As many of us here try to keep the issue of torture alive in the blogosphere, the question of the causes of torture must arise. Why do seemingly normal people inflict pain on others? Do we train our soldiers to be cruel, or do the cruel become soldiers, or are we all cruel? Do our leaders really have so little regard for humanity, or do they believe that the end justifies the means? Is this a subject that no one wants to read about; are we in denial?

Having no training in psychology, I am hesitant to undertake the subject. It is both unpleasant and upsetting to ponder the depths of the depravity that the human mind can reach. It took me three hours to start writing this post–I didn’t want to face it. As I Googled articles about torture, I found far too much about the pleasure and sexuality of torture; these are not subjects one can easily read about. Below is what I have compiled. There is much more to be said, but I don’t have the stomach for it.

The title of this post is a quote from a Guardian by Professor Joanna Bourke; more of that article is quoted later.

More below:

What is Torture

Torture induces both physiological and psychological effects. But it is widely agreed that the psychological impact is often greater and tends to remain with the subject long after the actual activity is discontinued.

From the CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983 (link):

The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavioral level. As the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, or to cope with stressful interpersonal relationships or repeated frustrations.

The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. For example, the threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain.

The threat of death has been found to be worse than useless. The principal reason is that it often induces sheer hopelessness; the subject feels that he is as likely to be condemned after compliance as before. Some subjects recognize that the threat is a bluff and that silencing them forever would defeat the questioner’s purpose.

If a subject refuses to comply after a threat has been made, it must be carried out. Otherwise, subsequent threats will also prove ineffective. <snip>

The torture situation is a contest between the subject and his tormentor. Pain that is being inflicted upon the subject from outside himself may actually intensify his will to resist. On the other hand, pain that he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance. For example, if he is required to maintain a rigid position such as standing at attention or sitting on a stool for long periods of time, the immediate source of discomfort is not the questioner but the subject himself. After a while, the subject is likely to exhaust his internal motivational strength.

Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, fabricated to avoid additional punishment. This results in a time-consuming delay while an investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite, the subject can pull himself together and may even use the time to devise a more complex confession that takes still longer to disprove.

From the United Nations Convention Against Torture (bold added). Please note, in particular article 3 paragraph 1, “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”:

Article 1

1.    Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

2.    This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.

Article 2

1.    Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

2.    No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

3.    An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Article 3

1.    No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.  

2.    For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.

Article 16

1.    Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. In particular, the obligations contained in articles 10, 11, 12 and 13 shall apply with the substitution for references to torture of references to other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Torture Techniques Used in Iraq

From  the “Executive summary of Article 15-6 investigation of the 800th
Military Police Brigade by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba” (link):

6.  (S) I find that the intentional abuse of detainees by military police personnel included the following acts:  
a.  (S) Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;
b.  (S) Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;
c.  (S) Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;
d.  (S) Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;
e.  (S) Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear;
f.   (S) Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped;
g.  (S) Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;
h.  (S) Positioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture;
i.   (S) Writing “I am a Rapest”  (sic) on the leg of a detainee alleged to have forcibly raped a 15-year old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked;
j.   (S) Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a female Soldier pose for a picture;
k.  (S) A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee;
l.   (S) Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee;
m. (S) Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees.

8.  (U) In addition, several detainees also described the following acts of abuse, which under the circumstances, I find credible based on the clarity of their statements and supporting evidence provided by other witnesses (ANNEX 26):
a.  (U) Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees;
b.  (U) Threatening detainees with a charged 9mm pistol;
c.  (U) Pouring cold water on naked detainees;
d.  (U) Beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair;
e.  (U) Threatening male detainees with rape;
f.   (U) Allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell;
g.  (U) Sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.
h.  (U) Using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.

The Motivation for Torture

The idea that anyone, you or I, is capable of inflicting torture is difficult to grasp, despite the evidence. If we do not believe that we, or at least some of us, are stronger, then it would be hard to exist. From Wikipedia:

It was long thought that “good” people would not torture and only “bad” ones would, under normal circumstances. Research over the past 50 years suggests a disquieting alternative view, that under the right circumstances and with the appropriate encouragement and setting, most people can be encouraged to actively torture others. Stages of torture mentality include:

·    Reluctant or peripheral participation

·    Official encouragement: As the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram experiment show, many people will follow the direction of an authority figure (such as a superior officer) in an official setting (especially if presented as a compulsory obligation), even if they have personal uncertainty. The main motivations for this appear to be fear of loss of status or respect, and the desire to be seen as a “good citizen” or “good subordinate”.

·    Peer encouragement: to accept torture as necessary, acceptable or deserved, or to comply from a wish to not reject peer group beliefs. At worst this leads to competition between torturers to produce more pain or harsher results.

·    Dehumanization: seeing victims as objects of curiosity and experimentation, where pain becomes just another test to see how it affects the victim.

·    Disinhibition: socio-cultural and situational pressures may cause torturers to undergo a lessening of moral inhibitions and as a result act in ways not normally countenanced by law, custom and conscience.

·    Organisationally, like many other procedures, once torture becomes established as part of internally acceptable norms under certain circumstances, its use often becomes institutionalised and self-perpetuating over time, as what was once used exceptionally for perceived necessity finds more reasons claimed to justify wider use.

Again, I find this repugnant; there is no choice; how could you not?. From

All humans are capable of committing torture and other “acts of great evil”. That is the unhappy conclusion drawn from an analysis of psychological studies.

Over 25,000 psychological studies involving eight million participants support this finding, say Susan Fiske and colleagues at Princeton University in New Jersey, US.
The researchers considered the circumstances surrounding how individuals committed seemingly inexplicable acts of abuse in the midst of the US military’s torture of Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004.

“Could any average 18-year-old have tortured these prisoners? I would have to answer: ‘Yes, just about anyone could have.'”, Fiske says.

The Torture Pictures

And what of the images of torture taken at Abu Ghraib prison and other locations? How would you justify taking photos of people scared, naked, and in pain. When I drove a truck full of supplies to the Gulf Coast, I took a camera. But I found it impossible to take photos of the people there, to invade their privacy, to show their fear and pain. How do you photograph the tortured?

This festival of violence is highly pornographic. The victims have been reduced to exhibitionist objects or anonymous “meat”. They either wear hoods, or are beheaded by the camera. The people taking the photographs exult in the genitals of their victims. There is no moral confusion here: the photographers don’t even seem aware that they are recording a war crime. There is no suggestion that they are documenting anything particularly morally skewed. For the person behind the camera, the aesthetic of pornography protects them from blame.

Indeed, there is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the photographs. The perpetrators of this sexual violence are clearly enjoying themselves. The cliche “war is hell” takes on a chilling new vigour in these images. After all, these photographs are not “about” the horrors of war. Many, if not most, are part of a glorification of violence. There is no question that many of these snapshots were taken by people who were pleased by what they were seeing. Or what they had done. They are trophies, memorialising agreeable actions. <snip>

Furthermore, the pornography of pain as shown in these images is fundamentally voyeuristic in nature. The abuse is performed for the camera. It is public, theatrical, and elaborately staged. These obscene images have a counterpart in the worst, non-consensual sadomasochistic pornography. The infliction of pain is eroticised. <snip>

The display of cruel pleasure taken in punishing Iraqi prisoners has reverberated throughout the world, confirming in many countries the negative stereotype of westerners as decadent and sexually obsessed. Many people have questioned the motives and conduct of the war in Iraq, but these pornographic images have stripped bare what little force remained in the humanitarian rhetoric concerning the war. In the Arab world, the damage has been done, and is irrevocable.

Professor Joanna Bourke, a military historian, writing for the Guardian.
Justifying Torture

From Monday’s BBC :

In the US view, torture has to involve “severe pain” and harsh interrogations do not necessarily amount to torture.
Ms Rice accepted that prisoner transfers, known as “renditions”, take place and said they were not unusual. The French had moved Carlos the Jackal directly from Sudan that way in 1994, she pointed out.
The United States acted, she said, in accordance with its legal obligations, among which is the 1984 UN “Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
This defines torture as follows: “Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind…”
It will be seen that a lot depends on the definition of “severe.” In a memorandum on 1 August 2002, the then Assistant US Attorney General Jay Bybee said that “the adjective severe conveys that the pain or suffering must be of such a high level of intensity that the pain is difficult for the subject to endure.” He even suggested that “severe pain” must be severe enough to result in organ failure death. <snip>
Recent reports on the American ABC News network, quoting CIA sources, listed six so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”

  1. Grab: the interrogator grabs a suspect’s shirt front and shakes him.
  2. Slap: an open-handed slap to produce fear and some pain.
  3. Belly Slap: a hard slap to the stomach with an open hand. This is designed to be painful but not to cause injury. A punch is said to have been ruled out by doctors.
  4. Standing: Prisoners stand for 40 hours and more, shackled to the floor. Said to be effective, it also denies them sleep and is part of a process known as sensory deprivation ( this was a technique used by British forces in Northern Ireland for a time until it was stopped).
  5. Cold Cell: a prisoner is made to stand naked in a cold, though not freezing, cell and doused with water.
  6. Water Boarding: the prisoner is bound to a board with feet raised, and cellophane wrapped round his head. Water is poured onto his face and is said to produce a fear of drowning which leads to a rapid demand for the suffering to end.

G.W. Bush:

“I share a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated,”
“Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people. That’s not the way we do things in America. I didn’t like it one bit.”

From the Washington Post :

In August 2002, the Justice Department advised the White House that torturing al Qaeda terrorists in captivity abroad “may be justified,” and that international laws against torture “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations” conducted in President Bush’s war on terrorism, according to a newly obtained memo.

If a government employee were to torture a suspect in captivity, “he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the Al Qaeda terrorist network,” said the memo, from the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel, written in response to a CIA request for legal guidance. It added that arguments centering on “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability” later.

That’s it, all I can write. But much much more needs to be said. It’s your turn. Please help keep the pressure on our politicians and media. That’s it, all I can write. But much much more needs to be said. It’s your turn. Please help keep the pressure on our politicians and media. I’ll leave you with this quote from Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman:

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
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