The Psychology of Torture
Arthur Caplan, an ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Rev. John P. Langan, a Jesuit priest and philosopher at Georgetown University, both said they believe torture can be used in some circumstances.
"I can imagine a few situations at the extreme where you might resort to torture," Caplan said. Langan said he began endorsing coercive techniques such as sleep deprivation and lengthy interrogations after the 1983 attack on U.S. Marines in Beirut, which killed 241 people.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. William Cowan, a commentator for Fox News, said in an article in the Atlantic Monthly that during the Vietnam War, he attached alligator clips to a prisoner's genitals and threatened him with electrocution. He said in an interview that torture produced valuable information.
"Three weeks after 9/11, if there had been another [attack] and we had found out Zacarias Moussaoui knew information that we did not get out of him, there would have been an absolute public outcry," he said. "There would have been rage; the government would have been blamed."
Torture should be used only with prisoners known to have crucial information, Cowan said. Depending on the situation, soldiers could use emotional or physical torture. In many cases, he said, fear alone would be sufficient. But for top al Qaeda suspects, such as Abu Zubaida, an al Qaeda leader arrested in Pakistan in 2002, Cowan recommended more.
"If it's Abu Zubaida, you start out being tough -- physical pain and emotional pain," he said. "You're putting him under physical duress outside the bounds of what the United Nations accepts."
Without public debate, he said, torture would still be used, even if top leaders never explicitly call for it. "The Pentagon wants success," Cowan said. "Rumsfeld wants to see numbers. There is a pressure to produce results."
It was a small group of military police who carried out the horrific abuses in a distant country. The torturers were not sadists, but perfectly normal people. The torturers believed their unpleasant work would save lives.
Those statements do not refer to the U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib. The first sentence describes a German battalion that methodically tortured and killed thousands of Jews during World War II. The second describes a Stanford University psychology experiment that carefully screened out abnormal people and found that normal people given extraordinary power quickly turn sadistic. The third describes torturers in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, British officers in Northern Ireland and some police officials in Chicago.
"At the bottom of this behavior is not out-group hate, it's in-group love," said Clark McCauley, a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College who studies group dynamics. "It's doing what you think is dirty work, but someone's got to do it for our side."
Blaming individual soldiers only took the system off the hook, said Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford psychology experiment: "In my study, we put good people into a bad barrel, they came out bad apples," he said.
Christopher Browning, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland," said that although there are obvious differences between the abuses at Abu Ghraib and during the Holocaust, there are similarities.
"Our government from the top has sent innumerable signals that placed combating the 'war on terror' above any concern for the Geneva convention," he said by e-mail, adding that "the chickens have come home to roost."
The abuses at Abu Ghraib were similar to abuses in many other conflicts, said Conroy, author of an examination of torture in the Israeli-Palestinian and Northern Ireland conflicts and in the Chicago Police Department.
After the Israeli government gave permission to use torture in "ticking bomb" scenarios, the technique became widely applied to large numbers of Palestinian prisoners. Conroy said that the problem is that investigators rarely know who has valuable information.
In Chicago's South Side, Conroy said, police used electric shocks to interrogate murder suspects from 1973 to 1991. As in the case of military torturers, he said, the torture was justified in the belief that it would save lives.
But even on its own terms, Conroy said, torture may cost more lives than it saves. After the British used torture against a dozen Irish Republican Army prisoners in 1971, Conroy said, the news caused widespread anger.
"People started walking through the doors of the IRA begging to join," he said. "In the year after the torture was exposed, the number of deaths rose by 268 percent."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company