The Psychology of Torture
Past Incidents Show Abusers Think Ends Justify the Means
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A14
The U.S. troops who abused Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were most likely not pathological sadists but ordinary people who felt they were doing the dirty work needed to win the war, experts in the history and psychology of torture say.
Torturers usually believe they are carrying out the will of their societies -- and feel betrayed when the public professes outrage after the abuses come to light, said a range of historians, activists and psychologists. This mentality has played out in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, in the conflict in Northern Ireland, during the Holocaust and within the Chicago Police Department.
"When torture takes place, people believe they are on the high moral ground, that the nation is under threat and they are the front line protecting the nation, and people will be grateful for what they are doing," said John Conroy, author of "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People," which examined torture in several settings.
What happened at Abu Ghraib, Conroy and other experts said, probably grew out of a shift in American priorities after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: the subordination of human rights to victory in the war against terrorism.
Large numbers of Americans have asserted since the attacks that the war against terrorism is a new kind of battle that must be fought with new methods, including coercive techniques. Significant portions of the public in opinion polls, military strategists, law experts, and even ethicists and the clergy have endorsed using torture to gain information that could avert terrorist attacks.
Experts have justified torture based on pragmatism, military history and theories of a just war. But coercive measures should be reserved for extreme cases, these experts say, not the situation at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi detainees were not terrorist leaders.
Human rights activists said such arguments stand on a slippery slope: Once captors are given license to torture, the abuse of large numbers of prisoners usually becomes standard operating procedure.
"Since 9/11, the Defense Department has openly adopted stress and duress techniques," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "We have learned from the Army that there is a 72-point matrix of stress that the Pentagon has adopted to guide interrogators. It outlines different forms of coercion that can be applied. It includes everything from different amounts of sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation, to sensory overload, stripping, hooding, binding detainees in various positions -- essentially everything we have seen in these pictures short of the sexual humiliation."
The Bush administration has said U.S. forces do not use torture. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has called the abusers "un-American" and asserted that the guards were acting on their own. But according to the military investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib, guards said they were told to prepare Iraqis for interrogation, and military intelligence personnel commended the abusers for making detainees compliant.
One witness told a military investigation that interrogators had asked guards to "loosen this guy up for us." Another said the abuse was "to get these people to talk." A third said that male detainees "were made to wear female underwear, which I think was to somehow break them down."
While Americans have been shocked by the reports from Baghdad, one poll in October 2001 found that 45 percent of Americans were willing to use torture "if it were necessary to combat terrorism." Much of this support rested on hypothetical scenarios in which a terrorist had knowledge about an attack planned on the United States, and torture was seen as the only way to extract information that could save thousands of lives.
Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, a self-described pragmatist, said he believes the United States currently employs torture in some circumstances and will continue to do so. A public debate, he said, would ensure that top leaders, not servicemen and women, decide when it is appropriate.
"If someone asked me to draft the statute, I would say, 'Try buying them off, then use threats, then truth serum, and then if you came to a last recourse, nonlethal pain, a sterilized needle under the nail to produce excruciating pain,' " he said. "You would need a judge signing off on that. By making it open, we wouldn't be able to hide behind the hypocrisy."
Dershowitz said the judge might refuse to sign the order, creating a check that does not now exist.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company