Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Psychology of Torture

Torture has been one of my enduring interests. It almost fascinates me. What kind of an interaction happens during torture, which is probably the only example of a very close physical and psychological interaction which is far from intimate? Indeed, the lasting effect of torture is the killing of the ability to relate meaningfully with others. What intrigued me was the effect that torture has on the psyche of a man who perpetrates it. One of my best friends, indeed one of the treasures of my life told me he had been a torturer while serving in the army in counter-insurgency operations. Initially, I couldn’t reconcile his suave, gentle and friendly aura with the cold-blooded cruelty that I associated with a torturer. Indeed he is one of the most compassionate and warm-hearted men I have had the pleasure of knowing, a man who leaves a lasting impression on all fortunate enough to interact with him. The strangest and almost fiction-like twist is that he was himself captured by terrorists and tortured for one night before the Army rescued him. I wanted to know what effect did torture had on him and whether there was a schism or a split in his personality as a loving and compassionate human being well respected by all who know him and a torturer.

Now, this post is a very difficult one for two reasons. Firstly, he is a very close friend and almost like family and someone may construe something against him without going into the intricacies of the matter and secondly, as he himself warned me, such an article can raise a hue and cry against the tactics the army uses to deal with insurgency. Now, I am well aware of these risks and am going forward with this only cautiously but I feel at least some of us would be able to take an analytical and unprejudiced view of the subject and not be swayed by the first wave of emotions. As for those who have too strong commitments or prefer to live in a soft world of their own, I request them not to read this piece.

My friend was nicknamed ‘Doctor’, which is a common epithet for torturers in the forces. When I asked him why he tortured, he said it was certainly not for pleasure but was to extract crucial information which could prevent loss of civilian lives. He held that while both the armed forces and the insurgents are up to a certain extent equipped to protect themselves, it is the helpless and defenseless civilian population which bears the maximum brunt of terrorist and counter-insurgent operations. If a terrorist is captured and not tortured, he is unlikely to divulge any information and if a terrorist incident involving a major loss of civilian life happens which could have been prevented had the necessary information been extracted from the captured terrorist, the army is both castigated and feels it failed in generating the requisite information. When asked why only some officers torture and why he was one of them, he said it is a sad job which ultimately has to be done by someone and inclination does play a part as not everyone is suited for such a role but while tragic, it is also necessary at times. When asked about the methods of torture he used, he denied elaborating saying they were too severe to be openly acknowledged. When asked if some people died due to torture, he admitted deaths due to torture did happen. On being asked if at times innocents who were merely suspected to be terrorists died of torture or suffered grave physical or psychological damage due to torture, he said at times it did happen, sad as it was, because sometimes the information to be extracted is so crucial that you really cannot take a chance and some collateral damage cannot be prevented. I was interested in knowing if there were men who didn’t break under torture and didn’t divulge any information in spite of possessing it. He said indeed there were such men and went on to mention a particular terrorist organization whose men routinely refused to divulge anything and bit off their tongues with their own teeth to prevent any information coming out of their mouths in extreme pain or in a state of semi-conscious stupor. He said such men terrified him by the sheer pain they could take owing to their faith in ‘a cause’. He reasoned that it is faith in the cause and the resultant motivation which led these men to die of extreme pain rather than divulge any information; otherwise, he held their bodies were as susceptible to pain as that of those who took no time in coming out with all the information.

In a deep contemplative voice, he said that while people who have had a sheltered life and never really faced the worst may think words like 'courage' and 'Iron Will' are merely for literary effect or belong to the realm of fiction, these very qualities are the most crucial in determining whether or not one would break down under extreme torture. He emphasized no one actually knows how much bodily and mental pain can he take for a cause until actually subjected to torture. Many a times, people surprise themselves. Someone who thought he would not divulge anything may start speaking within the first five minutes while another who thought he can't bear any pain may suddenly find an immense inner strength which makes him go through immense torture without disclosing anything. Will and determination are all that matter at that crucial point when the pain becomes too much for the body to bear. After the body has crumbled under extreme suffering, it is all in the mind.

I asked a rather stupid question. Did the torturer take care that the tortured did not lose consciousness? He answered the one who has lost consciousness can always be again made conscious for another round of pain. While elaborating, he said physical torture was always the last resort and was preceded by other methods and ‘psychological operations’ among which was the acting out of being tortured by an army officer masquerading as a terrorist to frighten the suspect into divulging information and other measures. I asked him if he managed to extract all the information from a suspect, what he did next. He surprised me by saying he himself nursed the suspect back to health as his only concern was to extract information and he bore no personal grudge against the terrorist. He reiterated the crucial difference between ‘torture for information’ and ‘torture as a punishment’ and asserted he was not a votary of the second. When asked if he would again torture a man to death, now that he had taken retirement from the army, he said,“ For the nation, yes.” When I reminded him that the nation is an ideological construct with ever-fluid political boundaries, that a region considered an integral part of a nation a few decades ago may be seen as an enemy state now, he saw ample reason in my argument but said it was specifically to prevent such a disintegration of the sovereign state that he served that at times extreme and ethically dubious means had to be adopted. Towards the end, he told me there is a difference between ‘Case for a Cause’ and ‘Faith in a Cause.’ While a particular region may have genuine grievances and thus a case for a cause, it is only when such grievances are articulated in a manner which is at once violent and a serious threat to internal peace that the army is called upon to deal with a situation which is neither of its making nor one which is within its core competence to deal with. He reiterated that no military solution to an insurgency movement which has its roots in a genuine grievance and enjoys local support is possible and the army can at most ‘contain’ the insurgency until a genuine political solution is worked out based on addressing the grievance.
I would try to indulge in a detailed psychological examination of this material in a later stage.

Disclaimer – This article has no mention to any specific country or the army of any specific country. It should be treated as a case for psychological exploration without prejudice to any nation or its armed forces.

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