Justice, Context, and Violence: Law Enforcement Officers on Why They Torture

Date01 December 2014
Published date01 December 2014
Justice, Context, and Violence: Law Enforcement
Officers on Why They Torture
Rachel Wahl
How do police explain their support for torture? Findings from 12 months of
fieldwork with police in India complicate previous researchers’ claims that
violence workers tend to morally disengage and blame circumstances for their
actions. The officers in this study engage in moral reflection on torture,
drawing on their beliefs about human nature and justice to explain their
support for it. They admit that they use torture more widely than their own
conceptions of justice allow, but see this as an imperfect implementation of
their principles rather than as a violation of them. Previous research on the
spread of human rights norms has focused on how these norms can be
adapted to the local beliefs that support them, rather than on understanding
the beliefs that conflict with human rights. I argue that illuminating the
self-understanding of state actors who support or engage in torture is crucial
to building theory on why such violence occurs, as well as to designing
interventions to prevent it.
Hannah Arendt famously wrote of the “banality of evil.” She
meant that atrocities are committed not by people who are excep-
tional in their monstrousness, but those who are disconcertingly
normal. Their acts result not from evil intentions, but by a failure
of any moral engagement; a failure, Arendt says, “to think” (1963).
Research on the use of torture by the police and military has
followed suit. Torturers are not radically different from the rest of
society, and nor are they motivated by long-standing personal
enmity toward the people they victimize, many researchers argue.
Rather, they are transformed through socialization processes
I gratefully acknowledge the valuable feedback provided by the following people: Dana
Burde, Assistant Professor of International Education at New YorkUniversity; Jack Snyder,
Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University; Jinee
Lokaneeta, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drew University; Benjamin Gregg,
Associate Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin; Rene Arcilla,
Professor of Philosophy of Education at New York University; and Danya Reda, Acting
Assistant Professor of Lawyering at New York University School of Law.
Please direct all correspondence to Rachel Wahl, Program in Social Foundations,
Department of Leadership, Foundations, and Policy,Curry School of Education, University
of Virginia, Ruffner Hall, Room 280, 405 Emmet Street South, Charlottesville, VA 22902;
e-mail: rlw4ck@virginia.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 4 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
that encourage moral disengagement. These two factors—moral
disengagement and circumstances that socialize violence—are keys
in producing torturers, according to researchers (e.g., Huggins,
Haritos-Fatouros, and Zimbardo 2002).
It is unclear, however, how those who commit or contribute to
torture through their support of it understand what they do. To
examine this question, this study draws from in-depth interviews
with law enforcement officers who were participating in human
rights education in India. I examine these officers’ moral beliefs,
their perceptions of the circumstances in which they work, and how
these beliefs and perceptions inform their judgments on the use of
torture and related violence.
The findings from this study complicate previous conclu-
sions regarding the way police understand and explain the use of
torture, and more broadly, how people who support violence justify
this support to themselves and others. First, my research suggests
that officers’ justifications for torture are more than morally disen-
gaged rationalizations and are in fact consistent with their moral
worldviews. Second, my research shows how officers’ interpreta-
tions of the circumstances in which they work contribute to their
view that torture is justified even beyond the violence that could be
supported by their own moral beliefs.
The study is motivated by the premise that insight into the
self-understanding of those who commit and support torture is
crucial not only to theory on violence but also to the design of
interventions to prevent it. A key means by which human rights
activists and other reformers combat torture is through education
for police and security officers. The current phase of the United
Nations World Programme for Human Rights Education, for
example, prioritizes education for these groups. But in order to
persuade people to behave differently, it is crucial to understand
how they defend their current behavior. In the case of police
violence, it is especially important to understand both officers’
beliefs about what is right as well as whether and how they believe
they can act on their beliefs.
Most of the human rights educators interviewed for this study
assume that officers violate rights for what even the police would
agree are immoral reasons, such as to receive a bribe, or amoral
reasons, such as a lack of training. Although the police do use
torture for these reasons, they admit that it is wrong to do so.
Missing from this understanding are the reasons for which police
believe it is right to use torture.
Human rights activists’ relative neglect of perpetrators’ moral
beliefs is understandable. The human rights movement is premised
on the universality of its principles. A focus on the moral beliefs
that conflict with these principles may seem to compromise the
808 Justice, Context, and Violence

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