Carol Smaldino
Feb 17 · 5 min read

Why Torture Needs to be on the Menu of Our Concerns

Call it psychological fusion, even if it is a new-ish term. It means, to me the combining of concerns related to ethics, psychology, morality, practicality, not becoming Nazis and not joining the tendency in much of the world to dehumanize people not like us. It also means that the issues of humanizing or dehumanizing run through the history and present of multiple items, and don’t have to be competing or in a completely different type of importance from one another.

I know, this isn’t new — in terms of dishing out cruelty. There were Roman Emperors that tortured for the hell of it. There were Nazis and Stalinists and there are still people all over the world who decapitate, cut off limbs and torment because they wear a badge or a uniform or have status, and well because they can.

Psychological fusion if you will, is a term I mean also as having to do also with the role of psychologists — the American Psychological Association included — that have played a key role in perpetrating the torturing of detainees related to counterterrorism efforts coming after the events of 9/11 and post 9/11 fears.

And it’s a term related to, in my mind, the psychology of everyday life, in terms of whether it is okay with you and me for enemies or potential enemies or potential threats to our country to be tortured. It is about whether you and I, liberal or conservative want to show our kids — and/or our grandkids — the pictures of Abu Grahib and the picture of psychologist James Mitchell waterboarding a detainee in Guantanamo 183 times — with no horror or remorse at all.

Only recently when I saw “The Report” on Amazon Prime, did I realize that George Washington had himself said something about military torture. The last shot on the screen was the following quote: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any prisoner. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”

The thing about George Washington is that he wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, right? This means, then, that Washington, in my estimation at least, is considered in more neutral, heroic terms, notwithstanding race relations and his, yes, having had slaves to boot. I am borrowing from his language and concern because he was many things, more than any one aspect or action.

Psychologically speaking, we are all capable of good and evil, and the more we are not in touch with our darker sides, the more we are detached from our sensitivities as well, the easier it is to render someone else sub-human and then not give a damn what is done to them or what we do to them. Or what is done to them in our names.

In the past people of many lands have justified actions done in their name by the fact that they didn’t know. One of the good and bad things about technology is that we are able to see many spectacles of horror that occur in lands far away, on our shores where families are trapped in cages, in our prisons where some of the people jailed are raped by guards, sent to death when much of the advanced world cultures have stopped this practice long ago.

Elections are coming up faster than we can say boo, or in some cases boohoo. So then, people, what do you vote for when it comes to torture? In the New York Times of December 4, 2019, Carol Rosenberg wrote from Guantanamo about pictures done from memory by a prisoner there: “One shows the prisoner nude and strapped to a crude gurney, his entire body clenched as he is waterboarded by an unseen interrogator. Another shows him with his wrists cuffed to bars so high above his head he is forced on to his tiptoes, with a long wound stitched on his left leg and a howl emerging from his open mouth. Yet another depicts a captor smacking his head against a wall.”

The thing about all the information we have is that none of it is disconnected. Do we want to be a country where revenge trumps dignity, where we teach these values to our children and theirs? Do we want them to be safe and secure, and caring, and capable of sharing and telling the truth? Or do we want them to be detached from vulnerability even as some of our psychological mantras and gurus are urging people to “lean into vulnerability” and see vulnerability as courage? Do we want to mean what we say or tell our children to share and care and tell the truth while we feel and act completely otherwise?

I want to scream at the pictures and facts I have seen and learned about military torture. I feel particularly aggrieved that people high up in the ranks of mental health fields have said they’d waterboard again and again, and do anything to avenge the deaths of Americans who lost their lives on 9/11.

As a Jew and as a person I have learned this cannot be the way to make sure nothing like the Holocaust never happens again. Becoming as sadistic as the Nazis were does not assure that Nazism will die; in fact, it is the opposite. Cruelty begets cruelty; outbursts of temper beget more of the same, or they cause there to be meek outsides that cover up rages that will become acts of aggression sooner or later.

Torture of some of the detainees thought to have instigated plots of terrorism, have frequently involved the basest techniques of terror and of humiliation. Being urinated on, being made to stay closed in a coffin like cage with dogs or insects (whatever they feared the most) is the surest way to predict that these detainees, their own families, and many nations that see torture as a crime against all of humanity, will come to hate us.

George Washington was born on February 22, a date coming up in no time at all. I am suggesting we put a subject important to him as well on our menu. And I suggest too that psychological fusion can mean that we recognize that when we act in dehumanizing ways, we become dehumanized. What we do influences us, and along with this, the spirit and tone and intention and emotions of our actions are no less important or urgent.

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