tortured democratically

Rejali’s ‘Three Systems’

So Darius Rejali, one of the world’s experts on torture (the guy I constantly quote) classifies torture in democracies as coming under three broad headings. Keep in mind this classification was primarily designed to help predict risk factors and prevent torture. Depending on what you’re writing and what your focus is this might or might not be helpful for your story.

It should help give an idea of when states might use torture which can be helpful both for world building and working out whether your character is in a risky environment. I’m hoping to highlight structures as well as arguments that increase the chance of torture taking place.

National Security Model

Rejali characterises this as a conflict between bureaucratic and democratic (ie government) institutions.

Let me try to unpack that rather dense statement a little bit.

Countries have groups of public employees who are trained and can be thought of as experts in their field. Wherever you go countries almost uniformly have police organisations, military organisations, etc that are funded by (and nominally controlled by) elected officials but are not elected themselves.

The National Security model is when the government loses control of one of these organisations of unelected officials.

The typical pattern is that there is some kind of emergency situation. It could be an armed uprising, it could be an occupation of a volatile region, it could be a series of peaceful demonstrations. Police or military organisations in the area may be given greater powers in order to control the situation. Whether they are or not they argue that the law is holding them back. They could fix this emergency if they were just allowed to-

Isolated from the elected officials and judicial systems that are supposed to control them they begin to torture. They also tend to systematically lie to and undermine the institutions that are supposed to police them.

So could this apply to your story?

Here are some of the central factors that contribute to the National Security Model.

There’s a state of emergency somewhere in your world.

There’s a degree of conflict, this doesn’t have to mean a war but there has to be a sense of ‘us and them’ to the situation. Has a natural disaster in your world highlighted a huge gap between the poor affected by the disaster and rich? Are people protesting or rioting because they can’t afford to buy basic foodstuffs? People working in the emergency zone may not be from the area, increasing the sense of 'us and them’.

There’s a separation between the people who are working in the emergency zone and the people who are supposed to oversee them. The people who are supposed to monitor the situation and prevent abuses are either unable or unwilling to restrain the police/military etc. There’s widespread support within the groups working in the emergency zone for torture.

There’s a failure to combat torture at every possible level: higher ranking individuals working in the emergency zone condone it, the judicial system dismisses cases, the political system refuses to discipline or remove culprits, the press supports torture or refuses to report on it. There’s an increasing gap between the groups on the ground in the emergency zone and their superiors outside it, the emergency zone becomes a sort of closed system with the organisations there behaving almost as a separate state.

Think carefully about whether there are places or situations in your world that meet these criteria. They don’t mean that torture will happen but they do make torture more likely.

Juridical Model

Of the three systems this is probably the most straightforward. When a justice system prizes confessions too highly it can result in cases of torture in custody.

We respond oddly to confessions: studies suggest that we find them convincing even when they are contrary to evidence. Studies have also suggested that we find them convincing even when we know they’re false.

It’s easy for people to believe in confessions.

And compared to actual police work, processing and collecting evidence, weeks of surveillance and so forth, pressuring someone into confessing is easy too.

Here are some of the factors that characterise the juridical model.

The justice system in your world relies on confessions, or favours them. There’s a high rate of confession leading to conviction (anything over about 60%). Suspects can be detained for long periods (anything over a week or two). Suspects usually do not have lawyers with them throughout interviews (this can be due to policy, poverty or a shortage of lawyers). Crime is low and society is perceived to be orderly.

If you think your world meets most of these criteria then the police could well be torturing suspects.

Civic Discipline Model

As the name implies this system is mostly based around policing. It happens when, for whatever reason, the state can’t keep the peace in a particular area. Perhaps there aren’t enough police officers, perhaps demand has risen faster than the police can keep up with, perhaps they’re being directed away from certain areas because they’re not a political priority.

The result is an overt or tacit partnership between public officials and private organisations.

In laymens terms this is torture targeted at people who are perceived as non-citizens or lesser citizens, people who are seen as potential or actual troublemakers. Street children, homeless adults, loitering teenagers, illegal immigrants.

This is torture in the name of keeping the streets 'clean’.

Here’s how Rejali describes it:

'Our societies offer many finely graded distinctions between citizens, and some citizens soon discover they are not treated equally. These different civic experiences create different expectations and shape future behaviours. Some people expect torture, while others would be shocked to know it was happening here.’ (Emphasis mine).

There are quite a few social factors that feed into the Civic Discipline model and it has manifested slightly different in different cultures and areas. Here are some of the factors to consider when trying to work out if this could apply to your world and story.

There’s a lack of political will or resources in some, but not necessarily all, areas. Crime is not necessarily high but the fear of crime is high and the perception of the crime rate is high. Being seen as 'tough on crime’ is a political necessity. The media and the public may respond negatively to officials who are seen as being 'soft’ towards criminals, especially those who take torture allegations seriously. Public officials expect condemnation of torture will affect their career.

There is a significant social hierarchy. Some groups, whether easily identified or not, are thought to be more 'troublesome’ and more likely to break the law. Members of the public are either encouraged to take the law into their own hands or can reasonably expect their crimes will be overlooked if they do.

Public officials can reasonably expect the public to ignore, doubt or be apathetic towards torture allegations. Private 'police’, for instance armed security guards, outnumber public police. Police officers are under staffed, under paid and under funded but are under immense pressure to achieve grand and visible 'results’, a situation which encourages corruption. 

The chances are that these factors won’t apply to the entire world in your story. While this system can occur in rural areas (especially large areas covered by very few police officers) Rejali mostly describes it in highly populated urban environments. Think about the cities in your world and especially the 'bad’ areas within them. Think about whether the culture makes an overt distinction between the 'honest, hard working’ poor and the 'undeserving’ poor.

Think about how afraid people your world are and what they might be willing to ignore for the sake of a feeling of security.


Torture can and does occur in places that aren’t described by Rejali’s Three Systems. This model was developed specifically to look at torture in democratic countries. They could still be useful to you if your world isn’t a democracy but they all assume a degree of accountability: the systems assume that members of the public can, generally, complain about the behaviour of public officials.

My aim with this post is to help you think about how structures and cultures create torture.

I am not saying that if your world fits with any of these criteria you should include torture. My hope is to make authors more aware of what they’re writing and what their world building could imply.

If you’ve created a wonderfully detailed and realised city that fits a little too perfectly with the Civic Discipline model consider whether that implication fits with the story you’re trying to tell.

If you want to include torture in your story consider using some of these details in your world building.

If you don’t want to include torture in your story consider avoiding them or mixing in additional details that show abusers are held accountable.

You are the person who ultimately decides what your story and world need. I hope this helps you figure it out.