Force Majeure

Photo by Matt D'Annunzio

Reed professor Darius Rejali is a leading authority on why states and police use torture—even though it doesn’t work.

By Martha Gies

Professor Darius Rejali still remembers the headline that changed the course of his work. It was December 26, 2002, and he had gone walking in Fairfax, Virginia, with his father, who wanted to buy a lottery ticket. On their way to a grocery store, Rejali noticed a front-page story blaring from the Washington Post newspaper box: “U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations.”

He unleashed a sturdy Anglo-Saxon verb, alarming his genteel father, who asked what was wrong.

“I will have to write Torture and Democracy all over again,” Rejali complained.

For years, Rejali [political science 1989–] had been working on a huge study of the history of torture, developing his theory of how it was the democracies—principally France and England—who “advanced” torture by developing techniques that left no mark on the body. Princeton University Press had already bought the book and the manuscript was near completion. Now it would have to end, not with British and French colonialism, but with American torture after 9/11. He knew his publisher would insist. “And what was worse,” he says today, “I would have to wait till we had a public torture crisis so that I had all the information.”

He didn’t have to wait long. In April 2004, 60 Minutes II broke an obscene story of U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib. Photos of the captives—naked, bruised, hooded, sexually abused, and set upon by dogs—were emailed around the globe, horrifying millions.

Rejali shared the disgust but not the surprise. He knew that the final pieces of evidence he’d waited for would quickly become available. He also knew that the scandal would catapult his book from the relative obscurity of Princeton’s backlist onto the desks of scholars and journalists around the world.

This was not the first time Rejali found himself in the crosshairs of history. Twenty-five years earlier, his life had been turned upside down by tumultuous events in the Middle East—events that, like Abu Ghraib, showed the dark side of democracy.

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Rejali was born in Tehran in 1959. His father, David Rejali, came from a traditional family that prayed three times a day and observed the Shia holidays. Now 83, the elder Rejali dates his own loss of religious practice to the 11 years he spent studying in the United States. Shortly before he returned home with a doctorate in chemistry from Temple University, he met a young American woman at an International House dance. The relationship between this handsome, gentle Iranian and the brilliant, independent graduate student quickly grew serious, but David hesitated. “Iran is a third world country,” he demurred. “Look,” Sallie told him, “I traveled in the highlands of Peru. I don’t think there’s anything you can tell me about a backwards third world country.”

Though Iran could be tough on American brides, Sallie fit in easily: she picked up the language and charmed her new family.

“Farsi’s easy to learn,” Sallie, now 76, comments dismissively. “People just see it as difficult because of the alphabet.”

The first of their three children, Rejali grew up speaking Farsi until he was six, when he was enrolled at the Community School (formerly Presbyterian Mission School), where classes were taught in English. Exposed to people from all over the world, his considers this his first immersion in the cosmopolitan life.

Rejali has incandescent memories of childhood: of the annual Islamic holiday feasts at his grandfather’s house, where the poor arrived with their dishes and were invited to scoop food out of giant pots in the garden, and the rich—men, of course—sat on wooden beds stacked with Persian carpets and smoked hookahs; of the coronation of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, televised from Sadabad palace in 1967, and especially that moment when Farah Diba kneeled before him and the Shah placed the tiara on his wife’s head; of going with his family at age 12 to the Iran-American Cultural Society to see a chunk of the moon, an iconic souvenir of the Apollo spaceflight; and of summer holidays in the Caspian, amidst orange trees and rice paddies, where the family had built a little villa, so close to the border of the Soviet Union that he could hear Russian broadcasts on the radio.

Rejali left home in 1977 to go to Swarthmore. As it turned out, he would never live in Iran again. In the middle of his sophomore year, alarmed about the political situation in Tehran, he made a long-distance phone call to his family. “And my mother was, ‘Everything’s fine! Don’t worry, just carry on!’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’”

Two and a half months later, his parents called from London. The trip was purely coincidental: his parents, both of whom taught at Pars College, had gone abroad for a brief stay, and that weekend armed fighting broke out between Ayatollah Khomeini’s rebel troops and troops loyal to the Shah. Khomeini’s victory represented the first religiously led revolution in the Middle East and the emergence of political Islam. Instead of returning to Iran, David and Sallie Rejali came to Virginia, where they bought a second home.

While the revolution didn’t change his life at Swarthmore, Rejali points out, “It taught me a very important lesson, which I’ve never forgotten: American students, in these political crises, try to be on the side of the just. But what they forget is that both sides have victims.”