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Complicit Americans

The Mass Psychology of Torture

by WILLIAM MANSON

Torture has its gradations: from the most extreme forms (such as waterboarding) to the most subtle expressions (such as passive-aggressive obstructionism in relationships).

In its most heinous forms, torture consists of confining a helpless victim, who is subjected to physical pain and torment, emotional abuse, and various other degrading humiliations.  Prohibited by both international and domestic laws, the torture of suspected “terrorists” is nonetheless now widely condoned by most American citizens (or so it seems).

A kind of  “torture-of-the-week” riveted the audience of the popular TV series 24.  The disturbing film Dark Zero Thirty rationalized and depicted graphic torture—and was praised by critics and the public alike.  Why, so many observers have asked, do Americans today tolerate (or even approve) of the illegal torture so routinely administered by their own government?

Of course, Americans have long been desensitized to violence.  Everyday life is in itself brutalizing to any humane sensibility.  The average U.S. employee is stripped of her dignity on an almost-daily basis: penalties for lateness, nit-picking “performance reviews,” reprimands and unfair demands, the ever-lurking danger of the “pink slip,” mandatory overtime, and so on.

Without strong union representation (increasingly rare in the retrograde U.S. workplace), the individual often feels trapped and demoralized—with few (if any) options for escape.  Yet although a job, with all the daily frustrations it entails, is often humiliating, the un-employed person is even deprived of whatever modest status is conferred by “working.”

In short: human beings, to the extent that they still can defiantly assert their “humanity,” resent being treated as objects—objects to be “employed,” worked with maximal “efficiency,” and then discarded.

What do such frustrated, beleaguered Americans feel?  Quite often: resentment, even rage–and a desire for reprisal.  But who to blame?  Why not suspicious “foreigners,” such as “job-stealing” immigrants or “subversive” Muslims?  Angry, demoralized Americans may thus deny their sense of humiliation–and displace their vindictive rage, from their corporate overseers onto conveniently available scapegoats (like “suspects” held in indefinite detention).

As described by Freudian psychoanalysts, such humiliated individuals may seek to reverse their psychological status from victim to (vicarious) perpetrator–through a potent “identification-with-the-aggressor.”

From the demeaning feeling of being a “loser”–in a winner-take-all economic system– one may vicariously feel a satisfying surge of “power-over” those detained, harshly “interrogated” and stigmated (as possible “terrorists”).  Let us not forget the grinning, even exultant faces of the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib—“empowered” to dispense abuse and degradation–instead of receiving it.

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).