The other side of the street: Laurie Taylor interviews Stan Cohen
Sociologist Stan Cohen, who died on 7 January 2013, spent his life analysing and opposing injustice and inhumanity. In this extended interview from 2004, he talks to his friend and collaborator Laurie Taylor about torture, social control and our extraordinary capacity to deny.
It's a well-expressed sentiment even if the phrase "little refusals" hardly does sufficient justice to the times, particularly during his long stay in Israel, when Stan Cohen risked ostracism from even his most liberal colleagues and friends because of his big refusal to go along with what he saw as their fatally compromised vision.
I'm anxious to talk to him about that time in his life and specifically about the manner in which the work he did there on the torture used by Israeli security agents in the Occupied Territories led to the detailed psychological analysis of denial and self-deceit in his prizewinning States of Denial.
But these days it's no longer possible to talk to Stan without first checking up on his own state of mind. The last few years have been cruel to him. Seven years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Despite the cocktails of drugs that he consumes, he now finds it increasingly difficult to walk any distance or to sit and write for any length of time.
Matters have been further complicated by an extreme back condition which has failed to respond to surgery. The latest blow was the death from cancer this Christmas of his beloved wife, Ruth. "You know," he jokes, after he's waved away my clumsy solicitations. "If Glen Hoddle was right, then I must have had a wonderful previous life."
I take that as a cue to turn to his present incarnation. I know that he grew up in Johannesburg, where he and Ruth were involved in the Zionist youth movement. It was there that he developed his conviction that Israel provided an opportunity to build a good and fair society. At the same time, both of them were student activists in the struggle against apartheid (Znele Dlamini, now wife of the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, was in Stan's social work class). Stan always looks back to South Africa as the real source of his political ideals. But when he left South Africa for England in 1963, he fully intended to stay for only a couple of years before going off to Israel to resume his Zionist commitment. Somehow or other he ended up living in England for 18 years 18 years in which any utopian hopes about the type of good society that might be established in Israel were being brutally and systematically dashed.
But it was then, at the very time when even the most fervent supporters of the Israeli cause were beginning to run for cover, that he and Ruth decided to activate their early resolution and move to Israel. Why? "Well, the quick answer is 'madness'. The long answer includes the pulls of 'being Jewish', what Saul Bellow called 'potato love', and then there was the idea of our kids growing up without this connection. I was also acutely aware that our original commitments could never find a home in English politics. I couldn't read about what was happening in South Africa and Israel and then connect with the striking British trades unionists or university Trotskyists. And I was also a sucker at that time for the notion of community, for the sense that there was somewhere where I would be at home. I felt that I had to report in somewhere and do my good things for some recognisable group around me."
But hadn't he read enough about the realities of Israel in the early 80s to know that it had nothing to do with the Zionist ideals that he'd imbibed in his adolescent days in South Africa? "For some reason, maybe now I'd call it denial, I didn't really take it in. So strong was the brainwashing that I'd received from the Zionist youth movement that I'd managed to avoid facing the full reality. But I do remember saying to someone who asked me the same question, 'No, it is precisely because things are bad now, precisely because there is so much discontent, that people like us with real commitment should be going there'."
What made him feel so confident that he could make a difference? "I suppose I was still sold on the 60s idea that you could integrate every part of your life: the idea that your self, your soul, your teaching, writing, political activity could all be harmonised into a single whole. I felt that Israel was somehow the place to do this, that there was a ready made identity for me there. I would slip into this liberal Jewish intellectual identity and tell these brutal people all around me that if they edged a little this way and that then things would be all right."
I can personally remember when Stan had been gripped by this set of beliefs. Just before he went to Israel we'd been busy working together on a project, and when I'd heard about his wish to move to Israel I felt almost betrayed. Here was one of my intellectual heroes committing an act of ideological treachery.
I did reluctantly visit him a couple of times in Jerusalem but I spent much of my time there looking for the signs of his disillusionment with the regime. It's only now that I can properly discover how well he was concealing them from me. I ask him if any of his long list of personal and political hopes were realised.
"I have never felt so far from 'home' in all my life. I have never been in a place so alien. As for the community of liberal forces, I found their hypocrisies especially repugnant. There was no point in attacking the Right and Centre forces; I had to criticise the people who should have been standing up and weren't.
"Their attitude to Palestinians was quite unlike the liberalism I knew in South Africa. Nowhere had I met a group of intellectuals who were so sensitive to their country's good image. Many of them adopted a curiously dishonest position. There would be a smell of tear gas coming up from one of the villages near the Hebrew University Mount Scopus campus, and inside the university they would be talking about legality and jurisprudence. Once when I was fundraising for a human rights organisation, I met a wellinformed, very progressive American woman who promised that her foundation would provide the grant that we needed for further work. I then casually mentioned that we would need another $2,000 to translate the final report on torture from Hebrew into English. 'Why into English?' she said. 'These are terrible things but I don't think they should be known to everyone'."
Most readers of this magazine probably have some sort of history of political activism. What made Cohen's radicalism in Israel different was his readiness to go it alone and to improvise. The issue of torture was important itself but he also chose it to test the liberal threshold of the liberals. He and a colleague spent a year investigating (for an Israeli human rights organisation) the use of torture by Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories.
Their report produced devastating and conclusive evidence that torture was indeed employed systematically against Palestinian detainees. At first, he hoped that the evidence would speak for itself. "In Israel you can produce that sort of thing. Within the contours of liberal democracy, I could talk openly about the findings and how torture was rationalised and justified."
But although the findings were indeed made public they were systematically undermined in the press and elsewhere. I asked him if these were similar in kind to those now being invoked to deal with the American torture of terrorist suspects in the jails of Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay. "George Orwell predicted that democratic societies would use torture. It happened with the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, the Israelis, and now the Americans. Unlike more totalitarian societies, though, democracies, however flawed, are open to public, and self, scrutiny. So, they have to find a vocabulary to account for abuses. In 1987 an Israeli judicial commission on torture tried to work out a model of how to respond to allegations of torture, a model which was used explicitly in the early days of Guantanamo Bay.
"To start off with, the Israelis and others realised that one way to deal with the problem was simply to come right out and acknowledge that torture had indeed been used, however reluctantly, and that all decisions about when it was appropriate were left to the security services. But that was not viable. No Israeli or any other democratic government could abandon all political or legal control over such a practise: that would be the road to fascism.
"The second idea was to deny that it happened at all, to keep on saying, whatever the evidence, that it was prohibited and therefore couldn't exist. Not an easy choice either, when the evidence was so compelling. So, we now arrive at the third way: regulation. Yes, it does go on, but it is carefully regulated and supervised by bureaucrats. This third way is now is what is actually being called 'torture lite'.
"It isn't people hanging from their fingernails, but in the terminology of the Israeli commission, 'moderate physical pressure.' To the French such torture was 'an administrative procedure', to the British it was 'deep interrogation'. Each justified what they were doing by reference to the other. Well, after all, this is what the French did in Algeria. Well, after all, this is what the British did in Northern Ireland. A peculiar cosmopolitan circuit."
And behind this official talk lie the justifications used by those who carried out the actual work? "Yes. And here you have the classic components of what Kelman called 'crimes of obedience': authorisation, desensitisation, and depersonalisation. Someone else authorised me to do it: now that I've done it once I can do it again: I'm only doing it to 'others' people who are our enemy and therefore less than human.
"Then, of course, there is also the justification that torture is only being used now because we are in a completely new situation, in a state of emergency, or a completely different kind of war. And reality television adds one further component. People actually take photographs to show their participation in torture as though their actions had no ethical status at all.
"The assumption is that everyone will accept it. This is a normalisation of the taboo. On any cheap television show you can find nudity and body exposure. What's the difference here? So Alan Dershowitz, a Professor of Law at Harvard, can be presented as a 'civil libertarian' on the Larry King Show and proceed to give concrete examples of approved torture.
"It's as if he's saying: we sit around at Harvard graduate seminars and work this all out. After consultation with doctors our message is that you can effectively torture someone by putting needles and pins just underneath their fingernails and pressing. Punters can then say, 'Well, I saw this liberal professor at Harvard who not only says that torture is okay in special circumstances but actually shows us how to do it.' Why should there be any inhibitions after that?"
So what could be done to counteract this sort of moral slippage? Should one stand up and shout out to anyone who would listen that torture was simply wrong and that all these stories about how it wasn't really torture were nothing more than coverups?
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