Darius at Swarthmore. The Iranian revolution of 1979 taught him an important lesson. “Both sides have victims.”
As the Abu Ghraib scandal unfolded, the media descended on him: MSNBC, the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Baltimore Sun. On CNN, where he had understood he’d be alone with Aaron Brown, he found himself facing the formidable author and jurist Alan Dershowitz, who believes torture justified in a ticking-time-bomb situation. “I had to make a quick decision: stick to program or argue with him about his stuff,” Rejali recalls, now uncomfortably aware of just how green he was back then.
For his fiercely passionate belief that torture cannot be justified and should be abolished, Rejali soon found a mask for the world’s camera, one of cool and urbane detachment. The press buried him for months. “I was sick of it,” he recalls. He escaped to Tehran of all places, where, with the evidence he’d been waiting for, he wrote the final pages of Torture and Democracy.
“That was a big deal to me, writing in my great-grandmother’s room.”
The moderate President Khatami was gone now, and Ahmadinejad’s conservative presidency had begun: Rejali carefully tore up all his early drafts and papers. “I left Iran on my own, at 3:00 in the morning, on a snowy night. You could get arrested on the way to the airport and disappear. Dad always says that 98 percent of the time nothing’s going to happen, but that 2 percent of the time, when something happens, it’s really bad.”
Back in Portland, Rejali “undid” his home office. “We had this big ceremony, a sort of a cleansing ritual.” To make the transformation complete, he installed a George Steck grand piano.
When Torture and Democracy finally came out in 2007, contributing editor Scott Horton, interviewing Rejali for Harper’s Magazine, called the 849-page volume “magisterial.” It won the Human Rights Book of the Year Award from the American Political Science Association, the Raphael Lemkin Award from the Institute for the Study of Genocide, and snagged him a prestigious Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the Danish Center for International Studies and Human Rights.
Media buzz included the Washington Post, Al Jazeera with David Frost, Democracy Now, and the BBC. Interviewers invariably asked if torture ever worked, and Rejali patiently explained that both criminal confessions and military intelligence obtained under torture are false: people will say anything to make the torture stop.
Finally it wound down and he was able to get back to work. A $100,000 Carnegie grant supported research on his next book, Approaches to Violence (Princeton University Press, 2012).
For years now, I’ve been asking Rejali how he lives with the nightmare that is his subject. Recently, he suggested that I’ve got the question backwards: his vast interest in the world is what permits him to approach the material in the first place.
Among those pleasures that have refreshed and sustained him over the last 15 years were several trips to Burning Man; the support of his parents, with whom he has purchased an apartment on Spain’s Costa del Sol; a love of surfing on his new Robert August board; connections with scholars and surfers all over the world; and the enormous pride and satisfaction he takes in the achievements of his former students. Last year, when Joshua Phillips ’96 published None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, Rejali sent the good news widely to his huge email list.
But his best sense of achievement and source of peace with the awful implications of his research came out of left field.
Federal Public Defender Steve Sady was one of 13 Oregon lawyers who volunteered to defend prisoners held in extrajudicial detention at Guantánamo Bay. Sady had met Rejali at an orientation to Islamic culture, and when the lawyers returned from having met their new clients at Guantánamo, he called him for an opinion on the case of Abdul Rahim al Janko.
According to Amnesty International, al Janko had spent most of the past decade behind bars. He had been held by the Taliban for almost two years before being taken into U.S. custody at the air base in Kandahar in January 2002, and then transferred to Guantánamo.
What Sady wanted to confirm was his client’s contention that he had been tortured by the Taliban: if this were true, it would prove al Janko could not have been working for them. Rejali recalls telling Sady that the torture described was too indistinct, so Sady returned with specific information: “He was electrocuted in Kandahar Prison.”
Rejali said, “Well, that’s good, because it’s one of two places we know in Afghanistan where electric torture happened in the ’80s and ’90s.”
“He said he couldn’t see the instrument because he was blindfolded, but it made a certain kind of grinding noise.”
“Yeah, it’s the old Soviet-style magneto,” Rejali said with a nod. “That’s the only kind of machine of electric torture that makes that noise.”
“And they attached the wires to his toes.”
“You mean like this?” Rejali asked, and gave him a drawing of an Afghan prisoner being electrocuted by that same machine.
“Where did you get this?” Sady demanded.
“This was drawn by Hamid Karzai’s minister of health, who was a prisoner in Kandahar Prison a decade ago,” Rejali explained.
Step by step, Rejali was able to corroborate both the electric and the crippling falaka torture, where the soles of the feet are beaten until they swell and turn black.
Rejali was at the family home in Spain in the summer of 2009 when the federal judge ordered al Janko released. “I was walking into town and got the news on my iPhone, outside the Finnish bar that has free Wi-Fi. And I just sat down on a bench, and looked at the sky. It was just so amazing to think that my work, so impenetrable for all those years to so many, changed the life of this single person. The causal role I had played in events overwhelmed me. “
That next year, he spent four months researching in Denmark on his Fulbright, and then traveled for the rest of 2010. “Everywhere in Europe, I was encountering the new Islamophobia,” he reports. Now, for the first time in his life, he found himself viewed as “Muslim,” with all the edgy distrust that can imply.
Although Rejali was never an observant Muslim—never learned the prayers and never went to Friday mosque—he does relate to the central role of justice and mercy in Shi’ite thinking and theology.
And so, when he returned to Reed last fall, he offered a new course, Muslim as Enemy. “We look at three historical discourses about ‘enemy,’” Rejali explains. “Locke on how we calculate who is the enemy, Carl Schmitt on the existential threat that the enemy poses, and Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein, where we make our own enemy.
“And then we read Aristotle on friendship, and we think about whether or how we can reduce that hatred of the enemy. How we can make friends.”