The men who tortured other men weren’t recognizable as men. They hid in the back of balaclavas and goggles whilst they forced their sufferers to stand naked against walls, or huddle naked inside coffins, or lie naked on top of other sufferers. The torturers were anonymous, their sufferers exposed.
But though the torturers appeared inhuman and acted in ways that seem inhuman, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the fact they, like us, are human indeed. And so we’re each left with the question that echoes from the crevices of all manmade cruelties, big and small: How could they?
They did it for security, for revenge, for the sheer thrill of it: these three answers have orbited America’s torture report. None are totally fallacious. Nor are they easily compatible with each other or wholly complete on their own.
The torturers and their enablers provided the first answer themselves, anxious to excuse the inexcusable. By torturing a hundred bad guys, they said, thousands of good guys were kept protected.
Critics initially responded to this answer as if it were a foolish argument that was at least made in good faith. “Torture isn’t a reliable interrogation method!” they cried, as though the world’s most powerful intelligence agency hadn’t been aware of a well-established fact about intelligence, and had committed a policy error by misjudging the efficacy of savagery.
But critics soon realized that the CIA’s answer was worse than incorrect. It was disingenuous. Even lazy readers need not suffer through various dozen pages of the 500-page report summary before the CIA’s own records reveal that torture stemmed the tide of accurate information slightly than sped it along.
So people horrified by torture had to grasp clumsily for explanations of why anyone would commit it. Some claim America’s state-sanctioned torture sprang from the sadistic desire to inflict injury for the pure satisfaction of it. Others believe torture was grounded solely in the vengeful desire to inflict injury in retaliation for past suffering.
Both answers point to something ugly, but different kinds of ugly. With sadism, all morality has been lost: there’s only pleasure in someone else’s pain. With revenge, a moral system has been perverted: there’s justice only in someone else’s pain.
The sadism argument situates torture squarely in the psychological satisfaction of torturing. After all, when authority figures give the go-ahead, torturers take a grisly amount of creative initiative. But institutionalized mass atrocities aren’t amoral, strictly speaking: they support and are reinforced by particular moral beliefs. And state-sanctioned torture serves political purposes for torturers too, forging propaganda in the fire of forced confessions and soldering group bonds in the heat of power’s exercise.
The revenge argument doesn’t imply that torture is divorced from moral beliefs, but it does distort their relationship. It doesn’t rule out political payoffs from torture, but it doesn’t illuminate them either. America supposedly meted out accountability for 9/11 in black sites, not courts — the institutional equivalent of vigilante justice. It’s an intuitive but intellectually shallow explanation, suggesting a simple cause-and-effect relationship between one incorrect and another, ignoring shifting constellations of historical resentments and power-grabs that engulf individual grievances, and ways in which torture can reap important political returns, not just illusory redress.
Officials didn’t sanction torture, agents didn’t commit it and citizens didn’t condone it for only security, revenge or sadistic pleasure. They sought domination over members of a group considered inherently threatening and, thus, inherently immoral.
While torture didn’t produce reliable intelligence, it shored up feelings of security. It conveyed the strength — physical, psychological and political — of those who possess the national, religious and racial affiliations that give them de facto dominion over morality. If a group embodies morality, forceful assertions of its dominance are necessarily moral. And hey, on occasion it feels good to hurt the bad guy.
When one group seeks existential domination over another, torture is justified, or not, depending on the man in the back of the balaclava.
Shannon Gormley is a Canadian journalist based in Istanbul.