Darius Rejali

Consider our 'forgetfulness' regarding the nature of electric stun technology. We all remember how badly Rodney King was beaten by the L.A. police but not how many times King was shocked nor the voltage he received. A mythical story of the origin and diffusion of electric torture is endlessly repeated in movies, cheap novels, and uncritical accusations. In the popular imagination, visible in movies like Lethal Weapon or Rambo, electric torture belongs to evil forces such as the Gestapo, cruel ex-Marines, the KGB, the Viet Cong, or Latin American Fascists. However, another story of electric stun technology manifests itself in grey patent documents. In these, accumulate the various devices created for the convenience of a democratic public: for the consumption of meat, for personal safety in the dark, and for airline safety. These devices are portable, discharge shock at the discretion of the user, and the shock does not normally kill. At the extreme is a range of 'acceptable' torture devices such as tasers and stun guns found in our everyday life.

The spread of electric torture is part and parcel of the spread of democratization. In an age where globalization is linked to abuse and exploitation and democratization is touted as the province of all that's right, it is striking to see that electric torture is more linked to the latter than to authoritarian regimes. It arises and spreads as police forces reinvent themselves in the face of democratization and international human rights scrutiny and as well-to-do democratic consumers increasingly fear for their security. Let me demonstrate this by sketching a lost history of a torture technology, investigating its invention and diffusion over the course of a century across the globe.

In 1888, Thomas Edison endorsed the use of the electric chair to a New York State commission investigating alternatives modes of capital punishment. In 1890, New York electrocuted William Kemmler after the Supreme Court had rejected his plea for a different mode of execution, determining that electrocution was not cruel and unusual punishment. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that shining bright lights into the eyes of a suspect during interrogation constituted torture, thereby outlawing a practice common since the 1920s. Today, many are still concerned about whether electricity can truly kill painlessly and under what conditions the use of electricity might be considered torture. But what is important for my purposes is that at the dawn of the age of mass electrification, electricity was given a legal place in law enforcement, and this was portentous.

Although the U.S. is the only country that uses electricity to kill, it is one of dozens that uses electric stun technology in the course of arrest, interrogation or incarceration. The electric chair is not the source, however, of stun technology. Executioners ask what constitutes sufficient electrical discharge to kill someone instantly while electric stun technology reverses this question: what is the maximal amount of shock and pain that can be delivered to stun the victim without causing death? Stun technology, used in torture, has specific requirements. The torturer's electric device has to be flexible, delivering electricity to the body at different points, and ideally, also portable. It applies shock directly to the prisoner, regulating the charge as needed, and allowing the torturer to trigger each level of shock at his discretion. Two devices, both in use in the1930s, had these characteristics: the Argentine picana electrica and the Italian invention of the Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) device.[1]

The ECT device was invented in the early 1930s by Drs. Cerletti and Bini, two Italian psychologists who worked with schizophrenics. It consisted of a voltmeter and a device for fractionating the electric charge into tenths of seconds. The shock carried was approximately the power needed to power a light bulb, 100-150 volts. The charge was delivered to the head. Today, there are six types of ECT devices that deliver between 109 and 135 volts.

However, ECT devices are not the ancestors of electric stun devices. The shock they deliver is actually too meager; modern electric stun guns deliver between 50,000-200,000 volts. The importance of ECT lies elsewhere. Unlike American electrocutioners, Cerletti wanted his patients to survive. Having killed a few dogs by experimentation, he was hesitant to use human models. In 1937, Cerletti's doubts vanished when he discovered that Roman slaughterhouses used electrocution to slaughter pigs. Experimenting in the slaughterhouses, Cerletti discovered that pigs could be shocked several times and would revive after a few minutes. Thus reassured, he applied ECT to schizophrenics. Cerletti's monograph was circulated in 1940 and by 1948, two English surgeons had developed the Page-Russell technique of applying powerful multiple shocks. By 1978, 100-200,000 patients, it is estimated, were treated annually in hospitals and asylums. Cerletti and Bini had shown that humans could survive powerful multiple shocks.

The torture and "treatments" of the insane as also such application to animals in abattoirs, ranches and the like are critical to any historical consideration of human torture. Neither the development of the ECT machine nor the picana were conceivable outside the enormous growing mass consumption of meat driven by the greater purchasing power of consumers. The patent record also shows the interpolation of animal and human stun technology: a new kind of cattleprod was used as the basis for a new kind of stun gun, a new kind of stun gun handle was then reused for a better stockprod. The same patent string included prods, grips, canes, flashlights, forks, guns and batons.

The Argentine picana electrica had humble origins.[2] In 1902, Boekelman had published papers on the electric stunning of animals for slaughter and its effects on the quality of the meat. By 1929, Weinberger and Muller developed a stun device for pig slaughterhouses at the University of Munich. In Argentina, the picana electrica replaced the barbed picana. In 1932, it entered into police work in Buenos Aires and little has changed in its usage since that time. Victims are strapped to a wooden table and wetted down to aid the current. The prod operator applies the wand to sensitive parts of the body (head, temples, mouth, genitalia, breasts) while the machine operator works the bobbin, raising and reducing voltage. The victim often bites on rubber or lead to make sure that the tongue is not bit off during the shocks. Usually, a doctor is present to make sure that the victim has no heart problems and can survive the interrogation. Other accounts indicate a doctor keeps tabs on the pulse of the victim during the interrogation.

The electrical picana operates on direct current but it can be plugged into the wall socket of the victim's home with the aid of a transformer. It is transported in a suitcase and usually powered by an automobile battery. The sleeve is insulated and the bronze or copper tip applied to the body. The voltage of the first picanas varied between 12000 and 16000 volts with a thousandth of an ampere. This voltage is modest by comparison to modern tasers, but it is the low amperage that allows the repeated use of shock without killing the victim.

The picana electrica combines portability, flexibility and low amperage. It is also cheap. In this sense, it qualifies as the first electric stun technology although as an invention, it never found a market. There is no evidence that the picana electrica was used in any police force outside of Argentina until the 1970s when police in Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay also adopted it. But that is where the diffusion of this innovation stops. Oddly, the Chilean police under Pinochet, no strangers to electric torture, did not use the picana during the 1970s. In fact, between 1930 and 1960, no device similar to the picana was used for electric torture. This does not imply the absence of electric torture, merely that other devices and innovations were involved.

The same cannot be said for Cerletti's device which was very rapidly pressed into political service. The CIA expressed considerable interest in ECT devices. During World War II, a chief CIA psychologist advised John Foster Dulles that "each surviving German over the age of twelve should receive a short course of electroshock treatment to burn out any remaining vestige of Nazism." The CIA deliberated over the use of ECT for interrogation in the early 1950s. It funded the work of Dr. Cameron in Montreal who used electroshock therapy to see if he could reprogram his patients. Similar reports come from Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, where ECT devices were applied, without anesthesia, to prisoners.

Yet, despite their diffusion, the use of ECT machines in police torture remains quite rare. While there is some anecdotal evidence from Morocco, Vietnam and Afghanistan in the 1960s, in general ECT machines are not the devices of choice for electric torture. The machines don't deliver the necessary voltage and they are expensive.

So, while the picana electrica was truly innovative, its usage did not spread, and while the ECT device was widely employed, it was not used in police interrogations. It is in a context where electric stun technology like the picana is used in police interrogation, where police in vastly different countries can learn enough to adopt this technology, that the source of electric human torture can be found.

This context was French colonialism between 1945 and 1960 and the device in question was called a magneto or dynamo. It was a handcranked device that generated an electric charge. Dynamos are essential where electric outlets are not available. In the early twentieth century, they were used to trigger cars and field telephones. In 1949, a French journalist identified a magneto in a police office in Saigon that was introduced to him as a means of interrogating criminals. In Algeria in the 1950s, cars and field telephones were wired for electric torture. Two electric leads are connected to the dynamo and their bare ends applied like hot needles to the most sensitive parts of the body. Alternatively two wires are wound around each ear or one around each ankle or one around a finger and the other around the penis. In 1961, prisoners in Poulo Condor, the main political prison in Vietnam, report extensive torture and fatalities due to electric torture. And in the early 1960s, electric torture was being applied to FLN supporters in Paris.

Why was electric torture first used so broadly and systematically in Algeria and Vietnam and why did it spread so rapidly after that? Prior to the 1940s, many police forces used third degree methods and torture to interrogate prisoners. Since the dynamo and magneto, the car battery and field telephone, were already available by World War I, why was electric torture not used more frequently? The reason lies in the quasi-democratic context in which the Algerian and Vietnamese conflicts developed. Torturers favor electric torture because it leaves no marks other than small burns that, one can allege, were simply self-inflicted. Such a technique was simply unnecessary for police forces that were not held accountable or in war contexts where it didn't matter or where there were no courts or journalists to investigate the tortures. This is why we can find no record of Gestapo officers using electric torture for interrogation in Europe, although torture they undoubtedly did. Even among Gestapo allies, only one small group of collaborators in Paris, experimented with electric torture. It also explains why we find few references to electric torture in the Soviet bloc.[3]

In Algeria, it was otherwise.[4] There were courts, journalists, human rights activists, left wing politicians, and theoretically, democracy. In fact, in 1955, the French government was obliged to send Wuillaume, a senior civil servant unconnected to the police, to Algeria to investigate the many allegations of torture. In his notorious report, he concluded that torture, especially electric torture, was widely practiced. Wuillaume argued that since the use of such devices was inevitable and so prevalent, torture so effective, and the danger real, torture should be legalized and administered professionally. Though the report was condemned, the technology lived on and the French colonial police and army became the first disseminators of electric torture by dynamo worldwide. The methods they developed continued long after the last French soldier had left Vietnam and Algeria. U.S. Marines sent to Vietnam stated repeatedly and independently that they were trained to use field telephones for interrogation in Camp Pendleton in the 1960s. The technique they learned was the French technique: "take a field telephone, the TP 3-12, and put the connecting wire to it, then take the other end of the wire and attach it to a person's testicles and crank it -- this causes a high-voltage shock, there is no amperage behind it, just voltage, but it is extremely painful." By the late 1960s, virtually all police forces that used electric torture in interrogation were either former French colonies or had received extensive American training. The devices and methods remained the same until the 1980s.

Electric torture has no market in authoritarian states because there are no courts, activists, or politicians to which the police must answer for their violence. This is why the picana though developed and used in Argentina since the early twentieth century, languished there until the 1970s when growing international human rights scrutiny motivated policemen to adopt the picana for torture in Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. This is also why in an era of democratization, electric stun technology spreads so rapidly. Wherever we find electric stun technology, we find situations where police and military violence has been subjected to international and national democratic scrutiny. This technology is valued because it cannot be traced and perpetrators can easily deny it ever happened.

Electric stun technology does have other appeals besides its invisibility to public scrutiny. In democratic societies, the development of stun technology was advanced by many other concerns including an effort to find non-lethal forms of crowd control, concern for terrorism, and a growing sense of urban insecurity. The trail left behind in the U.S. Patent Office is especially revealing, as the micro-developers of electric stun technology appealed to these various concerns to market their innovations.

In the U.S., inventors had been patenting electric cattleprods from the beginning of the century.[5] Between 1900 and 1950, inventors made cattleprods lighter, more flexible to assemble, easier to handle, and attached accessories, such as flashlights, to facilitate early morning roundups of cattle. In the 1940s, ten years after the Argentineans, the Americans also hit upon the idea of portable electric cattleprods. By the 1950s, the same devices were being patented but now they were characterized as non-lethal weapons. The first taser design (1952) was proposed for commando operations, to replace loud explosive gun fire. Domestic uses were also proposed such as an "Electrified Stick for Postman" (1964) or "Combined Policeman's Club and Restraining Device" (1960). From the early 60s onwards, these devices were characterized as improved law enforcement batons or crowd control sticks. They were mounted as accessories on teargas firearms to prevent rioters from wresting them from police. By the 1970s, however, inventors were marketing their devices as weapons against muggers. Devices were characterized as non-lethal self-defense devices or multiple purpose defense batons. They were mounted on flashlights, walkmans, key chains and umbrellas. In the 1990s, they were again recharacterized for a new class of persons -- not rioters or muggers but prisoners – as "electric restraint weapons."

The patent record is confirmed by various secondary sources. Southern police were armed with electric stock prods in the 1950s and used these extensively during struggles with civil rights activists. A famous New York Times front page identifies Alabamian police charging demonstrators with electric batons but remarkably, none of the major historical studies of the civil rights movement speak of these weapons. In the 1960s and 1970s, government commissions proposed more effective means of riot control, including electric stun batons. But the use of such weapons became unacceptable as people began making the connection between the batons and electric cattleprods. In the 1970s, electric stun technology took the shape of stun guns and tasers, proposed as ways of demobilizing terrorists. They were particularly touted for airline safety since the guns could puncture the plane's shell while tasers could immobilize terrorists at a distance.

Not surprisingly, the use of electric stun technology use also grew outside the law. In 1988, Britain outlawed the manufacture, sale and use of electric shock batons because of their use in bank robberies to immobilize people. In the U.S. today, only police officers may use gunpowder powered electric tasers while in Britain, the use of the "Rambo," a baton that delivers 150,000 volts, is limited to individuals with special "Section 5" licenses. However, both airpowered tasers and stun guns are marketed widely in the U.S. to this day as personal protection. In the 1980s, electric stun technology moved off shore. At the same time as the first Taiwanese patents were filed in the United States, electric stun technology appeared in Chinese labor camps as far away as Tibet. Today, electric stun technology is an international industry.[6]

At the outset, I outlined two stories of electric torture. The first story, what I call the humanist story, finds the origin of electric torture in a moment of unreason and evil, and sees its subsequent distribution as a matter of accident and self-interest. The second story, which I shall call the naturalized story, finds the origin of electric torture in reason, and sees the development of tasers and stun guns as part of the inevitable march of technology. Neither is true, but notice how this 'dual origin' myth of electric torture allows ordinary people, on the one hand, to condemn the diffusion of electric torture instruments and on the other hand, to tolerate its everyday use in their communities. For what is especially important is that whenever a device is recast from one story into another, this has the effect of delegitimizing or relegitimizing its use. And each recasting of the narrative allows one to forget the ubiquity of electric torture in our daily lives.

Electric torture is harnessed to history and technology, self-interest and reason, accident and necessity, nature and society, and the two narratives that seem so manifestly separate, are in fact deeply interlinked. The democratic sense of public safety, the torture of animals or the use of stun guns in China are not, in fact, parts of different disciplinary inquiries and histories. In fact, by keeping these inquiries separate, we offer only partial prescriptions in the struggle against torture. If we hope to put an end to electric torture, we must do more than simply put an end to sales to authoritarian states. We must confront the violence in our own societies and our profound sense of insecurity that creates and sustains a market for such technology. Electric torture tells us more about our civilization that we would sometimes like to know.

Darius Rejali teaches political philosophy and comparative politics at Reed College. He is the author of Torture and Modernity (Westview, 1994). He is currently writing a book on democracy and modern torture.

[1] On the ECT, see Ugo Cerletti, "Old and New Information About Electroshock," The American Journal of Psychiatry 107 (1955): 87-94.

[2] On the picana electrica, see Roberto Estrella, Tortura (Tucuman: Ediciones "Dos-Ve, 1955); Raul Lamas, Los Torturadores (Buenos Aires: Editorial Lamas, 1956); Ricardo Molas, Historia de la Tortura (Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1984.)

[3] On the Gestapo and Soviet practice, see Jacques Delarue, History of the Gestapo (London: McDonald 1964); Harvey Fireside, Soviet Psychoprisons (New York; Norton, 1979); Marcel Hasquenoph, La Gestapo en France (Paris: de Vecchi Pochre, 1987); Ingo Muller, Hitler's Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991);

[4] On Algeria and French colonialism, see Jean Luc Einaudi, La Ferme Ameziane (Paris: L'Editions L'Harmattan, 1991); Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace (New York: Viking Press, 1977); Pierre Vidal Naquet, Torture (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963);

[5] On the U.S., see Mark Lane, Conversations with Americans (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970); John Marks, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (New York: Times Books, 1979); Gordon Thomas, Journey Into Madness (New York: Bantam, 1989.)

[6] On international use today, see Amnesty International, Arming the Torturers (March 1977); SIPRI, Anti-Personnel Weapons (London: Taylor and Francis, 1978)