Up for it
Monsters or ordinary people - who are the torturers?
by John Conroy
New Internationalist magazine, September 2000
In January 1991, I went to Zimbabwe to meet Bruce Moore-King,
a fellow writer. We had much in common. Moore-King had published
a novel about life in the Rhodesian army. I had written a book
about life in west Belfast. We had at different points argued
with the same publishing conglomerate.
We were the same height, roughly the same age, and some of
our ancestors came from the same part of Ireland. I had gone to
some extent to meet him because I wanted to learn how, as a young
man, he had come to torture both adults and children.
He attributed his willingness to take on that profession to
four factors. He'd attended a boarding school, run on a British
model, which he said imparted a colonial mentality and exerted
a certain rigid discipline. He'd swallowed whole the state's propaganda,
which depicted the guerrillas as communists who would ruin the
nation. He also admitted to suffering from a certain naiveté
- he saw army life as glamorous ('I dreamed of being an officer
with a sword,' he told me). And, finally, he had been tortured
himself as part of his army training.
The torture came at the end of an escape and evasion course.
Moore-King and the others on the course were 'captured', handcuffed,
hooded and taken to a room that was flooded with ten inches of
cold water. Through the night they remained handcuffed and hooded,
not allowed to talk or touch a wall for support. Every half-hour
a light was switched on and two soldiers hosed down the prisoners
with cold water.
In the morning Moore-King was taken out of the room and was
made to kneel on rough cement. Protruding stones cut into his
knees. An interrogator asked questions, Moore-King refused to
answer and his captors then put a hose to his forehead. Water
streamed down the front of the hood that covered his face.
'You can almost breathe,' he recalled. 'The bag goes into
your mouth and nose and you can suck a bit of air through it,
but not enough to keep you going. The feeling of asphyxiation,
of drowning, builds up slowly, so it hits you quite hard. The
main thing is the fear. I was scared, and deep down inside I knew
it was an exercise, but for some guy who doesn't know if he is
going to be killed or shot or whatever, the fear must be tremendous.'
After that training Moore-King eventually joined the Grey's
Scouts, a branch of the army set up to track guerrillas in the
countryside, and he rose to the rank of sergeant. The Grey's Scouts
were on horseback, the guerrillas were on foot. When the tracks
led into a kraal - a small village in the bush - it would be impossible
to separate the guerrillas' tracks from the local residents',
and in that situation Moore-King would pull a young man from the
crowd and ask where the guerrillas had gone. If the man pleaded
ignorance, Moore-King might pull a dynamo from his pack, attach
alligator clips to the man's ears and turn the crank.
As years passed and the conflict escalated, the Grey's Scouts
often found themselves in villages populated only by women, children
and old men. The usual suspects - young males - would all be away
with the guerrillas. In that instance, Moore-King would find the
village elder. The most efficient method of questioning, he says,
was not to torture the elder but to find the elder's grandson.
Once the grandson was in hand, Moore-King would order a soldier
to hold the child by the ankles and lower his head into a bucket
of water. The boy would be brought up for air just before he drowned
and would be set on the ground, where he would spew water, writhe
in pain, and weep from fear. The process would be repeated until
the old man talked.
'Beating people up, physically assaulting people, that happened
fairly irregularly,' Moore-King told me. 'Because that sort of
thing requires anger, or a particular sort of mentality that could
take someone and cold-bloodedly beat him to a pulp, and we didn't
operate on anger or sadism or anything like that. And this is
probably more horrific. It became a function. It became a part
of the job. It became standard operating procedure.'
Moore-King's progression to the point of casual torturer was
similar, in some ways, to the paths of two Greek torturers I'd
interviewed the previous year. They bought into the state propaganda,
they believed they were the cornerstone of a regime threatened
by communists, and they had been tortured during their training.
Like Moore-King, they went on to torture others dispassionately,
often not knowing even the names of their victims.
But after interviewing other torturers I came to doubt the
necessity of the severe training. Hugo Garcia, who worked as a
torturer in Uruguay, told me that he had been selected for the
torturer's unit precisely because he had had no military training
at all. He'd been a clerk on the same army base that housed the
unit. They were looking for someone who could follow alleged subversives
without being noticed, and they thought that someone who had no
military background might be less suspect. Similarly, the men
I interviewed from the Israeli Defence Forces who gave orders
to break the arms and legs of Palestinians at the outset of the
intifada had no complaint about their training. They received
an order and they obeyed, knowing nothing about the men whose
bones would be broken.
Don Dzagulones, an American who served as an interrogator
in Vietnam, told me that he was not trained, that torture was
simply the milieu. Upon arrival at his post at Duc Pho in January
1969, Dzagulones was assigned to observe other interrogators before
he did it himself
One of the first interrogations he witnessed was the questioning
of a Viet Cong suspect whose leg had been blown off by an artillery
shell. A team of interrogators was questioning the man while they
waited for a helicopter to evacuate him. The brigade intelligence
officer became frustrated at the interrogators' lack of progress
and took over, prodding the man's wounds with a pencil as he posed
his questions. 'This is a major,' Dzagulones told me, 'and he
was surrounded by captains, lieutenants, doctors, nurses. Nobody
gave a shit. Torturing prisoners was wholesale, rampant, at every
So what then makes a torturer? It seems to me that in most
cases it takes nothing more than an order. An authority figure
commands. We obey. Stanley Milgram was right: most of us are sheep.
In his obedience studies in the 1960s, the Yale psychologist had
volunteers, acting as teachers, read lists of questions to a learner.
For every wrong answer, the teacher flipped a switch that gave
the learner an electric shock. As the shocks got higher, the learner
began to scream in protest (the learner was actually in league
with the experimenters and received no shocks at all). Milgram
found that as long as an authority figure was present insisting
that the experiment must continue, 60 per cent of the volunteers
flipped switches ranging from 'Very Strong Shock' to 'Danger:
Severe Shock' and finally'XXX' the designation above the switch
for 450 volts. Males and females had equal rates of obedience.
There are certainly other contributing factors in the making
of a torturer. It is perhaps easier to do it if you have been
brutalized yourself. It is certainly easier to torture if you
understand that none of your comrades will turn you in for it
and if the victim is from that segment of the population, demonized,
dehumanized and beyond the pale of our compassion, that makes
up the torturable class.
In Chicago, my hometown, the torturable class is made up of
African Americans with criminal records. They were tortured for
more than a decade by detectives from the Area 2 Violent Crimes
unit, a conclusion reached by the Chicago Police Department's
own investigation. That study was released in 1992, yet seven
years passed before the city's two leading daily newspapers called
for an inquiry, and that lack of concern is merely a reflection
of the attitudes prevalent in the broader community. Ten of the
men who claimed to have been tortured at Area 2 sit on death row,
having landed there as a result of confessions that are now quite
suspect. Even today, ten years after the first revelations of
torture, there is no broad-based movement calling for a review
of the victims' convictions and for censure of torturers still
serving on the police force.
It is thus easier to torture if the broader society sanctions
what you are doing or looks the other way. The torturer feels
absolved of responsibility- he carries out the wishes of his fellow
citizens and the citizens, of course, feel equally blameless.
Among Milgram's variations on his basic experiment was a version
with two teachers, one reading the questions, the other (a secret
confederate of the experimenters) flipping the switches.
In the two-teacher variation, 92 per cent of the volunteers
carried out their duties even as their peer applied the most extreme
shock on the instrument panel. Though the learner begged and screamed,
the obedient subjects felt little responsibility - after all,
they weren't flipping the switches.
Some no doubt wondered what kind of monster could inflict
John Conroy is staff writer for the Chicago Reader and the
author of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture,
published by Knopf in the US and by Vision in Britain.
Policy and Pentagon