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Good Torture
Some torturers are born; the best are made

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Mayl 9, 2009

Now that Obama has gone all namby-pamby on torture accountability, and it's beginning to look like some leading Congressional Democrats knew and even approved of torture, I'm covering my bets and coming out in favor of torture. Bring it on, I say! The more, the merrier! Torture all around!

Damn, I feel manly when I talk that way.

I mean, look, it's not as if I'M the one getting tortured. The government promises to only torture people they don't like, and darn it, I'm a likeable guy. They won't come after me.

But you know, if we're going to have torture, we have to make it as efficient as possible, and one of the main problems good freedom-loving Christian nations have when they decide to make torture a function of state policy is that of getting the right people for the job of torturing.

Given how many New York Yankee fans there are, you would think that it would be easy to find people who are smug, or even delight in the suffering of others. And there are quite a few of those. But when it comes to doing so in the name of the United States of America, some do better than others.

It's a generally well-known observation in the literature that children who gain pleasure from the sadistic torture of animals are predisposed to grow up to become psychopaths; if not serial killers then at least severe social misfits, with no real empathy for anyone.

This leads to this question: if children who torture animals are likely to be socially maladjusted and even dangerous, what are adults who torture other adults?

Psychopathy lends itself nicely to torture. Psychopaths have a lack of empathy, are incapable of forming deep bonds or caring about others. They are oblivious to the pain of others. The act of torturing someone doesn't bend them because they were already bent.

They don't necessarily enjoy inflicting torture, and for outfits like the US military, that makes them ideal for the positions of official state torturers. If it's just a living to them, they aren't going to get overexcited and kill the American state victims before any information can be extracted from them.

Psychopaths make darned good torturers, and America should start a breeding program to make sure the country always has enough torturers to beat the Russians or somebody.

There's another personality type that is good at torture (psychopaths aren't usually predisposed to such behavior) and that would be those who have Sadistic Personality Disorder. They didn't set fire to kittens when they were children because they were bored; they did it because they enjoyed the pain the kitten experienced.

When people think of psychopaths, they tend to think of Thomas Harris' brilliantly spooky character, Hannibal Lector, “Hannibal the Cannibal.” But Lector enjoyed hurting people, and this made him nearly an archetypal Sadistic personality. That he had psychopathic elements to his personality is an accurate portrayal on Harris' part; the two disorders are not mutually exclusive, and often have what is called “comorbidity”, which means (loosely) that the two often show up in the same personality.

The trouble, though, is that they tend to go through victims at a pretty fast clip, and will cheerfully lie about information obtained just to make their bosses suffer, too. This is Not Good.

There are other personality types who are at least capable of torture. Fundamentalists can be persuaded to torture in the name of a Cause, usually a religious one. Torquemada is the classic example, from the Spanish Inquisition. The trouble is they tend to see their victims as transgressors rather than suspects, and, being emotionally bonded to whatever McGuffin it is that motivates them (god, the state, their race), take perceived defiance of their McGuffins rather personally. In their eyes, you don't violate the law, or merely oppose the state. You transgress. And that is evil, very evil. A conscientious officer will want to keep an eye on those types, since they prefer to punish, rather than extract data. This tends to use up a lot of Canadians of Lebanese extraction who had the misfortune to be in Yemen in 2001. Since you can't justify your torture department to the Senate Military Appropriations Committee if all your detainees are dead, fundamentalists tend to be a rather iffy choice for the role of Extractor for the United States.

Narcissists are another poor bet to be official state torturers, even though they, too, will often have an affinity for the role. They like dominating and subjugating others for their own self-aggrandizement. However, as you may have guessed from the name of their condition, people with Narcissistic personality disorder tend to be somewhat self-absorbed. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's all about them.

A narcissistic torturer might have a delightful day rubbing his testicles on the faces of bound captives or making them watch in horror as others rape their children, but at the end of the day, the narcissistic torturer is going to have an empty feeling. It was fun, sure, but at the back of his mind, he knows that he was just doing it as an agent of the United States of America, and sure, he loves his country and all that, but it isn't just the SAME. When he forces a Iranian woman to teabag him, it isn't his balls being washed—it's Uncle Sam's, metaphorically speaking. America has the power, and he's just the agent for that power, and that's a position that doesn't sit well with narcissists. He'll want to go home and assert his own authority in his own name.

So he'll torture the neighbors' dog to death, or maybe a few random kids a few blocks away, just so he can say that he is THE torturer, he's the one who's running the show, dammit, and what he does down at CIA headquarters is just the day job. It's not even that important to someone like him. He'll show them. He'll show them ALL.

The astute reader can see where this would lead to problems for the administration. Therefore, they should avoid narcissists as state torturers.

Because the psychological profile of those willing to engage in torture is so very similar to those who engage in child rape – two very similar activities, when you think about it – there is the added plus that quite a few child molesters will be on the taxpayer payrolls and off the public streets, and working their singular talents at the direction of the administration, rather than just randomly. Any American will feel a thrill of pride knowing they we've taken such people and made them happy and productive citizens.

The very worst type to hire as torturer is the person who doesn't have any significant personality or affective disorders. There are a few of those left, but they tend to be in prison, or some other country. We have a rough time of it, you know.

Normal people don't really have any affinity for torture at all, even though after watching a few episodes of “24”, or even “American Idol”, they claim to be for it. It's the ticking bomb thing. Anyone hauled in for parking tickets secretly knows the location of a nuclear weapon that's going to go off in downtown Bakersfield in about two hours.

Which is what gives the government a training program for torturers. First, give them a rationale. The “ticking bomb” rationale is absurd, but an amazing number of people – over half, according to polls, consider that an acceptable excuse for torture.

Next, convince them that it's an “us versus them” situation. Along with indoctrination about how all Moslems (or whatever bogeymen it is this week) hate America, put them in controlled experiments where they can get rewards if they administer mild electric shocks to people sitting in a face-to-face situation. While obviously a more confrontational situation than what you get with someone strapped to a waterboard, it does excite the “flight or fight” response, and a surprisingly high percentage of people will press the button and administer the shock.

The best possible training ground for turning ordinary and reasonably emotionally healthy people into torturers is the role of prison guard. There's a superb German movie, “The Experiment,” that shows how this works. You take two sets of people, arbitrarily divided out of one amorphous group, and put them in a 24-hour-a-day, cut-off-from-the-outside-world setting for a month. One group are prisoners, the other group are prison guards. At first, it's all in fun, and the subjects joke with one another and it's all very relaxed and happy. But then, one of the “prisoners” pushes back a little too hard against the unconsciously-assumed authority of one of the prison guards, and the two groups separate, mutually disliking, distrusting, and disrespecting. Because they wield the power, the guards can make the prisoners suffer, and in order to show that they have the power, they do. That is why so many prison guards are such scumbags, little better than their charges and often worse. It's a great way to cultivate torturers from a population that wasn't mental to begin with.

America has always prided itself on its morals and resourcefulness, and we owe it to the world to have the very best torturers we can find, people willing to torment without (too much) joy and able to extract answers, even when they know there are none to extract.

Good torture is a delight in the eyes of God. Bad torture is just tacky.

Posted: May 11, 2009

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