The Human Face of the Torturer | The Center for Victims of Torture

The Human Face of the Torturer

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Andrea Northwood, Ph.D., LP, is client services director for CVT.

I waited as Habib* stared into a far-off space, somewhere between me and the memories that haunted him, as he struggled to articulate his questions. Habib was the first client I had seen for whom a doctor was involved in covering up his torture (though sadly he would not be the last). He was trying to come to terms with how a doctor, a healer, could have declared that his fractured bones and disfigured face likely resulted from a fall.

“Maybe he was afraid for his own family,” he wondered. A reasonable possibility, as this regime went after anyone who opposed it. “Or maybe he just wanted to get ahead, and this was the only way.” This was logical, in a country where most jobs were government jobs, and the doctor worked for the government. “Maybe I was not human to him anymore. I was naked, filthy, an animal without a name.” Habib was slightly trembling now, remembering himself in that dehumanized state, imploring the doctor to admit him to a hospital rather than send him back for more beatings. After what seemed like a long struggle, he finally collapsed in his chair and shook his head. “I don’t get it. I can’t understand how these people came from mothers.”

On August 17, a historic lawsuit was settled. Two psychologists, Drs. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were sued by victims represented by the American Civil Liberties Union for damages caused during torture as part of the CIA program in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These psychologists misused their specialized training to devise a list of torture techniques used on detainees in U.S. custody. 

Grappling with torture is difficult enough, but coming to terms with health professionals who participate in the design, implementation or legitimization of torture is that much harder. I am a psychologist who has spent the last 22 years working with torture survivors as they come to terms with the worst cruelty humanity is capable of inflicting. As such, I am viscerally familiar with how easily it can happen, how ordinary the victims and perpetrators are and how much we don’t want to believe this can happen. If we did, we might have to confront how vulnerable we all are to participating in the violation of others under the “right” circumstances. And that frightens us beyond measure. It shakes us to our core.

And yet, there is ample evidence in history, in the news and in social science research that atrocities such as torture and genocide are carried out by ordinary human beings. Ordinary Germans, ordinary Cambodians, ordinary Rwandans, ordinary Americans and so on. Without facing this terrifying reality, which has far more profound implications than the convenient myth of a few bad apples or psychopaths, we protect ourselves from our own shadows. We also ensure that we will not hold ordinary people or systems accountable, or put mechanisms in place to actually prevent the torture we have repeatedly shown that we will design and perpetrate across cultures, ideological spectrums and time.

In the CIA torture case, two plaintiffs, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, survived the torture; the third, Gul Rahman, died in a cell. Mr. Salim and Mr. Ben Soud reported that they were subjected to sleep deprivation; beatings; being stuffed into small, locked boxes; being chained naked to the wall of a tiny, dark dungeon; and more. One tactic forced the captive to stay awake while hung by his arms from the ceiling, with his feet barely touching the floor, for prolonged periods. The room was completely dark but filled with deafening noise.

These are not different from the stories my colleagues and I hear from torture survivors who come to the Center for Victims of Torture after escaping the most despotic regimes in the world. But these men were tortured by the United States. And these two program designers were psychologists.

And so we ask, how did psychologists become involved with torture? Are these two men monsters? Are they evil human beings? I must answer no, they are not. It is a mistake to misunderstand how easily this happens. They are like all of us, and if we are going to prevent torture we must face this. 

The ACLU lawsuit just settled is a step in the right direction to hold torturers accountable. I support the strongest professional, civil, and criminal sanctions for those who participate in torture. My concern here, however, is how we relate to torturers: whether we demonize them and dismiss the lesson, or whether we pay very careful attention to the human propensity for this type of abuse of power.

Research on the psychological profiles of torturers, albeit scant, has found nothing unusual in their psychological make-up.  A disturbing but frequent observation is that torturers’ motives appear more banal than pathological. In 1990, Dr. Janice Gibson wrote, “As unsatisfying to their victims and to society as it may be…researchers who study the testimony of ex-torturers often conclude that those who torment others and later experience no guilt actually view their actions, at least in part, as following orders.”

Gibson turned to psychologist Albert Bandura’s work to explain how torturers justify their actions. Dr. Bandura had identified these specific “mechanisms” in addition to the displacement of responsibility onto the authorities who order torture:

1.Moral justification of terrible acts as a means to an end (Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the SERE training program, which gave the techniques pseudo-legitimacy as a component of advanced tactical training for warriors, so we could fight terror with terror)

2.Euphemistic terms (the post-9/11 record is replete with these examples, starting with “enhanced interrogation” for torture and “waterboarding” for simulated death by drowning)

3.Dehumanizing and victim-blaming (read the social media diatribes against Muslims in this country on any issue right now and one will be overwhelmed with examples)

Then there is greed, another banal but powerful motive. Ultimately, Mitchell and Jessen’s company was paid $81 million for what a U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report described as their “central role in the operations, assessments, and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.” Finding 13 of this unclassified report describes the two psychologists’ work. Finding #1? The CIA’s use of these techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.

And so, on the occasion of this lawsuit, we must each ask ourselves: in a situation of pressure or great reward from authorities, how long would we hold onto our integrity? Would the line between right and wrong begin to blur as pressure increased? To what extent are we complicit in the ongoing national narrative and systems that condone torture? 

If we dehumanize torturers as beasts or degenerates, we ignore the core dynamics of torture and human abuse of power. When we refuse to look closely at how torturers are made, we create the conditions for torture to become policy. Our silence, euphemisms and distancing ourselves from the topic are essential parts of the problem – this is where we become complicit. As Habib told me about his torturers, “These guys were my neighbors, my friends.”

We must look directly at all the ways our society creates support for torture if we’re ever going to end it.


*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality

Text reference: Gibson, Dr. Janice, “Factors Contributing to the Creation of a Torturer,” Psychology and Torture, Peter Suedfeld, ed., Hemisphere Publishing Company, New York, 1990.


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