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Psychosocial Drivers, Prevention and Sequelae of Engaging in Torture

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Charles Figley, Ph.D.

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Torture resorted to as a method to extract information believed to be of an urgent security relevance to the state not only harms prisoners, but also leads to adverse conditions in the perpetrator. This paper presents a model of the psychosocial drivers as well as the psychosocial sequelae of torture upon perpetrators, factors derived from a review of existing literature and the authors’ interviews with detainees who were tortured and with military and nonmilitary personnel who have tortured. The model predicts the following factors contribute to the likelihood of committing torture: (a) an “us versus them” mentality with language and training that dehumanizes the enemy; (b) a particularly egregious enemy who engages in atrocities; (c) beliefs that torture may elicit “ticking bomb” type or other valuable, actionable information to protect others; (d) annihilating a threat to the existing order; (e) psychological numbing and dissociation as a result of cumulative battlefield traumas; (f) extreme anger and a desire for revenge over the deaths of comrades; (g) poor training to avoid torture (h) selection and training for blind obedience; (i) ambiguous orders and failure to clearly define proscribed behaviors constituting torture; (j) authority figures ordering torture; (k) group pressure to engage in torture; (l) situational dynamics that place prisoners in positions of being helpless and distant while potential torturers are placed in unchecked power positions with; (m) poor supervision, or actual disavowal, by supervisors that torture is occurring; (n) group dynamics that allow for diffusion of blame; and strong unit loyalty and group cohesion; along with (o) punishments for failing to engage in torture, including exclusion from the group upon whom one relies for self- preservation and security. Just as the authors identify the factors that are predictive of those individuals and situations that are most likely to give rise to torture, they also identify the psychosocial sequelae of engaging in torture. These include intrusive thoughts and flashbacks, avoidance of reminders/triggers, social alienation/isolation, self-condemnation with guilt and shame, fears of retaliation and retribution, anger, nightmares and sleep disturbances, high arousal states with the inability to concentrate or sleep well, dissociative personality splinters, suicidal thoughts and behaviors and drug and alcohol abuse to forget and painful emotional states upon remembering. Lastly, the authors identify the practices that can be put in place to protect individuals, particularly military and paramilitary personnel, from crossing the line into perpetrating abuse, atrocities, and torture upon those placed in their custody. This includes but is not limited to carrying out beatings, sleep deprivation, inducing hypothermia, waterboarding, rectal feedings, and other harsh treatment of prisoners.

Psycho-social Drivers and Sequelae of Engaging in Torture

This paper examines the factors that drive an individual to overstep the bounds of proscribed behavior to the point of committing acts of torture—supposedly in the service of the state. It describes the impact of engaging in torture upon the perpetrator and considers what steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of torture occurring. Herein, the authors present a model of the psychosocial drivers as well as the psychosocial sequelae of torture upon the perpetrators, all factors derived from a review of existing literature and the authors’ interviews with detainees who were tortured and service members and others who have perpetrated torture.

The authors’ model attempts to account for the reasons behind engaging in torture and the psychosocial effects upon the torturer. The model identifies situational and individual factors that may give rise to torture as well as good practices to prevent torture from occurring. The final section of this paper addresses the implications for better training in ethical decision-making within a government, military, or paramilitary context.

The factors contributing to the likelihood of torture occurring are as follows: a particularly egregious enemy who engages in atrocities that fall outside the norms of conventional warfare (e.g. terrorists who behead journalists and other non-combatants); language and training that dehumanizes the enemy; strong unit loyalty and group cohesion under circumstances where ethics are being violated; selection and training for blind obedience even where ethics are being violated; ambiguous orders with failure to clearly define proscribed behaviors constituting torture; authority figures demanding to torture; group pressure to engage even when ethics are being violated; belief that torture may elicit “ticking bomb” type or other valuable, actionable information to protect others; extreme anger and a desire for revenge over the deaths of comrades; situational dynamics that place prisoners in positions of being helpless and distant when not necessary to do so while potential torturers are placed in unchecked power positions; poor supervision, or actual disavowal, by supervisors that torture is occurring; group dynamics that allow for diffusion of blame; punishments for failing to engage in torture, including exclusion from the group upon whom one relies for self- preservation and security.

Just as the authors identify the factors that are predictive of those individuals and situations that are most likely to give rise to torture, they also identify the psychosocial sequelae of engaging in torture. These include dissociative personality splinters, social isolation, avoidance of reminders, self-condemnation with guilt and shame, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks, nightmares and sleep disturbances, high arousal states with the inability to concentrate or sleep well, and drug and alcohol abuse to forget and painful emotional states upon remembering. Lastly, the authors identify the practices that can be put in place to protect individuals from crossing the line into perpetrating abuse, atrocities, and torture upon those placed in their custody. Torture, as noted by Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatments (United Nations, 1984; 1987):

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

In this paper we apply the definition of torture (based on an amalgam of other definitions) as a practice used to intimidate, revenge upon, demoralize, and break the resistance of a prisoner, often with the goal of gaining “actionable” security information during interrogation (Hersh, 2004).

While we might hope that torture is a thing of the past, an Amnesty International report entitled “Torture in the Eighties” reported that torture might be part of the routine military and police operations in as many as ninety countries (“Torture in,” 2014). Indeed, as recently as during the 2003 U.S. Coalition invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, Arizona Senator, John McCain, who had been tortured himself, turned against his own party when President George W. Bush argued for loosening U.S. restrictions on torture.

During the Bush administration both CIA and State Department officials resigned in protest over enhanced torture techniques approved by the then U.S. Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez. U.S. military psychologists, contractors, soldiers, U.S. diplomats, and civilians all found themselves in the quandary of finding torture redefined and suddenly permitted, if not demanded, by their employer: the U.S. government.

The Hoffman Report (Hoffman et. al., 2015a, 2015b), an independent review of the American Psychological Association’s role in allowing its members to have involved themselves in torture, likewise shocked an organization with a mission to “advance the creation, communication, and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives” (American Psychological Association, 2017). Through a complex and rushed process, military and contractor psychologists were permitted to be part of the interrogation process at the Guantanamo military based in Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other “black sites” in which torture took place.

These government and association policies, most of which have since been overturned, have left lasting results both in terms of the enemies we now face and in the psychological aftermath played out in the lives of those who carried out orders to torture. Terrorists have often made commentary on the practices of torture carried out on them and justified their barbaric acts as legitimate retribution; a prime example being how ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorists dress their Western victims in orange jumpsuits conjuring up Guantanamo prisoners when beheading them.

While well aware of the life-long traumatic effects of torture upon its victims, there remains the unanswered question of the impact of carrying out the brutal actions of torture upon the torturer—what does he or she suffer as a result of having taken part in behaviors normally condemned by society—whether or not “legal” at the time they occurred? Arguably, while those who condoned, ordered, and created torture programs (e.g., Abu Ghraib) in the U.S. Coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq are now infamous, most of the rank and file who carried out their orders and contorted themselves to comply with such programs remain anonymous. We know very little about them and how they fared long term.

There have only been about 140 analysis or interviews of people accused of torture since World War II, yet there have clearly been far more individuals involved than that (Rejali, 2007). What can we expect in terms of short and long-term psychological consequences for those who took part in enhanced interrogation during recent U.S.- led conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, carrying out beatings, sleep deprivation, inducing hypothermia, waterboarding, rectal feedings, and other harsh treatment of the prisoners under their care? This article examines this question as well as looks at the factors contributing to the tendency for torture and posits potential preventative policy measures.

Factors Increasing the Likelihood of Torture

Military training – “Us versus Them” Mentalities

Soldiers are generally trained to be fiercely loyal to their units (Kaurin, 2016), with military psychologists noting that humans often cannot be trained to kill other humans except on behalf of protecting their military “brothers,” hence group cohesion is essential for training to kill. The cohesive unit acting on behalf of one another may be therefore critical to understanding military behavior—including torture.

Soldiers are also trained to dehumanize their enemies, thus making it easier to kill them (Karageorgos, 2016; Wolfendale, 2007). Those on the other side of the battle are often referred to by degrading names (e.g., “ragheads” in Iraq, “gooks” in Vietnam, etc.) and euphemistic titles such as “the enemy.” Likewise, soldiers often have ingrained into their military ideology that they are guardians of “good” whereas they are taught to attribute great evil to their enemies.

While dehumanizing the enemy and creating dichotomies of “them versus us” is useful in the military to enable soldiers to bypass their deeply ingrained human instinct not to kill, these same applications may also enable soldiers to bypass moral instincts not to torture if there are not clear guidelines and support for avoiding engaging in it. For instance, if a prisoner is deemed outside of the realm of humanity, than the application of morality to prisoners is logically unreasonable. Those who are human can be tortured, but those who are inhuman cannot be (Grossman, 2009). The essential question in this mix, however, is who in reality loses their humanity—the tortured or the torturer?

Every military in the world creates a “them versus us” dichotomy enabling its soldiers to kill those who are in the “other” category. Soldiers will often say that their primary responsibility is to the soldier on their left and their right, and that they exist to keep their comrades alive. Conversely, this same training can be used to persuade them into the role of torturer when they believe that torture may save their comrades from dangers that a prisoner represents, or that the prisoner provides an opportunity for revenge. Thirty-seven year old military intelligence specialist and interrogator Tony Lagouranis recalled that Americans were often shot at and attacked with mortar fire while he worked at Abu Ghraib and in Mosul, Iraq, “Then I get a prisoner who may have done it,” he explained. “What are you going to do? You just want to get back at somebody, so you bring this dog in. Finally, I got you.” He added, “At every point, there was part of me resisting, part of me enjoying … Using dogs on someone, there was a tingling throughout my body. If you saw the reaction in the prisoner, it’s thrilling” (Blumenfeld, 2007).

Annihilating a Threat to the Existing Order

Torturers generally believe that their group constitutes the true humans, and the tortured are dehumanized. Therefore, torture against others is done on behalf of humanity, not against it. Until this myth is broken, it makes slipping across the Rubicon into acts of torture a real possibility.

When our own mortality is made salient—as it is during times of active duty in conflicts and war—we are especially prone to demean and punish those from out-groups who are seen as threats to our basic values and worldviews (Greenberg et. al, 1990; Miller & Landau, 2005).  Political psychologist Ervin Staub wrote that devaluing and scapegoating another group is one of the ways to divide the world into two groups—of “them” and “us”—and allow the “us” group to feel superiority (Staub, 1999). This can be taken to extremes when the “them” are labeled as evil and a threat to the existing social order. Terrorists currently do this by arguing that the West is at war with Islam (as cited in Abuza, 2007; Ahmed, 2003) while Western militaries often retort by arguing that terrorists are evil and “subhuman” (as cited in Daily News, 2013).

Robert Lifton, a psychiatrist who interviewed Nazi perpetrators of medical atrocities, wrote that Nazi doctors who had carried out atrocities saw themselves as “curing a sick Aryan race of racial infection… they had a medical ideology that, in their eyes, made sense of their cruelty in the name of biology” (as cited in Goleman, 1985).

In Iraq, the insurgents were the threat as Abu Musab Zarqawi broke many limits in carrying out terrorist attacks, such as using marketplace bombings, sending suicide attackers into holy places, and beheading Americans (Weaver, 2006; Warrick, 2015). Eric Fair described how he, as an American contractor working as an interrogator in Iraq to fight the insurgency there, became complicit in prisoner abuses:

Detainees were forced to stand naked all night, shivering in their cold cells and pleading with their captors for help. Others were subjected to long periods of isolation in pitch-black rooms. Food and sleep deprivation were common, along with a variety of physical abuse, including punching and kicking. Aggressive, and in many ways abusive, techniques were used daily in Iraq, all in the name of acquiring the intelligence necessary to bring an end to the insurgency. (Fair, 2007).

Sense of Urgency – The “Ticking Bomb” Justification for Torture

Boaz Ganor has written about the Israeli justification for torture in the face of a “ticking bomb” scenario. According to the scenario, the interrogators have strong cause to believe that their subject is withholding information about an action that is about to cause the death of many innocent civilians—as in he or she holds knowledge of a “ticking bomb” that may only be extracted through torture (Ganor, 2007). In this scenario, the ends justify the means, and the torturer claims the omniscient ability of being able to judge who is withholding “ticking bomb” information that torture will possibly obtain to save humanity from inhumanity (Grossman, 2009). Yet, often ignored is the likelihood that by virtue of his actions the torturer also becomes inhuman.

Thirty-seven year old military specialist Tony Lagouranis who served in Iraq from January 2004 to January 2005 admitted, “I tortured people…” He recalled putting prisoners in stress positions, subjecting them to all night blaring music and lights, staging executions and inducing hypothermia so severe that detainees’ lips turned purple. “You have to twist your mind up so much to justify doing that,” he told a journalist as he downed his fourth of seven beers, adding, “All of Iraq was a ticking time bomb” (Blumenfeld, 2007, p. 2).

A British interrogator known only by his first name, James, believes that using brutality against prisoners changes the interrogator as well as the prisoner one is brutalizing. “If it’s going to save lives, you’re entitled to use whatever means you can,” he justified. When asked how does one fight bad guys and stay good, he answered, “You don’t. You can’t” (Blumenfeld, 2007, p.1).

Psychological Numbing and the Dissociative Impact of Cumulative Trauma

Psychological dissociation—that is, the disintegration of normally integrated features of consciousness such as orientation to time, place, and person (American Psychological Association, 2000) —is common in the face of trauma, particularly overwhelming and nonstop trauma. Children who are abused over a long period of time in childhood may develop extreme dissociative splits in their personalities, even forming dissociative personas in which one personality has amnesia for the acts of another. These kinds of dissociative splits also seem to occur in soldiers who have been reported to develop a torture perpetrator personality.

Lifton noted, “I’m struck by the capacity for people to divide themselves into separate people, one a torturer, the other an ordinary family man.”(as cited in Goleman, 1985).  Indeed, in interviewing terrorists, many researchers—the first author included—have been struck by the ordinariness and even gentle hospitality terrorists may play in their role as an interviewee, while at the same time recounting deeds that would raise the hair on the back of the necks of many listeners.

Lifton earlier had referred to the dissociative splitting that occurs in perpetrators of torture as “doubling,” and called it “a key to doing evil.” (Noted in Goleman, 1985, p 2). This doubling represents the psychological numbing that may occur with repeatedly viewing extremely traumatic material or needing to go psychologically numb in order to carry out extreme evil. It may be similar to the process that allows regular surgeons to numb out their emotions about cutting into a human body. In the same manner that a physician develops a “surgical self” who can justify carving up a human body, a torturer may do the same, although for very different reasons (cf, Figley, Huggar & Rees, 2013).

The psychological processes necessary to steel oneself to carry out a healing surgery or the intentional infliction of pain or experimentation—each rely on the individual entering a temporarily available alternate persona that can quite successfully block out his or her emotions and normally experienced revulsion as he or she carries out his or her tasks. When finished, he or she simply drops his or her dissociative defenses, although he or she may have amnesia for some of it, and lapses back into fuller personality, which is able to enjoy a full range of emotions. Thus, surgeons, terrorists, and perpetrators of torture can enter and exit from their psychologically numb roles back into generous and kind individuals, although the torturer may find his or her past misdeeds intrude into consciousness, causing him or her psychological suffering. Some torturers may also not need to dissociate from their emotions if they believe that they are justified in extracting information and the torture will stop once that information is obtained. In that scenario the tortured person is seen as “responsible” for the torture and assumed to be in control of it because they can theoretically end it by confessing.

Dissociative responses, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common features in soldiers who have witnessed killing, particularly the killing of their comrades. Psychological numbing and high arousal states—feeling easily angered, jumpy, and moving quickly to violent solutions—are all common. (Maguen et. al., 2009, 2010).

When a person with PTSD or dissociative responses to combat is put in a position of power over an enemy prisoner, it can be a recipe for disaster. Not only does this person not have constant and good access to his or her thoughts and feelings, but he or she may also be easily enraged and lose temporary control over himself or herself. Likewise, a person suffering from PTSD who is interrogating an enemy is highly likely to be triggered into flashbacks of battles and losses of comrades to the enemy represented to him at present and also experience high arousal states as well as to go psychologically numb to any undue pain he or she may cause his or her prisoner. Moreover, he or she may temporarily lose judgment about what constitutes legal, moral, and ethical behavior toward the prisoner.

Lack of Training and Personality Factors Present in Torturers

In 2006, the Army trained 1,200 interrogators to deal with the intense phases of the war (Pincus, 2006). Interrogators reported that the work is hard and stressful. While their job is to elicit confessions and information out of their detainees, the detainees often resist their efforts and may spit, curse at, and try to hurt them. Interrogators are among the least well trained. According to a 2014 Senate report, eighty-five percent of those who carried out torture during the 2003-2011 Iraqi occupation were contractors, with few having actual interrogation experience and many having “serious documented personal and professional problems” (Goldman, 2015) that should have called into question their employment by the CIA. Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were also far from their families, and often kept up a rapid deployment tempo—spending a little time at home. Burnout in their jobs is common and can lead to abuses as well.

Revenge and Torture

An enemy prisoner is often difficult to face, particularly if one has lost comrades to that enemy or knows of extreme abuses carried out by enemy prisoners. In that case, strong loyalties and group cohesion can engender the desire for revenge and therefore foster abusive behavior toward the prisoners. In Camp Bucca, Iraq where more than twenty thousand detainees were held by U.S. forces, during the recent Iraqi war, two soldiers were accused of severely beating detainees in a report written by Major General Antonio Taguba, who also investigated Abu Ghraib. Taguba’s final report pointed out serious problems at Camp Bucca, including “inexperienced guards, lapses in accountability, complacency, lack of leadership presence, and lack of clear and concise communication between the guards and the leadership” (Leung, 2004, p.1).  U.S. Master Seargent Lisa Girman’s commander reports that she “took vigilante justice against a prisoner that she believed had raped … Jessica Lynch,”(2004, p.1). Girman, who was given an other-than- honorable discharge, was accused of “knocking an Iraqi prisoner to the ground, kicking him in the abdomen and the groin, and encouraging others to do the same” (2004, p.1). Another U.S. soldier, videotaped conditions in the prison admitting, “We’ve already killed another Iraqi just last night when I was working” (2004, p1.).

The Role of Obedience

Obedience to authority plays an important role in allowing torture to occur. In his famous series of studies carried out at Yale University during the 1960s, Stanley Milgram found that test subjects were disturbingly obedient and willing to apply even extreme pain to other people under certain conditions. Milgram’s research participants administered what they believed to be painful and life threatening electric shocks to someone they believed to be a fellow participant (but who was actually an actor working for Milgram)—simply because they were ordered to do so by an authoritative figure (i.e., a researcher in a white lab coat). Milgram concluded that dedicated obedience to stark authority could result in horrific abuses. His central finding was that adult subjects would repeatedly violate their strong moral imperatives against hurting others in favor of extreme willingness to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority figure who appeared to condone the use of cruelty against others (Milgram, 1974).

Milgram (1974) asserted his “agency theory” to explain such behavior—explaining that ordinary people succumb to the slippery slope of thinking they are doing the right thing because they are backed by an authority telling them to do so. In perspective, this means that those who easily turn over their decision-making capacity and locus of control to an authority figure and who subsequently invest responsibility for their actions to the authority figure are the most likely to cross over lines—if ordered to do so.

Indeed, Rejali has stated that real life torturers are selected because, as he put it, “ they are patriotic, loyal, disciplined, and can keep secrets” (as cited in Slovic, 2014, p1) and then moved along a trajectory into becoming torturers. Mika Haritos-Fatouros, a Greek psychology professor who studied Greek military police who tortured during the rule of the 1970s junta, found that these men had been selected during the first months of their military training for their total obedience to the authorities, even when an order seemed illogical (Haritos-Fatouros, 1988). They were gradually introduced into their roles, first assigned to stand guard duty outside interrogation and torture cells and then to actually witness torture and to help beat up prisoners. If participating satisfactorily at that stage, they were then actively involved in the role of torturer.

Thus we see that when obedience is ingrained into a soldier, and there is also a tacit approval of stepping outside the limits of sanctioned behavior, abuses like what occurred in the 2003-2004 Abu Ghraib scandals are likely to occur. While no clear orders to torture prisoners in Abu Ghraib were ever publically revealed, soldiers reported that they felt tacit approval, meaning had ambiguous orders to ready prisoners for interrogations and experienced clear silence from superiors who were well aware of their mistreatment of prisoners (Pryer, 2009). Without dissent, particularly from one’s superiors, torturers can come to believe that what they are doing is necessary and approved.

Situational Aspects of Torture: The Impact of Roles and Taking Small Steps into Infamy

Rejali (2009) argued that the social science on the issue of torture is unequivocal—that it is, the situation and not the personality of the person involved that leads to torture (“Inside the mind,” 2008). This point of view is also argued in Philip Zimbardo’s studies discussed further below. Lifton also argued that while inside an “atrocity-producing” environment a perpetrator of torture can believe that his or her behavior is normal, even desirable, required, or valued by peers (Lifton, 1986) Often, as Milgram argued, individuals abdicate their personal beliefs and assume the values of an institution or group that promotes torture. This, however, is situational in the fact that the institution or group creates at least a temporary norm, which justifies the use of torture, allowing perpetrators to feel justified in their actions.

Torture often begins with small violations that increase in impact and velocity (Cesereanu, n.d.). Once having crossed over a boundary, it is easier to re-cross it. Cognitive dissonance theory, for example, teaches us that those individuals trying to make sense of conflicting information often block out the truth. Similarly, Lifton (1986) noted Nazi doctor’s ability to live two lives. So, too, many torturers choose to justify themselves for acts they have already carried out. Societies that pride themselves on adhering to the “rule of law” operate in a moral war zone when it comes to condoning torture of any type, yet strong situational forces often exist in wartime that can overwhelm an individual’s morality and cause good people to treat others with cruelty.

But interrogators for countries that pride themselves on adhering to the rule of law, such as Britain, the United States and Israel, operate in a moral war zone. They are on the front lines in fighting terrorism, crucial for intelligence gathering. Yet they use methods that conflict with their societies’ values (Blumenfeld, 2007, p. 1).

Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, many Americans began believing that terrorists were using our own systems of ensuring human rights to destroy us. As a result, many political changes, including the U.S. Patriot Act, were put into place. On September 2006 President George Bush endorsed “an alternative set of procedures” for questioning high-value detainees (as cited in Iggulden, 2006). These methods, it turned out, included waterboarding, confinement, and sleep deprivation, among others (Laughland, 2015). They were later outlawed as torture, but were for a time during the Bush administration deemed legal. This made for a confusing moral situation for many serving the United States military, civil service, and as contractors during this time period.

Social psychology experiments and mob psychology informs that individuals acting in groups often trespass moral lines they would be less inclined to cross individually (Reicher, 2001). Likewise, being able to hide one’s identity makes it easier to carry out an atrocity. In Camp Bucca, for instance, American interrogators rarely gave their real names to ensure they were not later hunted down. Special forces that operated “ghost planes” to pick up terrorist suspects and deliver them to “black site” prisons for torture were reported to be dressed in black ninja outfits with black balaclavas covering their faces (Grey, 2007).

Groups also serve to diffuse responsibility. The person who orders torture is not usually the same person who carries it out. As Milgram’s experiments show, obedience to authority and the authority of the group action can be established easily. The authority figure often does not witness the brutality or even learn the gritty details of it—and remains “clean” while others carry out the “dirty” work—diffusing responsibility across a group. The actual torturers then abdicate their values and responsibility to an authority figure while absolving themselves with the rationale of “just following orders.”

Working together to torture also bonds a group in a perverse loyalty that drives them to hide their misdeeds from others, rationalize their acts as justified versus despicable, and punish anyone who would question them. Group pressure also forces everyone who wants to remain in the security of the group to conform to what becomes the new norm—at least for the time being—that torture is acceptable. As Dave Grossman in his On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society pointed out, “the diffusion of responsibility and group absolution of guilt is the basic psychological leverage that makes all firing squads and most atrocity situations function” (Grossman, 1995, p. 252).

Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison study (Bekiempis, 2015) placed ordinary students in the role of prisoners and guards, roles that within a very short time began shaping their behaviors, with prisoners displaying helpless behaviors and emotionally decompensating in response to guards acting uncharacteristically cruel to their charges—these changes in both groups were so dramatic that the experiment was prematurely halted. Costanzo and Gerrity point out that, “because prisoners of war are often held in crowded, substandard conditions and treated like animals it becomes easier to view them as less than human” (Costanzo & Gerrity, 2009, p. 197). Zimbardo and colleagues (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973) argued that the very set-up of prisons—with the power differences built in and social distance so far—makes for abuse.

The whole of military training also aims at de-individuating soldiers, specifically by wearing uniforms, following strict standards of appearance, and taking part in repetitive group drills, soldiers learn to subjugate their individual identities and goals to the military and to their unit. This very thing—de-individuating—is also known to reduce inhibitions against cruelty, as in mob situations when balaclavas worn to hide individual identity make it easier to cross norms usually observed. According to Costanzo and Gerrity, military socialization may be necessary to produce a combat-ready force,” however, this same socialization also “has the secondary effect of making the individual soldier more anonymous and de-individuated. This reduces self-awareness and weakens internal controls on shame, guilt, and violent behavior” (Costanzo & Gerrity, 2009,p. 197).

A kind of one-upmanship also is a factor that creates a platform for torture. Soldiers may start “competing with each other for brutality,” Rejali stated. In addition, “The person who breaks the other person gets all the credit” (Blumenfeld, 2007, p 2). While this may be true, “breaking” prisoners rarely leads to valuable intelligence, according to a 2014 Senate report. Nevertheless, the abusive treatment in U.S. military prisons in Iraq continued.

Table One shows the predictor of torture, abuse, and atrocity behavior identified from the literature and our interviews with victims of torture and torturers themselves.

Table One: Predictors of Torture, Abuse & Atrocity Behavior

An Israeli interrogator who endorses “soft torture” as well as physical beatings stated that there is great pleasure in eliciting a confession from a prisoner: “To persuade someone to confess feels better than beating him up. It’s a mental orgasm” (DePillis, 2014). Conflicts arise, however, as when an interrogator using the pseudonym “Sheriff” recounted, “You try to become friends with someone who murdered a baby. That’s your job. It’s the most difficult feeling” (DePillis, 2014). Despite getting his best intelligence through psychological manipulation and rapport building, he admitted that sometimes the best method was “a very little violence” (DePillis, 2014)—enough to scare the prisoner, but not enough to make him collapse. Shifting the blame to the prisoner, Sheriff stated his prisoners left him “no choice” (DePillis, 2014). According to Sheriff, these violent methods are “not torture” (DePillis, 2014) as Israeli agents tried them out on themselves. However, the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999 ruled that torture is illegal. Sheriff is unperturbed, “I’ve got a clean conscience because I rarely use it” (DePillis, 2014). Yet, he does not want the journalist who interviewed him to use his real name, and he fears retaliation from those he tortured (DePillis, 2014).

Long-term Psychological Consequences for Perpetrators of Torture

Just as enhanced interrogation and psychological techniques such as blaring music, sleep deprivation, hypothermia, water boarding, and so forth, do not leave physical scars, unseen scars within both the victim and the torturer likely exist—often known only to him or her. As a researcher focusing on torture, Rejali stated that, “nothing is more toxic than guilt,” and that such guilt typically torments perpetrators of torture who come from democratic nations and whose values do not openly condone such methods. If you do not feel guilty, you are unlikely to suffer PTSD, Rejali noted (“Inside the mind,” 2008, See Darius, 2003).

Indeed, Lifton also argued that the “atrocity-producing” situation might normalize abuses and lift guilt at the time that atrocities are carried out. However, once removed from that environment and back in “normal” society, questions about one’s behaviors and feelings of guilt may start to intrude, inducing psychological damage from having participated in torture (Lifton, 1986), specifically, Fair notes:

A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I’m afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine. (2007).

Eric Fair, a contractor who worked as an interrogator, wrote about his nightmares three years after his return from Iraq (about a detainee he interrogated in Fallujah). While Fair’s instructions were to deprive this detainee of sleep by waking him every hour and forcing him to stand and stripping him naked, it is now Fair whose sleep is disturbed:

I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself. (Fair, 2007)

Table TwoPsychosocial Sequelae for Perpetrators of Torture outlines the potential psychosocial sequelae for perpetrators of torture that we have identified in our interviews with torturers and from the literature.

Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a perpetrator of torture may manifest as an inability to forget, flashbacks of the torture, avoidance of the subject, sleep disturbances, including nightmares, arousal states, inability to concentrate, outbursts of anger, deep feelings of guilt and self-condemnation, and even full blown PTSD. Perpetrators of other types of violent crimes have been found to develop intrusive posttraumatic memories of their actions. In one study of 105 perpetrators of violent crime, forty-six percent reported intrusive memories, with six percent having full diagnoses of PTSD (Evans, Ehlers, Mezey & Clark, 2007).

There is no evidence to suggest that perpetrators of torture would escape such psychological sequelae. Indeed, a 1983 study of more than 3,000 Vietnam Veterans’ post-war adjustment found that exposure to abusive violence, which included torturing and wounding or killing hostages or prisoners of war, had the strongest correlation with the incidence of PTSD—equal to and perhaps stronger than having experienced combat violence (Kukla, Schlenger, Fairbank, Hough, Jordan, Marmar & Weiss, 1988). Richard Kulka, chief author of the study, stated that whether or not torture is effective or justifiable is open to debate, however, the convincing results of research over all those years and different conflicts has indicated that for those who might be taking part in abuse as part of their duty, torture can have “very consequential effects on their mental health” (“Inside the mind,” 2008).

In his None of us were like that before: American Soldiers and Torture, Joshua Phillips (2012) recorded stories of soldiers who struggled with having come into contact with brutal treatment of prisoners or engaged in it themselves. Some dealt with their guilt by self-medicating with alcohol. Others committed suicide. One soldier, Daniel Keller, admitted to participating in techniques like dragging prisoners through concertina wire on the floor:

If I hadn’t actually hurt anybody, I’d be sitting pretty—I’d be happy as could be…I wouldn’t have any problems. I wouldn’t be on [expletive] medication. I wouldn’t be sitting here doing an interview because I wouldn’t know anything, and I would be [expletive] living life out there. (Phillips, 2010, p.166).

Eric Fair also reminisced about his time in Iraq, “I am desperate to get on with my life and erase my memories of my experiences in Iraq” (Fair, 2007). Tony Lagouranis, the American military interrogator, is plagued with anxiety as a result of his role as a torturer. While in Iraq, he felt “absolute power” (Blumenfeld, 2007, p. 1)) over men he kept in cages, but now that power has dissolved into weakness.

Others report nightmares, feelings of unease, fear of retaliation from their victims and guilt. “You don’t know if you’ll ever regain a sense of self. How could Amy love me?” Lagouranis asked about his girlfriend (Blumenfeld, 2007, p. 2). He further added, “I used to have a strong sense of morals. I was on the side of good. I don’t even understand the sides anymore” (Blumenfeld, 2007, p. 2). Laura Blumenfeld of The Washington Post who interviewed him noted, “Next to a mattress on the floor where he sleeps hang his dog tags. Beside it, in the closet, lies a thick brown rope. He has tied it into a noose” (Blumenfeld, 2007, p. 1).

A military psychiatrist who treated Vietnam veterans recalled asking his group of veterans, “Did any of you commit war crimes while on your tour of duty?” They all denied, and he recalled that it took five more years of group therapy before they gradually opened up and all began admitting to rapes and other forms of war crimes. (Speckhard Interview, January 2003). Clearly, treatment needs to acknowledge, up front, that crossing lines during a war is common, and give permission for admitting to it so that these types of traumas, and the guilt and shame that results, can also be treated. Yet, current Department of Defense regulations require medical personnel to report prisoner abuse if they learn of it (“Inside the mind,” 2008), creating a quandary for those who may want to admit to abuses and receive help but also fear recriminations for having participated in the abuse.

Special populations of perpetrators of torture that must also be considered are the tens of thousands of children under the age of eighteen who are conscripted around the world into militaries and terror groups and are forced to carry out torture and other acts of abuse (“Child soldiers,” 2008). This particular group suffers from traumas from being both victims and perpetrators at a very young stage in their development.

Steps to Prevent Torture

The Act Against Torture organization notes ten things you can do to stop torture and indefinite detention including “speaking out” ( 2017). Humanizing the victims and closing the chasm that has been created by a “them and us” mentality may also help prevent torture. In October 2015, the American Psychological Association (APA) voted in a backlash against psychologists having taken part in American “soft” or enhanced interrogation torture techniques alongside the U.S. military under the Bush administration. The vote and resulting ethics code now forbid APA members to take part in, advise for, or be present for any national security interrogation (“APA’s council bans,” 2015).

While having medical or psychological professionals present in a torture situation can lend legitimacy to it, no ethical medical or psychological professional should be willing to be used in that manner. APA’s ban on psychologists being present during national security interrogations is a serious mistake that should be reversed, as psychologists are by virtue of their very training those who know how to humanize even the evilest among us, and to bridge chasms dividing those who see the other as undeserving of ethical and humane treatment. Our ethics code should dictate, rather than prevent, that we (the psychologists) be the voices present in national security interrogations to speak up against torture and against those who do not follow our ethics code (Speckhard, 2015).

Equally important, having clear public and military policies against torture is crucial. Using “ghost planes” and “black site prisons” to torture on behalf of the United States does not create a clear statement against torture.[1] Neither does allowing enhanced interrogation techniques—that constitute psychological versus physical torture and physical torture that does not leave marks—create a clear statement against torture. Those who are operating in the “fog of war” need clear and unambiguous statements against torture, as well as no tacit or illicit approval for violating governing regulations. The fact that the Bush administration’s attempts to legalize enhanced interrogation techniques has now been overturned, and is now clearly labeled as torture, is a step in the right direction, although one must be careful with such interpretation as President Trump has recently declared that he believes that torture works (Masters, 2017).

U.S. military interrogator Tony Lagouranis blamed the Bush administration for the torture he indulged, stating, “They say this is a different kind of war. Different rules for terrorists. Total crap,” (Blumenfeld, 2007, p. 1). “I couldn’t make sense of the moral system in Iraq. I couldn’t figure out what was right and wrong. There were no rules. They literally said, ‘Be creative,’” he explained (Blumenfeld, p. 2).

Confusion also abounds when the prisoners being held are clearly guilty of crimes and may have killed one’s comrades; however, guilt does not mean that torture suddenly becomes an acceptable method of eliciting intelligence from prisoners. Prisons need clear rules about what constitutes abusive and unacceptable behaviors, and those who are in charge of prisoners must be trained well, held accountable, and strictly supervised to prevent torture, particularly in conflict zones where exhaustion is common, emotions run high, and the desire for revenge can be strong. Normal individual judgment in these circumstances can also be replaced by strong group cohesion and clouded by features of posttraumatic stress.

Group cohesion, loyalty to the unit, unclear instructions, lack of training, direct supervision, particularly during night shifts, and accountability have all been identified as factors contributing to the torture and abuses carried out by U.S. forces in Abu Ghraib, including group pressures to participate and fail to report the abuses happening there (Einolf, 2009; Gourevitch & Morris, 2008; Mayer, 2008). All these factors can be addressed by well thought out and carefully executed military practices, beginning with training and including supervision and oversight.

It is imperative to recognize that torture begets torture. In a study of Yugoslavian victims of conflict, Metin Basoglu found that the greatest desire for vengeance was evidenced in those who experienced their loved ones being tortured, raped, killed, or imprisoned (Basolu, 2010). Similarly, Chechen psychologist Khapta Akhmedova found that the more cumulative trauma Chechen war survivors accumulated from torture, killing, and harm done to loved ones, the more easily they generalized their desire for revenge beyond the soldiers who actually committed the crimes to wanting to revenge also on the civilian society they represented (Speckhard &Ahkmedova, 2006; Akhmedova, 2003).

Abusive prison environments and the practice of torture have contributed to some of the most determined opponents—who will stop at nothing to defeat us (Speckhard, 2012). Often, in countless conflicts we have witnessed how those aware that torture awaits them when becoming a prisoner are driven to revenge harder for their comrades who have been tortured and to avoid torture themselves. In other words, they are often determined to fight to the death rather than risk capture.

In the first author’s experience of interviewing terrorists, she repeatedly found that many would rather “martyr” themselves in a suicide operation than be taken to, or returned to, prison and suffer torture at the hands of their enemies, and there are plenty of cases of terrorists who did exactly this. Chechen insurgents are known for exploding themselves rather than risk imprisonment and torture at the hands of Russians, and they continue this practice inside ISIS, often wearing suicide vests into battle. Indeed, the torture suffered in prisons that many Egyptians fled, alongside the determined writings of tortured Sayyid Qutb who died in an Egyptian prison, formed the backbone of the terrorist group al-Qaeda and their “martyrdom” ideology. Chechens began the slogan, and now even ISIS fighters often prefer to die rather than be captured, citing, “Victory or Paradise,” as their motto.


Torture is unjustified under any circumstances. The victim of torture is not the only person who is dehumanized in order to carry out torture; the torturer also risks losing his or her humanity, and it can be a very long road to recovery. There are clear and predictable situational and individual tendencies that increase the likelihood of torture and, as this article highlighted, steps that can be taken to reduce that likelihood. It is up to us to ensure that torture does become a thing of the past and no longer welcome in modern society.


Reference for this article: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Charles Figley, Ph.D. (April 16, 2017) Psychosocial Drivers, Prevention and Sequelae of Engaging in Torture, ICSVE Research Reports,

About the Authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown

University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Interviews Project. She is the author of: Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS and coauthor of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate; Undercover Jihadi; and Warrior Princess. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and many countries in Europe. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. Her publications are found here:


Charles Figley, Ph.D. is the Tulane University Paul Henry Kurzweg, MD Distinguished Chair in Disaster Mental Health and Associate Dean for Research, School of Social Work Professor, and Director of the award-winning Traumatology Institute. Since his arrival at Tulane he has served as co-founder of two graduate programs at Tulane connected with the School of Social Work: He served as Founding Program Director of the Master of Science (MS) degree in Disaster Resilience Leadership Program and Founding Program Director of the City, Culture, and Community PhD Program. He is a former professor at both Purdue University (1974-1989) and Florida State University (1989-2008) and former Fulbright Fellow and Visiting Distinguished Professor at the Kuwait University (2003-2004). He has published more 160 refereed journal articles and 25 books as pioneer trauma scholar and practitioner. He is founding editor of the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the Journal of Family Psychotherapy, and the international journal, Traumatology. He is also Founding Editor of the Book Series Death and Trauma (Taylor & Francis), Innovations in Psychology (CRC Press), and continues to as Editor of the Psychosocial Stress Book Series (Routledge). In 2014 Dr. Figley received the John Jay College of Criminal Justice honorary degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa. Charles Figley has many passions for which he devotes both his personal and professional time. Among other passions is social justice with special focus on those overlooked. See his civic duty activities. This passion emerged in high school, continued during his service in the US Marine Corps, especially his war service in Vietnam where he worked with his high school in Springboro, Ohio to collect and ship several tons of school and hygiene supplies to his Marine unit in Da Nang for distribution to the children at the Catholic orphanage and school. After graduation he spent considerable time as a volunteer and as a scholar to help war veterans cope with their mental health, disaster survivors, secondary trauma survivors, and others who experienced traumatic stress injuries. He continues his humanitarian efforts today, focusing inequities in the treatment of Native Americans, torture trauma survivors, and the elimination of on trauma stigma.


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[1] Ghost planes refer to secret CIA planes that took prisoners abducted in one country to “black site” prisons in third countries that were also hidden from the public’s knowledge where these prisoners were often brutally tortured.



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