Thirty years ago, in March 1991, Stanley Cohen and Daphna Golan published an important report for B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.  The report had as title The Interrogation of Palestinians During the Intifada: Il-treatment, “Moderate Physical Pressure” or Torture?  In this brief post I will try to explain why I think this report still deserves to be read widely today (the report is available here).

The report dealt with torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners during the Intifada. Abuse was found to be widespread and routine. Stanley Cohen and Daphna Golan documented 41 cases and gave detailed descriptions of eleven interrogation techniques. For some of these techniques drawings were included in the report.  Below you can see two of these drawings: “the closet” and “tying-up / al-shabah” (you can also consult these at page 60 and 63 of the report). 

Why these drawings? This was a deliberate choice. As Cohen explained later that year in an essay for Tikkun: ‘We wanted to undermine the function of political language (“moderate physical pressure”) that Orwell pointed to: “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them”’ (Cohen referred here to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay on ‘Politics and the English Language’, which you can consult here).  

The phrase “moderate physical pressure” in this quote was used some years earlier in a report of the so-called “Landau Commission” which had looked into interrogation practices of the security services. In its 1987 report the Commission argued that a certain degree of physical pressure might be necessary to interrogate efficiently. ‘The means of pressure should principally take the form of non-violent psychological pressure through a vigorous and extensive interrogation, with the use of stratagems, including acts of deception. However, when these do not attain their purpose, the exertion of a moderate measure of physical pressure cannot be avoided’ (p. 80).

The Commission’s phrase “a moderate measure of physical pressure” proved to be utterly controversial. For Cohen and Golan ‘…the Commission ended up legitimating the use of torture under another name’ (p. 25).  This explains why the pictures of the interrogation techniques were included in the report: they were meant to literally show the grim reality behind the euphemistic phraseology of the “Landau Commission”. As Cohen and Golan clarified: ‘The phrase “moderate physical pressure” becomes a completely non-pictorial euphemism which allows no visualization of what actually happens during interrogation’ (p. 24).

Did Cohen and Golan succeed? Did including these drawings in the report help avoid turning a blind eye on the abuse?  Probably not. In a follow-up report, published in March 1992 (you can read this follow-up report here), Cohen and Golan reflected as follows on how their 1991 report was received: ‘What has become apparent over the past year, is that no official source even bothers anymore to deny existence of the illegal methods of interrogation that B’Tselem (and other organizations) have consistently reported. Investigations are set up, debates are held in the Knesset, editorials are published in newspapers, individual letters of complaints are (more or less) answered. But the same methods continue (p. 61).

Human rights violations tend to become the object of “a struggle to define reality” or an “epistemological politics”. As Cohen explained in his essay for Tikkun: ‘On the one side, there are the forces to whom torture is real, to be denounced, to be abolished: the victim, international prohibitions and laws, human-rights organizations. On the other, there is the organized power of the state, denying that “it” happens, calling it something else, or justifying it as necessary, or even as something that serves a higher moral good. A history of torture is a history of talking about torture’ (p. 23).

What lessons can we draw from the 1991 report and how it was received? For Cohen it proved to be a point of departure for further reflection and research. As he commented a few years later in Denial and Acknowledgement: The impact of information about human rights violations (1995), a report on how human rights organizations turn raw events into “social problems”: ‘There is a paradox in the heart of the human rights movement: we believe that if people “only knew” what was happening they would do something, but we have learnt that just letting know is not enough’ (p. iv). Exploring that gap between denial and acknowledgement moved to the center of his research, in particular in his final monograph States of Denial (2001) but also in many other works, including a beautiful essay “Post-moral Torture” (published in 2005 in Index on Censorship and available here) or his speech “Carry on Panicking” (2009) for the British Society of Criminology when he accepted the Outstanding Achievement Award (you can read it here).

The study of such “struggles to define reality” or “epistemological politics” has become central to much scholarship in (and far beyond) criminology – including our own work on torture prevention in Europe or the denial of strip searches. Indeed, such struggles are omnipresent and our capacity to identify these helps us better understand why information does not travel automatically from sender to receiver; or why reform often tends to fail. Moreover, this approach also connects the study of problems and puzzles in the area of human rights to questions which are at the core of criminology. As Cohen wrote in the introduction to the third edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics: ‘To point to the complexities of the relationship between social objects and their interpretation is …the whole point of studying deviance and social control’ (p. xxii).

This post draws on my chapter ‘Punishment and epistemological politics in Europe’ which was published in Criminology and Democratic Politics. The  B’Tselem report was also discussed in a recent paper (in Spanish) for Delito y Sociedad.  If you want to know more about Stan Cohen and his work you can read Paul Rock’s biographical essay for the British Academy (available here) or my entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (available here but subscription required).  A selection of Cohen’s work – including the 1991 Tikkun essay “Talking about Torture in Israel” which is mentioned in the post – was included in the book Outside Criminology: Selected Essays by Stanley Cohen.

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