Richard Thieme

What Does a Torturer Tell His Kids?

A newsletter for former intelligence officers contained two requests this week from researchers. One is a Washington Post intelligence reporter who wants information about "that particular moment in a clandestine agent's life when he/she tells the children what they really do for a living."

The other request came from a social psychologist "preparing a utilitarian assessment of torture interrogation of terrorists to submit to a military ethics conference." His study is focused on institutional consequences of state-sponsored torture interrogations such as the involvement of the biomedical community. He is especially interested in "testaments to the efficacy of torture interrogation in eliciting accurate and crucial information."

I hope those researchers get together. It would be interesting to know about the moment in a torturer's life when he or she tells the kids what they do for a living.

State-sponsored torture is being debated as a viable option, and lawyers such as Alan Dershowitz suggest that torture warrants should be issued by judges if evidence suggests that a situation is time-critical. The process of securing warrants would provide a sufficient check, he believes, on state and federal interrogators.

I imagine this debate sounds different to Arab-Americans or African Americans than it does to an affluent lawyer who seldom hears suspects with sterilized needles under their fingernails screaming through the arbor vitae. On the other hand, it says something positive about the assimilation of Jews in America that Dershowitz, who is Jewish, does not even worry about how such warrants might be used if the American experiment in assimilation fails.

I recall having dinner in Madrid with a Spaniard 35 years ago. "America is a great country," he said, "but it is a very young country."

I felt the weight of his words, that two or three or four hundred years down the line, when historical conditions will have turned American history into the roller coaster that Spain's has been, we might see ourselves differently. We might be a little less innocent, a little less naïve.

The German Jewish population was the most assimilated Jewish community in history before the Holocaust. Then Germany lost its moorings. Any society can lose its moorings. It can happen here, and one sign that it might be happening is when social scientists and medical practitioners believe they are justified in discussing torture as a practical matter rather than a moral issue.

I grew up in Chicago where police did not need a torture warrant to interrogate suspects by whacking them with telephone books. That may have distorted my perspective, but I think it's pretty much the same everywhere. Chicago just does more openly what everybody does more hiddenly. I live now in Milwaukee, arguably the most segregated city in America, and it wasn't long ago that a policeman went on trial for beating a white man almost to death and blurted out that he had recently been transferred to a new district from an all-black neighborhood and had not realized that the rules were different.

The policeman who told me that story mentioned a time he had to leave an alley where colleagues were interrogating a suspect in a way that made him sick to his stomach.

It is not news to say that beatings and torture have long been part of the interrogation process, depending on who is the suspect and who is doing the questioning. Nor is it news that at Fort Benning, Georgia, American military officers taught agents of Central and South American police states how to use torture effectively. We all know it happens. That isn't the question. The question is, are we ashamed that it happens? You can tell a lot by knowing what someone is ashamed of.

Feeling appropriate guilt and rationalizing behaviors by instituting policies that justify and support them publicly are two different things. That difference makes all the difference between a society that can't always live up to its ideals and one that has forgotten where it put them.

It is not that we can't imagine circumstances in which we too would use any means necessary to protect those we love. We can. But extending that imaginary scenario to the nation and its interests during a time of anxiety and fear is too easy.

The American assertion of a right to pre-emptively strike an enemy is a logical extension of the belief that torture is justified by evidence that suggests an imminent attack. But why would a nation need to announce such a policy? After all, preemptive strikes have always been sanctioned by international law. So maybe the declaration is not really about that.

It sounds as if the Monroe Doctrine is being extended to the entire world. Exporting tools and techniques of torture to governments in our hemisphere was a logical consequence of the Monroe Doctrine, which insists that we can do anything in our own neighborhood in defense of our interests. If that neighborhood is now the world, if the front lines are everywhere, then the expediency of forgetfulness under fire applies to the basement of the local, state or national police as well.

A person who can calmly suggest using torture, who believes that a warrant will adequately handle the inevitable mistakes or malevolent intentions of people with power, is someone who can not imagine themselves being tortured. They can only imagine the torture of the Other.

Jacobo Timmerman, a large publisher in Argentina, could not imagine himself being taken until he found himself in a prison cell. He speaks of watching a woman led from her cell to receive electric shocks and a hood being placed over her head. They did that, he said, so the torturer would not have to look into her eyes. If you look into the eyes, he said, you see a human being and then you can't do the job.

Once social scientists, doctors and lawyers provide a veneer of respectability to sanctioned torture, it is removed from the moral domain. Once torture is debatable, it is only a matter of time until it is tacitly or officially sanctioned.

Then the task will be keeping that hood down over the face of the Other. So long as the screams come from someone who is a little less than human, we can live with it. The goal, after all, as Dershowitz explains, is short-term excruciating pain, not long-term damage. It's just a job. Somebody has to do it, and we can imagine the practitioners of that craft having a picnic with their kids, flying kites or running in slow motion through a wildflower meadow, then tumbling laughing into the tall grass and telling the kiddies what they do for a living.

The sadness of the human condition is that if we are honest with ourselves, we can each see how under the right conditions we too will enter into collusion with the state, if not actively participate in the practice. History has illustrated time and time again that under the right conditions, individuals will do anything.

Which is why preventing those conditions from happening in the first place is the only defense against the abyss.

Richard Thieme is a contributing editor for Information Security Magazine.

Scents and Sensibility

Digital scents will make plenty of dollars if DigiScents has its way.Sitting right at your desk, you'll soon be able to smell the roses -- or baking bagels or honey-roasted nuts or crowded subway platforms -- using DigiScents' new iSmell, "a personal scent synthesizer." Now in beta testing, iSmell is a peripheral device you plug into a computer the same way you plug in speakers and printers. If you visited a Web site offering a whiff of fresh chocolate cake, for example, iSmell could pull down the code it needs to mix chemicals in just the right way and then release the designer aroma while you work on the Net. Or you could invent your own scents and add them to e-mails or a short story.DigiScents' wafting digital scents may make every media experience immersive and wraparound, more real than reality. Scents work for perfume advertising in magazines, says DigiScents president Dexster Smith, and they'll certainly work when software re-creates them. "What we're about is allowing people to have control or mastery and a heightened awareness of smell," Smith says. "It's a very powerful part of us, and it has been in the hands of a very select few. This is a revolution of the senses, and we are bringing smell to the everyday person via digital control. It's another example of the opportunities for democratization through technology."The mere suggestion of digital smell sounds crazy. But every good idea does -- at first. Like adding video to music and making MTV. Like downloading Bombay footage from satellites and making a New York newscast. Former Motorola CEO Robert Galvin once observed that each breakthrough idea during his tenure began its life as a minority opinion. At first, the new ideas couldn't even get heard. Then they were ridiculed, and the people who birthed them were attacked. Finally, everyone agreed they'd believed in the ideas all along.Perhaps interlacing scents will become as much a part of the digital realm as pictures, music, and robo-voices.DigiScents isn't the only company working to digitize smells, though it may have the best plan for convincing consumers that shelling out a still unnamed number of bucks for aromas is a smart idea. Two years ago, Adobe released its Net sniffer, Odorshop, and received little fanfare. RealAroma's Web site ( hypes a smell box that uses something called "Real Aroma Text Markup Language" and can run on a modem as slow as 14.4K. Macintosh CEO Steve Jobs has announced he wants future generations of his company's machines to be able to handle odors, just as they're now equipped to play CDs.What separates DigiScents from the pack is its commitment to putting smells on the Net. The company has joined forces with RealNetworks, whose RealPlayer turned online tunes from a vague concept to a near essential for savvy surfers. Taking a cue from media portals, DigiScents promises to launch a world of odors at Finally, you'll have something to whiff out there.Mainstream consumers may not share Smith's enthusiasm for digitized smells. Just as store owners use the right blend of soft rock to make shoppers reach for their wallets, advertisers will use scents to promote products from cognac to perfume to leather jackets. "Bringing scent to everything may not be everyone's cup of tea," says Dr. Graham A. Bell, director of the Centre for ChemoSensory Research at the University of New South Wales, Australia. "People are wary of the unsolicited intrusion of odors, pleasant and unpleasant, in their lives. The shopping mall of the future may draw in customers by proclaiming, 'No manipulative odors are permitted on these premises!' "But for people who love technology, adding smell to the array of sensory riches is a natural.Game developers may be first to make use of scents. Imagine inching your way through a cold basement as the smell of mold seeps through the damp brick, or rounding the corner of the track as tires squeal and the burning rubber stinks. Like the pulsing music in Jaws that made us anticipate the shark, scents will serve as clues or cause fear and foreboding in haunted houses.Sex sites won't be far behind. Using digital scents, we'll make our own perfumes, candles, and lotions. We can even e-mail our own musk. Imagine being lost in digital sex with a chat-partner or wandering an online adult channel when pheromones flare your nostrils and make your heart race.Scent detonates the power of suggestion, unlocks buried memories, and stampedes lust. Smells fire primordial urges to run, fight, or make love. Smith envisions the day when a standard greeting card blossoms with the scent of roses, or when aromatherapy threaded through meditative music and archetypal images transports a viewer into an altered state.Some question whether that dream is suited for mass consumption. "There are difficult hurdles ahead with regard to digitizing smells and replaying them in the comfort of your home," says Bell. "The replay device must produce smells faithfully. Technically, this is very difficult, as most odors we encounter in everyday life are composed of hundreds of components."Scent is subtle, after all. The olfactory system can distinguish thousands of odors that travel from receptors in the nose to the brain. The new iSmell will come with 128 primary scents that can be combined in recipes for the aroma of everything from fruit to mildew. When the chemicals run low, just put in a fresh cartridge the same way you'd replace a cartridge of printer's ink.Smith thinks digital smell can become a part of routine life. Why should we have only beeps and written messages when our computers boot up or turn off? Why not add scents? People "can associate, say, coffee with a start-up smell," Smith says, "and the ocean or a fireplace when they shut down."Digital scents will have uses outside the domain of commerce.Bell has been developing a "chemical camera" that could sniff out harmful chemicals or the presence of disease in a patient. He says the goal is to detect "loose molecules" that may not have a smell.And then there's the creation of multisensory immersive environments for their own sake. Smith calls the art of using smell "scentography," and expects aroma to be used even as a scent track to add emotional resonance to films. Since smell is so closely linked to memory, he argues, aromas mixed with sound and images will create virtual worlds complete with memories as real as, well, memories.But first we'll have to be taught to distinguish odors as elements of a work of art, the way we learned to distinguish "sound art" from music. Industrial noise once sounded like nothing, literally nothing. Over time, we learned to listen to ambient noise as elements of sound sculpture, changing what had been perceived as merely context into primary content. Scent may one day speak to us that clearly.