Stan CohenThe orations that accompany the awarding of an honorary degree are rarely sophisticated studies in personality. There are too many lumpy academic references to get out of the way to leave much time for character insights. And so, when Stan Cohen was recently awarded an honorary doctorate at his old stomping ground, the University of Essex, it wasn't too surprising to find that his proposer, Ken Plummer, used most of the time outlining Stan's major academic achievements: his early work on Mods and Rockers which introduced the now ubiquitous and much misused concept of 'moral panic'; his Foucauldian exploration of modern systems of social control which appeared as Visions of Social Control, and his most recent work, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, which won the British Academy Book Prize in 2002.

But after he'd done his formal duties, Plummer paused, as though he knew that none of these details captured anything of the man he'd known for over 30 years. What could he say in the short time that remained that would do proper justice to Cohen's presence in the world? A film came to his aid. "In the delightful Christmas film by Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life, the hero, played by James Stewart, is taken back by his guardian angel to see just what life and the world would have been like if he had not lived. The angel says: 'Each person's life touches so many other lives. It they were not around it would leave an awful hole.'

"So it is with Stan Cohen. It is not just through the big books he has published over the years that change has been effected; it is also in the small acts of kindness, and the little refusals to go along with the crowd's inhumanities."

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 prize–winning 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 fund–raising for a human rights organisation, I met a well–informed, 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, de–sensitisation, 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 cover–ups?

"I'm not sure about that. A simple denunciation suggests old–fashioned hierarchical moralism. That's now pretty questionable. In some ways we've brought this difficulty on ourselves. A whole lot of ideas floated around in the wonderful liberatory days of the 60s. But ideas turn around, they are as slippery as eels, and it's easy to lose control of them.

"You and I wrote books questioning the idea that there could ever be a firm definition of crime, that it was all to do with the definers and the defined. And that led to the idea that it was impossible to make any truth claims at all. This is exactly what happened when my report on torture came out in Israel.

"One smart–arse group of people who sat around in Tel –Aviv cafes and called themselves post–-Zionists said I was wasting my time: 'Why are radicals like you writing such a very orthodox human rights report, full of statistics and deep interviews and photographs, when the government says it didn't happen? Perhaps the government is right. How could anyone ever tell?'"

It's not difficult to sense Cohen's disgust with those who employ such rhetorical tactics to deny reality. But this, I suggest to him, was rather a productive disgust because it propelled him into considering not just such abuses of human rights as torture or the justifications of those who did the torturing, but also the psychological techniques employed by those who wanted to ignore or dismiss the evidence which lay before them.

"That's right. The sheer accretion of information about things is not enough. Human rights organisations around the world are sustained by this humane Enlightenment philosophy. If only everyone knew how bad things were in Sudan, if only they had the full facts, then they would do something about it. But, of course, people do know and they still don't do anything. This led me back to the same preoccupation that I had dimly sensed in South Africa. This is the question: What happens to all this information about atrocities and suffering? What happens to you as a 30–year old sitting in Montreal or Paris or New York when you read a statement about five children having died in Sudan in the time it has taken you to drink your cappuccino. I want to know what that information does to you. That's now an obsessive part of my life."

It was an obsession that was to lead to Cohen's most important and subtle book, States of Denial. "It took a psychological turn which I didn't expect. I had initially fixed on the term 'denial' to cover the official side of matters, the ways in which a government, for example, could deny that something was torture or a massacre.

"So I raided the personal for further visions and versions of denial. It was then that I became so fascinated with the private world of denial: our extraordinary capacity for not seeing and not knowing, for self–deception and bad faith. How can we ignore the evidence of starvation, of suffering? How can we walk past on the other side of the street?"

I suggest to Stan that this sounds almost like a personal cry for attention: 'here I am, giving you all these details about human rights abuses and you persistently refuse to pay attention. How do you manage to avoid me and my findings?' Did he want to say that there was a link between the ways in which authorities and their minions denied their abuses of human rights and the sort of denial strategies used by people who refused to be stirred by such abuses?

"I'm not saying that one causes the other. But I am saying, I suppose, that one is a metaphor for the other. One of my strongest and friendliest critics was Chomsky. He read the book and wrote to me saying the political stuff was good, but why, he wondered, was a clever bloke spending so much time on people's psychology? Chomsky's position has no psychology. He is not interested in motives or subjective states. Why, he asked, was I spending so much time on degrees of lying and self–deception, why was I bringing in Freud? Why bother about such things? If you are a Vietnamese peasant and a bomb is about to be dropped on you, does it really matter whether the bomb was ordered by someone who is denying the nature of their action? Why should we have all these truth commissions to work out what people said and thought? Why should the state be concerned with whether or not the torturer has real remorse? But I can't stop myself. I am curious about these inner states and their cultural settings. How else do you deal with the curious way we have of knowing and not knowing? Not a single person who has read the book has come up to me and asked what I mean by 'knowing' and 'not knowing'. Everyone knows what it means."

This isn't by any means an indulgence which has taken Cohen away from his other work on human rights. Even though the graduate course on human rights which he pioneered at LSE now recruits up to 100 students every year, he is wary of making a wholehearted subscription to the concept that initially attracts them. "I am deeply suspicious of the concept of rights and the whole model of strict legality. But both in Israel and South Africa, when you realised that you couldn't just stand by and watch terrible things being done and then being denied, you couldn't just shout about it. You needed exposure in an informed way. And human rights provided that option. No, even more: human rights may now be the last meta–narrative we have left. For better or for worse it has become an enormously empowering slogan. That's what really draws the students to LSE. If we can no longer rely on religion or politics or trade unionism to provide a meta–narrative then why not try human rights? But I don't let these students win so easily: my role now is to teach detachment, to go back to the ideas of a pluralist liberal university, to tell them to stop shouting and preaching. An essay or a thesis is not a human rights report."

It's time to stop. Before I leave I ask him about States of Denial. I'm interested because I regard it as a quite brilliant examination of the human capacity, or incapacity, to handle disaster and tragedy. (Plenty of reviewers agree with me. Anne Karpf in the Observer said: "This is how scholarship should be — zesty, engaged, witty, and always accessible," while the leading American sociologist, Howard Becker, called it "thoughtful, profound, engaging, disturbing, knowledgeable and comprehensive". Noam Chomsky found it "passionate and riveting".)

Stan tells me that he hasn't heard from the publishers for a long time. In a way he'd rather not know. He has quite enough to think about already. It reminds him, though, as do so many other things, of a Jewish joke. "Remember the classic Jewish telegram. 'Start worrying. Details to follow'."