through those doors into the healing room are a narrow self-selected group. They are people who already see themselves as individuals who are troubled by a kind of mental weakness for which they seek treatment. In the case of Bosnian refugees, for example, it is estimated that professional psychologists see less than 10% of the relevant populations. Thus, when psychologists speak of refugees from torture as characterized by PTSD, their account suffers from a selection bias. It is undoubtedly true for the people they treat. But not so for many people such as the Bosnian group I just described. In cultures that emphasize collective solidarity and individual physical strength, appearing at a clinic such as this, as a mentally impaired individual, may not be even on the cultural map.

III. Communalizing Refugees from Torture

All of this speaks to what Shapiro has gestured to, to repeat in his words, "What psychologists call post-traumatic stress disorder is, among other things, a profoundly political state in which the world has gone wrong, in which you feel isolated from the broader community by the inarticulable extremity of experience." I am not comfortable with the word "community" here, although this is where the clinical discussion is going these days. While it is tempting to reject PTSD in favor of a rhetoric of "community therapy" and "communities of healing", there are I think also dangers in communalizing refugees from torture, dangers just as serious as those attending atomism.

In the Iranian revolution, no issue was given as high a prominence as the Shah's systematic torture of dissidents. If there was ever a revolution in which the abolition of torture was the number one issue, the Islamic Revolution was it. A whole community was mobilized to put an end to torture. The abolition of torture was even written into Article 38 of the new constitution of the Islamic Republic. But it is obvious now that such political fantasies of restitution and revenge do not leave a very deep mark on torture itself. As I have documented elsewhere, torture not only continued after the revolution along much the same lines as it had done under the Shah, but there is some evidence that it never ceased even during the height of the "spring of freedom."

An Iranian taxi driver after the revolution commented astutely that 'This time when we take Evin prison, we will destroy it." He correctly identified that the social processes that sustain and generate a complex practice of punishment as torture are not located in courts or parliaments but in humble, ordinary institutions such as prisons, hospitals, bureaucracies and factories. The taxi driver's comment reminds us that the struggle for democracy is not the same as the struggle against torture. It is all too easy to think that once we have democracy, the politicians will solve the torture problem. But police forces are not easily controlled by politicians as one might think. They are not because they stand in an asymmetrical relation to politicians: they control and determine what kind of information politicians can have and they often have allies in society who will defend and protect them against political criticism. For this reason torture can and does persist in democracies.

Post-colonial states develop a monopoly not just on legal violence, but on the interpretation and significance of the pre-colonial or pre-revolutionary violence. In the Middle East, whether we are talking about secular states like Turkey or Islamic ones like Iran, the consequences have been fatal. They have been fatal first for the ability to dissent from state policy, second, for the ability to draw attention to new kinds of violence, and third for the ability to be critical of the violence of the state itself which finds new vigor in representing the victims of torture collectively.

But it is not at all clear how such community victories play out for refugees from torture, even those who remain in the country and what satisfaction there is in being hallowed in such terms. Politicians mobilize victims of violence by appealing to explanations for why they have suffered the violence they have. They hold out the prospect that if the political cause is won, so too will the individual have fully recovered. They hold out the prospect of a political identity as a cure for the trauma of violence. And for victims this is sometimes very easy to believe and the cost can be easily hidden.

We can see this cost easily enough in the case of Sendero. Phillips who analyzes the case of rape by Peruvian troops reports that the leaders of Sendero argued that the only cure for rape is a political one, that women had to steel themselves for combat. Since torture is a political act by a State against an individual, healing itself must be a political act, that any kind of therapy besides this is a bourgeois indulgence.

"The treatment [for rape] is political," a woman Senderista told Amnesty International Research Robin Kirk, "because it's a political act. We explain to them [Senderista rape victims] why it happened and that it makes them stronger." Shining Path women are expected to suppress tears and feelings of vulnerability. Kirk says there have been cases of guerrillas who "went crazy, or stopped talking, or even committed suicide after being raped. There was woman who wouldn't talk, wouldn't eat--she just sat in a corner."

Sendero in this respect continues a line of thinking that stretches back to Fanon, who emphasized the therapeutic necessity of anti-colonial national violence in the Algerian struggle. Explain to them why it happened and this will make them stronger. It is very hard, looking now at the violence in Algeria today, to endorse this argument where the issue is not simply what it would take to restore democracy, as in Iran, but rather what it would take to restore ordinary relationships at all, what we might call "peace" in its most elemental form.

We might think the communalization of torture refugees is largely a problem of authoritarian states and organizations. But I have drawn this larger picture because this allows us to see some of the same issues at work in post-authoritarian democracies. In the early 1990s, there was a debate between Jose (Pepe) Zalaquett (a Chilean lawyer with close tied to Amnesty International) and Aryeh Neier (from Human Rights Watch) as to whether truth commissions really had the power to forgive. Neier insisted that only individuals have the power to forgive. "If Pepe hits me, I have a right to forgive him, but does everybody else in this room have the right to forgive him in my stead?" Zalaquett seemed to insist that such institutions were essential for a national healing. Individuals cannot forgive what they do not know, and through a public political process of witnessing truth commissions can help heal the nation. "The truth in itself is both reparation and prevention" says Zalaquett. And "the course of events facilitates a degree of popular forgiveness. The human rights policies emphasize normative and institutional reinforcements in order to prevent future abuses." The reasoning is not unlike that of Sendero: that since torture is a political act, the process by which it must be confronted must also be a political community based struggle. The Chilean Truth Commission, on which Zalaquett worked, "was not only a process of taking down testimony; it was also a healing process." To be sure, the means Zalaquett endorses is much milder and democratic than that of Sendero, but the principle remains the same.

Let me set aside the question as to whether any institution can really forgive on the scale they propose. The issue I want to consider is whether refugees from torture themselves are healed by such testimonials or whether they are being sacrificed at the altar of community, even if that does lead to community healing. For this, we must wait for the results of the work by Sonis, Orr, Koss, Hall and Pennebaker, who have undertaken an extensive study of people who have testified before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the past research in this area shows a mixed and uncertain empirical record suggesting that sometimes the effects can be good, but other times neutral or even poor. Prior research in this area include cases of child sexual abuse survivors who testify in court, adult rape survivors who testify in court; and people who testify in the course of communal therapy (or write about it). In all these cases, witnesses often had high short-term anxiety, but long term improvements in mental and physical health. While the impunity of the perpetrator apparently had no bearing on the health of the witnesses, multiple testimonials and cross-examination are clearly associated with adverse outcomes, particularly if they occur in a juridical or governmental context. In addition, the absence of people who one trusts in such contexts are also associated with adverse outcomes.

These results are consistent with I have already mentioned, namely, that techniques like flooding, by recreating the process of torture, can lead to re-traumatization of refugees. It does not take a great leap of imagination to understand that torture refugees could be especially susceptible to these forms of retraumatization even as they are subjectified as communal representatives of the authoritarian state's violence. This is because modern torture itself is characterized by the same kinds of interrogatory questioning as the juridical-bureaucratic context that is presented as the healing alternative. Indeed, Zalaquett himself has become much more sensitive to this. Zalaquett continues to believe that institutional testimony was in Chile "an important exercise in healing because each person who had previously been shunted away from official buildings was now received with dignity." But he emphasized in South Africa in 1994, that the success of the Chilean truth commission lay in part in the fact that the victims testified privately with no press coverage, not in the context of public hearings, and often they testified in their homes and regions. This was not the model subsequently adopted in South Africa which featured public hearings with heavy media coverage.

Latin Americans are often critical of North American and European Torture Rehabilitation Centers. They criticize the medical model that these centers adopt and emphasize the communal character of torture. As one Uruguayan therapists insists:

Torture is not a medical problem. It is in its very essence political, social, --- and rehabilitation from torture can occur only in a political and social context. The original point of the torture was to take various individuals who had been politically or socially active, on behalf of their various causes, in a particular location at a particular moment, and to gouge out their capacity for such activism: to leave them as if dead, unable any longer to aspire, let alone to act. The only true therapy for torture ought therefore to be revolution--- overthrowing the system that tired to expunge the capacity for activism on behalf of those ideals. Short of that, however, therapy must consist in helping the torture victim to reintegrate himself into the ongoing struggle-- nurturing his or her capacity for idealism once again, for activity as part of the larger group in which he or she was once a member. To focus exclusively on the former torture victim's status as a former torture victim only serves to perpetuate the legacy of isolation and separation that was the regime's intention in torturing the individual in the first place. My point is that the Uruguayan torture victim has more in common with other Uruguayans that he does with torture victims from other places, and he will be rehabilitated to the extent that he can be reintegrated into his own society. That involves a political or social model rather than a medical one.

While I have already argued that "individualizing" refugees from torture is fraught with danger, there is also a great deal that must be resisted in this Uruguayan account. For one thing, it is infused with a kind of hagiography of torture victims. The fact is that torture these days is more likely to hit ordinary criminals as political activists, but of course people rarely treat or consider their condition. What is more, such an account suggests that individuals were necessarily doing something, that the act for which they were tortured must necessarily have had a political import, in part because they were tortured. The idea that people were arrested and tortured simply for living their lives, that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, this does not enter into such hagiographic accounts. Asian activists are deeply suspicious of what they call "the Latin American stereotype." As one puts it:

Much of the literature on torture published in the 80s focused on evidence from Latin America which stereotyped the practice of torture as being primarily directed against individual political detainees during arrest and detention and the active participation of health professionals, particularly doctors.

In many areas of the world, not the least Asia, while apparently fewer prisoners are arrested on straightforward political charges, an obvious thrust of the State's strategy to quell opposition has been to employ violence more and more on a massive scale targeting communities and ethnic groups more than individual activists. Laws are enacted that allow the State to broaden its definition of "acts of terrorism" extending the list of vulnerable population to include ordinary citizens, women and children. In Asia, lootings, burnings, mass massacres, rape and torture are committed in the name of counteracting terrorism and "ethnic cleansing."

Finally, it is not at all clear from the Uruguayan proposal to communalize torture what is being proposed short of revolution, what is being invoked to restore idealism and community. But if the alternative being proposed is a communal political process, such as a trial or multiple testimony before a commission, then it is important to take a more careful look at what it is one is doing and precisely how one is doing it.

This is meant as a cautionary point. Politicians, revolutionaries and activists, invoking community desires for restitution, prey on the question "Why have you suffered torture?" Often the answer to such questions is greatly overdetermined and unilluminating: because I was poor, because I was alone, because I was a racial minority, a student, a person at the wrong place at the wrong time, or a petty criminal. But what is important in the end is not the "why," which is so buried in secret police files and the minds of dead officers, to be entirely obscure, but rather "how did I suffer torture?" This is not a question politicians like to ask, but it is as I have argued the beginning of an effort to make sense of what has happened to a refugee from torture. It is a question that draws in not just relations to a political community, but also to a series of things and activities that constituted the refugeeÕs life. It was these things that were drawn in, along with people, as accomplices in torture, and it is by restoring these elements to a life world that a refugee from torture can put the events behind one. If one wants to call this a "community" approach to healing, that's fine, as long as it is clear that such a "community" is not simply a political one and it is inhabited as much by objects and animals as humans.

IV. Universalizing Refugees from Torture

Refugees from torture are constituted as universal subjects. They fall under the Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other protocols that define torture as a violation of human rights. Torture, in the sense defined by the UDHR, is understood as an event that requires no context. It is a transnational concept. Indeed, discussion of context is explicitly ruled out because it can potentially furnish justification for the torture in the first place. Thus Article 2.2 of the UN Convention against Torture states that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Refugees from torture then are victims of particular governments, to be sure, but for purposes of providing them services and caring for their needs, what is important is that their universal rights have been violated, not where they are coming from. Discussion of context is largely beside the point faced with the enormity of the need. Refugees fall under the care of international organizations who provide them with services upon demand. Indeed it is when refugees from torture are first constituted as universal subject-victims that international organizations can "see" them and offer them help and protection.

A similar logic, it seems to me, drives refugee services at the national level. What moves people is a belief in equal opportunity. In the US and elsewhere, governments provide services regardless of what the political background of the refugee is. There is the belief that perhaps it is best not to inquire as to the political background that cause the refugee to flee in the first place. That would raise questions as to whether one is favoring one group as opposed to another. The main thing is to treat everyone equally and wait till a service is requested. Stephen Weine refers to this as "the waiting model" of service delivery to refugees from torture.

We are not always sensitive to the practical implications of constituting refugees of torture as universal juridical subjects who should have equal opportunities. Given what I have argued, I would suggest that not all refugees are equally capable of using the services provided to them. They may all have equal opportunity, but they may lack equal capacity. What limits their capacity in this respect can be many things, but chief among them, are the ordinary betrayals they have suffered. If I am right, then the chief task of restoring equal capability to refugees that have suffered traumatic violence is to restore to them elements of the world betrayed. And to do this means that we need to inquire how the violence happened. It does not mean that we need to ask what someone's politics was or why they took the side that they did. It does mean that we need to inquire what the moments of ordinary betrayal were and to find strategies of restoring to them the ordinary sources of pleasure, anger, and comfort, restoring the ordinary moments of life.

What this strategy requires at a theoretical level is a reversal of the terms in which we think about refugees and the states they flee from. In current thinking, what is universal about torture are its many victims and what is particular about torture are the states which tortured them. But this gets it all backwards. What is in fact universal about torture is the modern state, not the victim, -- for everywhere it is the process of state rationalization that drives modern torture producing the refugees that huddle in offices in other places. What is particular and cultural about torture is how the states conduct violence against particular populations, the techniques they employ, the process of gathering human and non-human accomplices, the ordinary betrayals that follow from this. What is above all particular and cultural about torture is the refugee of torture herself. We are much more inclined to resist this conclusion because the more ordinary way of thinking allows us to situate torture in other states. States that torture is in this sense perversions of true states, rogue states, traditional states, Islamic states, not-modern states. But given the ubiquity of torture in the twentieth century, this kind of argument is unsustainable.

V. The Ordinary is Small and Unseen

Let me close by identifying the policy prescriptions that follow from this critique. At the interpersonal level, there are important ways we can improve the help refugees from torture receive assistance. We need to think carefully about the role of doctors and nurses in the process of torture. They, not therapists, are the point of first contact, and the training they require includes understanding the somatology of torture. In collecting testimonies for reports and trials, multiple testimonies, particularly those mediated through bureaucratic processes, ought to be avoided. At the professional level, much of what I have identified is already a matter of critical discussion among concerned professionals. Amnesty International has changed its approach to advocacy. Rather than emphasizing an extraordinary case approach, it has moved to a model of prevention, that is, holding governments responsible for putting into place safeguards so torture does not happen. In addition there is a broader concern among non-profits for the condition of ordinary persons in prison. Further, psychologists are now asking what is meant by a community of healing, and what kind of empirical evidence would help us identify the particular utility of a community healing. And those working with refugees have emphasized the reversal of the terms of the international response to refugees from torture. As Courtland Robinson puts it, up until now, the international response to refugees has been "reactive, exile-oriented and refugee specific." What is now required are policies that are proactive, homeland oriented, and state specific.

At the conceptual level, torture itself is changing and it is not at all clear how professionals and advocates will be able to accommodate these changes yet. It is worth identifying some of these shifts and discussing their implications. One is the rise of private security forces and the increasing "privatization of torture" throughout the world. Another is the increasing role of police forces in torture, rather than paramilitary and military organizations. Lastly, and most importantly, police forces are becoming increasingly interested in forms of torture that leave no marks, and hence no story to tell. Such tortures are especially common in semi-democratic states where a press, left-wing politicians, and intellectuals are apt to denounce torture and increasingly in authoritarian states that are closely scrutinized by international human rights organizations. If one could put words to such processes, one might say this is a police captain's way of saying: "you see, this person claims to have been tortured, but in fact you see, there are no marks, you see them exactly as they always were."

Refugees from torture know that this is not so. They also know there is no way to go back to the life they once led, and I hope my discussion of ordinary betrayals is not taken as a naive appeal to restore to refugees from torture life as it once was in all its ordinariness. Rather, my goals has been to invoke the concept of the ordinary as a way of tracing phenomenologically the links between the nature of modern torture and the trauma of refugees from torture. The temptation to miss such links is simply overwhelming given the ways in which the characteristics ways we speak of refugees from torture, as individual, communal or universal subjects. Indeed, it is the hallmark of things ordinary that they are missed because the lie beneath the threshold of perception, that they cannot be seen, that they are not extraordinary.

Nor should this analysis be taken as a plea for a new kind of therapy for refugees from torture. The most one can draw from what I have said in that regard is simply a truth that most refugees from torture already know. When one has suffered from such an extreme condition, healing does not mean the effacement of the marks of the ordinary betrayals in one's life. That, of course, would be convenient for the perpetrators of the violence. For them, it is best to create as much doubt as possible about the torture that refugees from torture have suffered. They would like everyone, judges, human rights activists, newspapers readers, and even the refugee himself to suffer from Cartesian doubt, doubt about whether our pain was really extraordinary or whether we can really understand the other persons pain or whether or not it was a serious or real as we thought it was. A healing process that leaves no marks would be a form of forgetting.

For refugees from torture, healing does not come in this downward spiral staircase of doubt. Rather, healing follows from reconfiguring the marks, not as marks of ordinary betrayals, but as marks of remembrance. Wittgenstein correctly reminds us that it is a great fiction to think that no one can understand another's pain. The language of pain is not private, but rather calls out and requires witnessing. As Veena Das says, "we begin to think of pain as asking for acknowledgment and recognition; denial of the otherÕs pain is not about the failings of the intellect, but the failings of the spirit. In the register of the imaginary, the pain of the other not only asks for a home in language but also seeks a home in the body." The collective artistic endeavor of refugees from torture, such as the TAMOANCHAN art collective the Bay Area, are powerful precisely because they recognize this truth.

But such efforts to undo ordinary betrayals need not happen in such structured ways. I am reminded of another story from Bosnia, this from the village of Srbenica, the site of one of the greatest massacres of the war. There was a young Bosnian woman from this village who lost all her male relatives. Recently, under UN auspices, she returned to her village to see it again. It was a difficult journey both practically, because the village was on the Bosnian Serb side now, and psychologically. Upon her return, she encountered a fellow schoolmate, a Serb, who happened to be in the village on the same day quite by accident. Upon seeing her, he reached into his pocket and returned to her student identification card, which he had found lying among all the associated objects left in the rubble of her home. He had kept it on his person, preserving it throughout the war, and now returned it to her. And through this act between two persons, an ordinary betrayal was now transformed into a mark of remembrance.

Copyright (c) 2004 by Darius Rejali, all rights reserved. This text may be viewed, downloaded, redistributed or republished in any medium for the express and non-commercial purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, provided such use is in accord with Section 107 of the United States Copyright Act. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the publisher and/or author at rejali@reed.edu.