The Third Eye The interrogator’s soul
By Samiul Bashar Samin
Most people assume that torturing another human being is something only a minority are capable of doing. Waterboarding requires the use of physical restraints – perhaps only after a physical struggle – unless the captive willingly submits to the process. Slapping or hitting another person, imposing extremes of temperature, electrocuting them, requires active others who must grapple with, and perhaps subdue, the captive, imposing levels of physical contact that violate all norms of interpersonal interaction.
Torturing someone is not easy, and subjecting a fellow human being to torture is stressful for all but the most psychopathic. In None of Us Were Like This Before (2010), the journalist Joshua Phillips recounts the stories of American soldiers in Iraq who turned to prisoner abuse, torment and torture. Once removed from the theatre of war and the camaraderie of the battalion, intense, enduring and disabling guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse follow. Suicide is not uncommon.
What would it take for an ordinary person to torture someone else – perhaps electrocute them, even to the point of (apparent) death?
Anecdotally, it’s clear that many people who have engaged in torturing others show great distress over what they have done, and some, if not many, pay a high psychological price. Why is this?
Humans are empathic beings. With certain exceptions, we are capable of simulating the internal states that other humans experience; imposing pain or stress on another human comes with a psychological cost to ourselves.
Those of us who are not psychopaths, have not been deindividuated, and are not acting on the instructions of a higher authority do, indeed, have a substantial capacity for sharing the experiences of another person – for empathy. Over the past 15 to 20 years, neuroscientists have made substantial strides in understanding the brain systems that are involved in empathy. What is the difference, for example, between experiencing pain yourself and watching pain in another human? What happens in our brains when we see another in pain or distress, especially somebody with whom we have a close relationship?
In what has to be one of the most remarkable findings in brain imaging, it has now been shown repeatedly that when we see another person in pain, we experience activations in our pain matrix that correspond to the activations that would occur if we were experiencing the same painful stimuli (without the sensory input and motor output, because we have not directly experienced an assault to the surface of the body). This core response accounts for the sudden wincing shock and stress we feel when we see someone sustain an injury.
This leaves us with the cognitive space for the rational evaluation of alternatives that are not possible when one is experiencing the actual stressor. No matter how great our capacity to identify with others, there are elements missing because we are not directly experiencing the sensory and motor components of a stressor. We lack the capacity to fully feel our way into the state of another person who is being subjected to predator stress, and experiencing an extreme loss of control over his or her own bodily integrity. This space is known as the empathy gap.
This might explain why, when torture is institutionalised, it becomes the possession of a self-regarding, self-supporting, self-perpetuating and self-selecting group, housed in secret ministries and secret police forces. Under these conditions, social supports and rewards are available to buffer the extremes of behaviour that emerge, and the acts are perpetrated away from public view. When torture happens in a democracy, there is no secret society of fellow torturers from whom to draw succor, social support, and reward. Engaging in physical and emotional assaults upon the defenceless and eliciting worthless confessions and dubious intelligence is a degrading, humiliating, and pointless experience. The units of psychological distance here can be measured down the chain of command, from the decision to torture being a ‘no-brainer’ for those at the apex to ‘losing your soul’ for those on the ground.