February 23, 2024

What turns ordinary people into torturers?

Torturers are made, not born, researchers conclude

Article 5 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Nonetheless, governments still torture people in police stations and prisons. How do the torturers feel about it?

Since torture has such bad press, torturers are normally reluctant to talk about their profession. But researchers at De Paul University, in Chicago, who are creating an oral history of Iraq, have interviewed 14 men who were employed as torturers under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Other research has suggested that torturers were forced to do their grisly work. But the De Paul academics found that their subjects volunteered and sometimes even paid bribes to get a secure job as a security officer. They were psychologically normal. When they discovered that they would be employed as torturers, they were shocked, but they needed the job.

They were trained by experienced torturers in how to inflict pain and extract confessions. They were told to repress feelings of compassion. One said that he was told was told “never to show any mercy to those who would want to harm the country or the President Saddam Hussein, who was like the father of our house.”

They were told about the prisoners that “Their sins are huge and cannot be forgiven! Their sins are that they want to topple the regime, disturbing our government and dispersing chaos, terrorism, looting and killing. Don’t you ever believe that any one of those is a victim! We are the victims of them.”

Two of the men refused and were themselves tortured until they agreed to return to work.

There has been relatively little research done in this dark area of human experience. The De Paul researchers backgrounded themselves with information from American soldiers who tortured Filipinos in the war of 1899 to 1902, Greek soldiers under the military junta of 1967 to 1974, Chilean soldiers under Pinochet, Brazilians during the 1964–1985 period of military rule in Brazil, and American soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

The De Paul researchers basically found that torturers are made, not born. Many of the Iraqi men regretted their involvement. They trusted that God would forgive their sins, but one had given up that hope, saying, “I know that God will never forgive me for all the ugly crimes that I had committed toward all those innocent people, and so I really deserve all I am suffering now.”

As a footnote, the Amna Suraya museum in in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan Region, has become a major tourist attraction. It was once the northern headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's intelligence agency, and a venue for the torture. It is, according to an article in Vice magazine, “the world’s most depressing museum”, with life-size mannequins of torturers at work.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge    

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