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Why Torture Someone?

December 17, 2014

I’ve read of four common reasons why people do this: (1) self-gratification, including sexual, to inflate the ego of the torturer, (2) money, (3) forceful extraction of a confession, truthful or false, to serve the purposes of the torturer, often justification of other actions by the torturer, and (4) attainment of information that will prevent loss of life. More than one may apply. The torturer may be a person who physically inflicts the pain, or a person who orders that pain be inflicted. Reason 4 has been so thoroughly discredited that it is hard to believe that any torturer actually believes it.

My own theory is that torture is fundamentally a gratuitous endeavor, primarily a pleasure, and that that is why it is universally found to be morally repulsive, almost to the point of being tabu.* It is a major sublimation of an activity that is tabu, cannibalism, in a ritual act for the purpose of domination and revenge, to satisfy an ego that feels, on a very deep unconscious level, insecurity, frustration, disrespect, and loss of control. Indeed this ego has gone out of control.

The initial cannibalistic impulse of survival is to devour in self-nourishment. Repressed into the unconscious and brought back in sublimated form, it nourishes the ailing, weakened, vulnerable ego; and since the torturer is not really in physical danger nor in need of nourishment, the satisfaction is found in sexual substitution and festishism.

The tortured, torturing ego puts all of its enemies on notice: not even innocence will save them. Indeed the Slaughter of the Innocents is demanded by the outraged ego, in order to achieve a sense of power that is commensurate with its intolerable fear. The enrage = the outrage. The terrified ego of the one who orders the torture becomes the terrorist whom it mirrors, obsessively. He cries out, as God is his witness—the god in the tabu—he will have satisfaction.

He who orders the torturer enacts the tribal chieftan and warlord, and those who design the torture enact his shaman priests (if they are psychologists paid $80mil they are his grifter-priests).

We see a deep part of ourselves in the terrified torturer. We are all Dick Cheney. He avows that he has done this for us, and in our name, America. He is our agent, enacting a deep fear and a forbidden desire of our own—until we re-member our torn selves, as persons and as a nation, acknowledge that we are also distorted, and refuse to be the torturer.

* “tabu” refers to the presence of a god, an entity with transcendent power (an archetypal pattern of our imagination) that is hidden deep within the forbidden act.  The forbidding of the act thus reveals, and in a way acknowledges, the presence of the god.  It also explains the power of the forbidden act, and increases its power.  The god is jammed, and pushes to be released in the doing of the deed.

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