A nation of torturers

What is it like to be a torturer? Certainly some of them are just sadists, and they will naturally gravitate to that kind of work. What about the “good people,” though? What about the people who are initially repulsed by what they’re doing and have to rationalize it? I’m sure some of them find the sadistic part of themselves and cultivate it, convincing themselves that the people they’re torturing are scum who deserve it. But there’s also another, bolder strategy for retaining one’s moral self-image — thinking of the very immorality of one’s actions as a paradoxical kind of sacrifice for morality. This means viewing oneself as the primary victim, forced to sacrifice your everyday moral integrity, and viewing the tortured person as an antagonist who is forcing you to do such terrible things. If only they’d confess, none of this would be necessary! Look what they made me do!

Not everyone in America is a hands-on torturer, of course, but these stances seem to have propagated themselves beyond the black sites. The sadists are easy to identify, as a critical mass of Americans become dominated by spitefulness — these are the people who embrace the dystopian vision of a society of “go fuck yourself.” The “good people” are just as prevelent, though, if not moreso. Think of all the liberals who managed to convince themselves that they should vote for Obama somehow because of his betrayals on civil liberties, as though this showed that they had a truly grown-up and realistic attitude and were willing to do what needed to be done. Of course, we have long been a nation of victim-blamers, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me how fine-grained it is, how it seeps into everyday interactions. We can see it in the blogger who becomes verbally abusive in defense of civility, the public figure who persecutes women to show he’s not misogynist: “Look what you made me do! I’m a good person, and look what you made me do!”

7 thoughts on “A nation of torturers

  1. I always assumed victim blaming was an ill-advised defense mechanism people used to allow themselves to feel safe. “They did something wrong. If I don’t do that, that thing won’t happen to me.” I thought the feelings that led us to torture and drone strikes came from somewhere else, but if I think of it in terms of that need for a feeling of security, maybe not.

    After all, what else would explain people having absolutely no issue with thousands of drone strikes across the world killing thousands of innocent civilians and then going ape shit when the idea of doing something similar in the US comes up? “If you’re bombing people in Pakistan and it’s to keep me safe, well, I’m not going to complain. But if you’re bombing people in Detroit, hell, somebody could get hurt.”

    It’s a similar idea with the blogger Adam references. They’re probably blogging like crazy about how things have to change, but if you point out what they could maybe change, their sense of security in how they’re living is threatened. Then it’s full defense mode.

    Have we always been so “defensive”? Does it stem from a lack of clarity as to whether we’re part of the problem or the solution? I throw that second question out there to tie this idea back to Adam’s “defensive white guy” posts. Are we angry enough to torture because “others” are suggesting we’re the biggest problem?

  2. When I read that first clause, my heart sank because I thought you were saying my comment was. When I read the rest, I wondered where my shower of balloons and confetti was.

  3. Congratulations on your 25,003rd comment, Adam.

    On another note, ‘victim-blaming’ is useful as a description of the kind of discourses buttressing social privilege, but at the level of US foreign policy it’s almost offensively euphemistic. The whole effort to convince the American public to see the bombing of foreign population centers for decades on end as somehow part of the greater good (or a lesser evil) is mediated by a fuck-ton of different industries, voices and discourses, up and down the whole society. The blame goes not to the victim but to impossibly abstracted categories. The actual victims remain unmentionable, nameless. The few names that do pop up are short-hand for often pages worth of the dead.

  4. I’m not sure it is this simple. I had a student—in a human rights class!—who was a former military interrogator for the Canadian Forces. Some of his work has been partially declassified, so he could talk about it in broad outlines in public. Regardless of what he did, having talked to him quite a bit, he’s definitely not someone I’d classify as being bad or evil. Just as, regardless of what farmers do to tens of millions of chickens and millions of pigs, I don’t think they are bad people (unless they start talking about love, in which case I know they are evil) and as most people know, I don’t think highly of humans in general.

    The student joined the military young (16), I guess because he wanted to be soldier and was recruited into military intelligence when he turned eighteen. And, as these stories go, then the planes flew into the World Trade Centre. Initially, for him, military intelligence sounded interesting and better than the alternatives in the infantry (or whatever). He spent the next seven or eight years chasing down terrorists, “terrorists” and people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    His task was to collect suspects on site and “process” them between capture and detention. (i.e., SEAL, JTF-2, DELTA forces break open the door, take down the people inside, and then collect suspects.) Field interrogations. He chose who would be taken, who would be left behind and, presumably, if anyone would be killed on site. In his case, physical torture was not usually an option given he only had a day or two with the people. If they weren’t responsive to questioning, he’d use various psychological techniques: change feeding schedules, darkness, light, sound, etc. Sometimes stress positions would be used. These, of course, are painful. When he was a guest speaker in a class of mine, he had some very fit students volunteer to sit against the wall and see how long they lasted–not very long. But no matter how unfit you are, if you think you’ll be killed if you fail to sit, you’ll last a long time.

    In his view, stress positions did not constitute torture in the legal sense; i.e., were not prohibited under international or Canadian law, but he was certain that waterboarding did constitute torture. Given that he did SERE, I gather he’s experienced both for himself. As an interrogator—taking a professional stance—he felt that if you “had” to waterboard or that if you felt you “had” to waterboard, you had failed. Questioning and less torturous techniques are more effective.

    I gather most readers are likely shocked at this point, but where the area becomes grey (if not black) for me is how blasé he was about the fate of the people he interrogated: he never asked, never really cared, and assumed they either ended up at Guantanamo or their bodies were dumped on the side of the road or thrown from a helicopter. Clear bureaucratic compartmentalizing of the process: he’s not responsible for who the special forces kill on the raid and he’s not responsible for what happens after they are with him, but he is responsible while he’s interrogating them. Like people on this blog like to say, “at least it’s an ethos.”

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