Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb in the Era of Global Terror (February 2018): Who Tortures and Why?

By Julie Beicken

Who Tortures and Why?

Even if torture can be morally justified, a significant body of literature has tried to understand what actually occurs when an individual tortures another individual. These texts have tried to address questions such as, are torturers different from everyone else? What criteria must be met for a person to torture?

The literature that first tackled these questions analyzed the Holocaust. Hanna Arendt’s famous work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil claimed that Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi officer who organized a great deal of the Holocaust, was merely following orders. According to Arendt, Eichmann, responsible for the death of millions, was not a particularly sadistic or morally suspect person. Rather, he did his duty and obeyed the law. In On the Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt advances the notion that totalitarian regimes always utilize torture as an expression of their power. Individuals who torture or facilitate torture, like Eichmann, may be following orders. Christopher Browning extends this notion in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. This important text argues that many of the horrific acts carried out by soldiers during World War II were due to obedience and compliance, not the inherent evil of the soldiers themselves.

Other scholars have extended this beyond the Third Reich. In The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo returns to his famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 in light of events at Abu Ghraib to understand how normal people can do terrible things. Zimbardo has found that the dehumanization of the “other” is a necessary step in the process of committing acts of evil, and that in certain situations, otherwise ordinary people can do extraordinary harm to others. In the War on Terror, the US dehumanizes Muslim-Arab peoples, so their mistreatment should not come as a surprise. Zimbardo was not shocked by the events at Abu Ghraib because they bore striking similarities to what occurred in his 1971 experiment.

Like Browning and Zimbardo, John Conroy in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People argues that torture is something that most people are capable of doing in the right situations. Normal people who torture are not evil (“bad apples”); rather, they are pushed to extremes because of circumstance. Conroy agrees with Arendt—torturers are often following orders made by bureaucrats. In The Psychological Origins of Institutionalized Torture, Mika Haritos-Fatouros examines the case of torturers in Greece to assert a similar argument: torturers are made, not born. Similarly, in States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen questions how we as humans deal with the fact that atrocities occur around us all the time, whether we are perpetrators of said atrocities or far removed from them. He argues that we live in states of denial in order to survive. Like Arendt, Cohen believes that part of this includes obedience to authority.

Sheldon Ekland-Olson’s Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides?: Abortion, Assisted Dying, Capital Punishment, and Torture addresses the broader question of how people go about violating their moral principles while holding tightly to their significance. For Ekland-Olson, people claim that some lives are more worthy than others. Societies draw boundaries around protected life and unprotected life at different points in history for different reasons. In relation to Cohen, this means denying that all lives have intrinsic value. Steven H. Miles specifically discusses the example of psychologists who aided in torture in the War on Terror in Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror. He finds that this behavior was not the work of a few rogue doctors, but was built into the policy of having physicians present at interrogations where harsh methods were used.

An important counterpoint to all of these texts is How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq, by Matthew Alexander and John Bruning. Alexander (pseudonym) served in the Air Force for over a decade and was involved in a mission to get Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He argues that the only way to get good intelligence through interrogation is by establishing rapport. Doing so entails following the outlines of the Geneva Conventions.