The Banality of People Who Are Guilty of Torture

Roundup: Talking About History

Dan Gardner, writing in the Ottawa Citizen (Feb. 2, 2004):

Torture is the most intimate of crimes. The torturer always gets close to his victim, physically and psychologically, sitting with him, like doctor and patient, sometimes drawing so near he can feel the heat of the victim's gasps. The torturer talks with his victim for hours and days. Even for weeks and months. He seeks to know the victim, to find his weaknesses and fears, to learn what will break this man. And he does all this while inflicting on the victim suffering so profound it can scar the soul.

How could anyone be capable of such a crime? They must be sick, we assume. Twisted. They must be empty of normal human feeling. They must be sadists. Hateful madmen. Monsters.

In reality, Arendt's dictum about the banality of evil applies particularly well to torturers. ...

It's hard to imagine a worse atrocity than that committed by German Reserve Police Battalion 101 during the Second World War: The shooting of 38,000 Jewish men, women and children. And yet when historian Christopher Browning studied the men who lined up their victims next to open pits and pulled the triggers, he found they were mostly middle-aged civilians. They had families. They had normal emotions. Hesitation and dissent were widespread, at first. When the battalion commander first told his men what they were to do, he expressed disgust; he had tears in his eyes.

These men were mass murderers, but they were also, as Mr. Browning put it in the title of his book, Ordinary Men.

John Steiner, a sociologist and Holocaust survivor, interviewed hundreds of Nazi concentration camp guards. He came to the same conclusion.

When Eichmann left his office and visited a concentration camp, he was sickened. So was SS chief Heinrich Himmler when he inspected a mass execution. In a private speech, Himmler implicitly acknowledged the ordinary human feelings of his officers and lauded them for pushing those feelings aside. "Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500, or 1,000. To have stuck it out and at the same time -- apart from exceptions caused by human weakness -- to have remained decent men, that has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written."

Historian David Chandler studied the genocidal regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia and came to remarkably similar conclusions to those who studied Nazi atrocities. In particular, Mr. Chandler examined the operation of "S-21," a notorious Khmer Rouge torture facility, and found no evidence that those who ran the machinery of pain were in any sense abnormal.

In Greece, psychologist Mika Haritos-Fatouros studied a torture unit that operated under a military junta between 1967 and 1974. Again, she found nothing unusual about these men.

In Violence Workers, the three co-authors interviewed 14 Brazilian torturers and assassins. In summing up the results of this research, Philip Zimbardo echoes Mr. Browning's description of the Nazi death squad: "These are, essentially, ordinary men."

Mr. Conroy examined torture in Northern Ireland, Chicago and Israel and summed up his findings, and perhaps the whole subject, in the title of his book: Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People.

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