The Lady Speaks

Becoming Torturers

During the course of research for Torture Awareness Month, I've often wondered what horrific forces could act upon an otherwise normal, decent human being and turn them into a monstrous, hate-filled beast capable of atrocities.

Rwanda. Cambodia. Germany. Darfur. Abu Ghraib. Haditha. Ishaqi.

What does it take to turn a small-town girl from West Virginia, or a child-soldier from Sudan into a cold-blooded, methodical torturer? What does it take to incite a man to hack his neighbors – men, women, children – with a machete? What does it take for an entire nation to turn a blind eye?

Turns out, it really doesn't take much.

From New Scientist, via Talk2Action:

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. [emphasis mine]

Many forms of behaviour, including acts of cruelty, are influenced as much by authority figures, peer pressure and other social interactions as by the psychology of the individual, she says.

From Talk2Action:

Recent research and scholarship suggests that ordinary humans have the capacity to carry out mass violence and that this capacity can be conditioned. Whitworth University professor James Waller, author of Becoming Evil : How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing has been one of the leaders in investigating the factors which seem to precede episodes of mass violence.

Waller argues that the capacity for mass violence is a normal one and that it can be conditioned, or brought, out by various environmental factors including societal polarization and also the use of demonizing and dehumanizing language, and other forms of hate speech.

In an August 22, 2002 interview for Salon by Suzy Hansen, James Waller describes what he calls "the ordinary nature of extraordinary evil": 

    Hansen: "We always hear about the dehumanization of victims, but how does it actually work and what's the process behind it?"   

    Waller: "It allows us to more easily commit the evil that we want to commit because we're not committing it upon someone who's a moral equal or a fellow human. You see it in wartime: military groups and countries describe the enemy in certain terms — like Vietnam, with "gooks." We do what we need to strip our enemy, our victims, of their humanity. In many ways for us it's a psychological defense mechanism because if we see their faces, if we know they're human, if we know they have a husband, wife, children, mother, father, those things make it more difficult to kill. [emphasis mine]

Now, read this, from an American soldier's blog: [not linked per his request]

5/25/06  […]  Haji sat there on the side of the road in their little shops pointing, laughing, and yelling at us. I gave them the Middle Eastern version of the finger, using my pointer finger instead of the middle, and as another car decided not to get out of our way I sent another shotgun blast skyward. Good timing. Laugh at me, will you.

As we got out off of the main drag it started to hail. I angled my head down a little bit but it was no use. It felt like someone was stabbing my face with needles over and over. More laughing Hajis… more stopped cars… more shotgun shells. One car got rammed and skidded off the road, fishtailing the entire way. Another truck had me shouting in Arabic and pointing my twelve gauge at it when it didn’t turn until the very last second. […]

5/30/06  […] OK, here’s where I get on my soap box and get critical of how things are run around here. Apparently some of the higher ups caught word about the shotgun blasts and flipped out that we (and by “we” I mean “I”) were, in essence, terrorizing the citizens or Iraq. I say “we” because all my leadership was in total approval of what I did. Being in the lead truck it was necessary for me to make certain decisions, decisions that can easily affect our safety.

Being motionless in a crowd of people who could potentially kill you isn’t my idea of a fun time. Honk your horn, motion for Haji to move, yell at them in Arabic… there’s not much else you can do. Hence the use of my Mossberg. And we’re getting bitched at for what we call “escalation of force?” Get the fuck out of here… were you there? No; know your role and stay the hell out of it. The lives of my comrades and me are at risk. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure we get through the city safely. If that includes scaring Haji into compliance with gunfire, so be it. If that includes destroying property, so be it. Maybe they’ll know to get the fuck out of the way next time. […]

More from the Salon article, again via Talk2Action:

    Hansen: "The us-them mentality seems to work here too. It's unsettling that studies have found that that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a preexisting prejudice."   

    Waller: "Most people don't understand how easy it is to develop us-them [mindsets]. Experiments have been done where people come in and a coin is flipped to decide if they're going to be in group A or group B. The groups have no interaction whatsoever, but you ask the groups to evaluate each other on attractiveness, intelligence, warmth, honesty and so on. People in the groups, even though they don't know the people in their group or the other group, tend to just favor their own group. They see their group as more attractive, healthier, less likely to be institutionalized at some point.   

    Us-them thinking doesn't require a lot to become operative. Any simple way we want to divide ourselves as us-them will develop a pattern of thinking that favors my group and disfavors the outgroup. That can start off very innocuous but pretty quickly can become dangerous."

Again, from Talk2Action:

A paper released by Waller – Perpetrators of Genocide: An Explanatory Model of Extraordinary Human Evil … preceding the publication of his book provides a shorter version of Waller's evolving theory of the psychology of mass violence :   

(note : as summarized here, on )

The first ingredient is universal human nature, with its three dangerous tendencies to xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and aggression in pursuit of power.

The second ingredient is the personality of the ordinary person who commits the atrocities and how much it's been influenced by three things: cultural ideology or propaganda; willingness to exclude the victim from the protection under a moral code; and ego investment in an organization supporting the atrocities.

The third ingredient is defining the victims as the "other."

And the fourth is the power of three situational factors to influence thoughts, feelings and behaviors: the escalating process of brutalization in which perpetrators learn to kill (a gradual desensitization or habituation to atrocities); the binding factors of the group that shape our responses to authority (peer pressure and conformity, male ritual and camaraderie, diffusion of responsibility and a distinctive culture of cruelty); and the power differentials that exist between perpetrators and victims. [emphasis mine]

Look at number four again. With slightly different wording, this would pretty much sum up a US soldier's basic training experience. Add in unspoken approval by the chain of command, cultural ideology spouted by the "Commander-in-Chief" and his advisors, along with that same CinC's willingness to make signing statements allowing torture as he sees fit…and you begin to realize that the only wonder is that more US troops have not resorted to use of torture and systematic persecution.


June 4, 2006 - Posted by | Civil War, Government, Politics, Protest, Torture, US Military, War, White House


  1. When one is surrounded by, breathing the death and destruction reaped by the occupying country one can certainly see where any one of the troops could easily have tortured these sad individuals or groups… I find it odd that the BushCo criminals continue the ridiculous line of a a “few bad apples” when psychology and documentation and video and stories and news tells us otherwise… Sad ineed. War is immoral and begetting such is the result.

    Comment by thepoetryman | June 9, 2006 | Reply

  2. I would suspect that tweaking the “news” and dumbing down the populace are also instrumental in getting people to accept brutal methodologies.

    The Chimperor has a core of dumbed-down worshippers that would worship him if he was videotaped giving an intern a coathanger abortion while smoking a crack pipe. To them, only those “like us” deserve human treatment, and “us” is flexible depending on what the Chimperor needs it to be on any given day.

    Comment by JollyRoger | June 9, 2006 | Reply

  3. TPM: Exactly. When the rules are hazy, it’s no wonder soldiers cross the line thinking they are doing their jobs. It’s not “a few bad apples”. It’s an entire command structure from the top down that’s altered, abolished, and jiggled the rules into an abstraction.

    JollyRoger: Absolutely. Dumbing-down the people is a necessary component of power. Stupid people don’t ask questions or demand their rights, and they certainly don’t speak out against the government. Dumb people are also easier to scare, and will approve of anything that means the terrorists won’t interfere with American Idol or the Apprentice.

    Comment by PA_Lady | June 10, 2006 | Reply

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