In 2005 I went to newly post-war Iraq as part of an NGO team funded by the U.S. State Department. We were to train new Iraqi mental health professionals on the basics of treating PTSD resulting from torture and war trauma.
I had previously worked in torture treatment centers over a period of three years, mostly with people from war-torn African countries. I didn’t have much experience, but few colleagues were willing to take on the Iraq trip. We went once in January to train social workers and again in August to train psychiatrists. The American invasion of Iraq had provided an opportunity for human rights workers and mental health professionals to enter Iraq, ostensibly to address the human rights abuses and atrocities committed by the regime of Saddam Hussein (with all the neo-colonial implications of our good intentions in place). We would talk about how torture was inherently traumatic for individuals—by its very nature sadistic at an interpersonal level—and how it left whole families scarred. We would talk about how it would take an entire community to help a family recover from the violation of torture.
We were the good guys.
As our team prepared for the first trip, rumors spread that American troops and CIA officials were committing torture in a prison just west of Baghdad. About six months before our first trip, details of the torture, including photos, were released in the New Yorker magazine. It took some time for the news to sink in—if it ever really did. During our first visit, our Iraqi colleagues never raised the question of American torture, as they were completely focused on rebuilding the social fabric of their communities.
After eight months, our team returned for the second training of Iraqi psychiatrists. By this time, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross had all weighed in on there being no doubt that systemic abuses had been carried out, and everyone in America had been talking about the torture scandal. Our trainings were based in Iraqi Kurdistan, in a city called Sulaymaniya. Psychiatrists were transported to us from all over Iraq, since at that time the Kurdish north was the safest place for NGOs to operate. Among the group of psychiatrists were two from Baghdad. One had a patient in his care who had been tortured by Americans in Abu Ghraib. When we had a moment alone, the psychiatrist briefly told me about the effect of the torture on his patient and patient’s family. We got along well and he was a very kind person, but as he talked I could see in his eyes a kind of distant hardness. I was an American, like those who had tortured his patient.
Of course, 10 years ago American officials felt obliged to be defensive about the word “torture,” and used all sorts of euphemisms. In the States, there was a years-long debate on the definition of torture and how it differed from enhanced interrogation. Outside the States, the spectacle of our internal semantics debate was cause for stunned ridicule.
But with the Reuters poll just released on March 30, apparently Americans are now fine with the word “torture”:
The poll asked respondents if torture can be justified “against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism.” About 25 percent said it is “often” justified while another 38 percent it is “sometimes” justified. Only 15 percent said torture should never be justified.
So for the American public, things have changed since the time of Abu Ghraib. My problem is that I can’t go back to 2005 and revise our treatment curriculum to say that torture, while sadistic and dehumanizing at an interpersonal level for both perpetrator and victim, is “often” or even “sometimes” justified. What I’m left with is the conclusion that, for a large percentage of Americans, being sadistic and dehumanizing is completely justified “often” or “sometimes.”
The language used in this poll promotes a psychological defense that puts people in denial of their own evil impulses. This defense is the fantasy that terrorism justifies the sadism of torture: “to use torture against terrorists.” We project our own darkness into the inhuman other and thereby permit ourselves to act inhumanly.
You may think my next words will be to scold those who will make the usual arguments that torture “works,” that it is necessary, etc. But actually, I’m arguing in defense of the well-being of the American body politic.
I know from clinical experience that when a person commits a sadistic act (as long as he isn’t a sociopath), he risks destroying himself. A small and relatable example of this is animal cruelty committed by children. The reason for these acts, for many of these children, is that they aren’t in control of their violent urges yet. As adults, people often recall these childhood acts with shame and a bewildered sense that the person they were at that moment was totally alien. People involved in torture come away with a similar experience, though on a shattering scale.
That’s the territory America has entered with this poll on torture. Sadism radically decenters the self, raising a question about who is in control and whether you even know who you are. In the aftermath of the act, the fantasy of protection is gone, replaced by the blank cruelty of the results for both people involved.
We need to accept that we have evil impulses; that we want to commit violence, out of fear and ignorance, in response to terrorism. Then we have to accept that these are perfectly human reactions. But as a nation, we can’t allow ourselves to act on these impulses—it's against our own interests. Sadism that is justified by a grim, projected fantasy of self-defense is still sadism.
In the end, these violent acts, however “regulated” by protocols and professionals, are a kind of psychological suicide. Sometimes. Or often.