Effect of Torture on the Torturer

By Melinda Dee for GlobalJusticeBlog.com

After September 11, 2001, the United States justified the use of torture, or coercive interrogation, with the threat of future terrorist attacks.[1] There are numerous studies about the effects of torture on the people who were tortured. However, there is not much information about the effects of torture on the torturers, or coercive interrogators. What little research has been done shows that committing torturous acts on detainees substantially affects the torturers. Consequently, these torturers, many of whom are military personnel, do not receive the adequate support or resources to cope. This is an immense disservice considering the heavy psychological and physical burdens torture puts on the torturers. While supporters of torture believed that these techniques would yield useful information, most experts believe that coercive methods are more likely to produce information that the torturer wants to hear to make the torture stop.[2] So, was the use of torture techniques worth the price of the effects on the torturers?

How did recent torture techniques form? 

Despite being a party to the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture, the United States ignored all three and implemented enhanced interrogation techniques, or torture, after 9/11.[3] There were no tested or known effective torture techniques to use, so the interrogators were not properly trained.[4] The Army Field Manuel provided two tests to determine whether interrogation techniques are unlawful.[5] First, using a reasonable person standard, does the detainee believe their rights under “international and U.S law, are being violated or withheld, or will be violated or withheld if he fails to cooperate.”[6] Second, if the same techniques were used “by the enemy” against U.S. would you “believe such actions violate international or U.S. law.”[7] In order to justify their techniques “the military either ignored the safeguards the tests provided or defined its strategies and interrogation tactics very broadly in order to avoid colliding with the tests’ safeguards.”[8]

Some techniques were salvaged from past sources. During the Vietnam War military officials created the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) techniques to train Special Forces to resist and survive torture.[9] After 9/11, SERE techniques were used in reverse to interrogate detainees.[10] These, and other techniques that were added later, consist of a combination of mental and physical forms of torture. However, the original intention of the SERE techniques was to build stamina and tolerance to resist torture. This is in direct opposition in implementing these techniques in recent interrogations where the intention is to make detainees give information.

Why does torture occur?

Torture is justified by altering the way people view the detainees. One view, theoretically divides people into two categories: human and inhuman.[11] Thus, it became acceptable to torture the inhuman because they have less worth than the “normal” human. In viewing detainees as inhuman it also establishes a detachment so the torturers can avoid acknowledging the pain, physical and mental, that detainees suffer. Recently, pictures of tortured prisoners from Abu Ghraib provide an extreme example of the result of viewing detainees as inhuman. This type of unjustifiable torture was “motivated by hatred, sadism, [and] the desire for incriminating evidence.”[12] Most could easily condemn the torturers of those prisoners; however, not all acts of torture are this extreme.

Another theory explains how the torturer becomes deindividualised. This is when torturers “define themselves with respect to their roles, not to themselves or their ethical standards.” [13] Interrogators in this mode learn to put their morals aside to inflict severe physical and mental torture, especially when “an authority figure is present and institutional circumstances demand it.”[14] In other words, they rely more on their loyalty then on their personal views or opinions on torture.

What are the types of torturers?

There are generally two types of torturers. The first type of torturer is more comfortable with their actions because they are driven by “religious or ideological conviction.”[15] They are most common in authoritarian regimes.[16] The torture from this type will often result in the extreme forms because their “religious and ideological convictions” provide strong support that their detainees are inhuman. Some torturers at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention facilities fall under this type, partially from their reactions to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks.

The second type of torturers are “chosen primarily because they’re loyal, they’re patriotic, and they can keep a secret.”[17] Generally, this describes a “good soldier.” They may be a subordinate following orders of their superiors. However, their reasons to torture may not always result from a noble place. Sometimes they choose to torture out of boredom from being isolated in detention facilities for too long, anger at detainees for terrorist actions, or competition for brutality.[18] They may be motivated to torture out of fear of being disciplined or prosecuted for not following their superiors’ orders.[19] Even with the best intentions this type of torturer may not be very effective because of improper training.

What are the effects on the torturers?

There are two common effects on torturers: burnout and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).[20] Burnout results from harsh techniques and prolonged interrogations.[21] Another name for burnout is vicarious trauma. Symptoms can include “difficulty managing emotions; feeling emotionally numb or shut[ting] down;” difficulty sleeping or oversleeping; physical problems; losing “a sense of meaning in life and/or feeling hopeless;” relationship problems; excessive worrying; increased irritability or aggression; “destructive coping or addictive behaviors;” lack of participating in enjoyable activities; and avoidance. [22] These symptoms are similar to PTSD and generally occur from work conditions. Once the work changes or ends, symptoms subside.

After some time has passed after the work ends, a torturer may develop PTSD from their actions. Generally, PTSD is seen in returning soldiers. However, it differs in torturers because they often experience “toxic levels of guilt and shame” for their actions. [23] The sense of detachment they experienced to cope with torturing detainees begins to disappear and the feelings they suppressed begin to surface. Often, these torturers self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, commit suicide, or have other co-occurring mental health issues. The Veterans Affairs identified four PTSD symptoms that veterans experience.[24] First, they may relive the event through nightmares, flashbacks, or experiencing triggers.[25]Second, they may avoid situations that remind them of the event including crowds, driving, and movies that depict events they experienced; and avoid seeking help.[26]Third, they may have negative changes in beliefs and feelings by being unable to have positive or loving feelings, avoiding relationships, forgetting parts of the trauma to cope, being unable to talk about the trauma, and feeling that the world is dangerous and no one can be trusted.[27] Fourth, veterans may experience hyperarousal in the following ways: difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, easily startled, and needing to have their backs to wall to avoid being surprised.[28]

Other difficulties in coping with PTSD from being a torturer are the reluctance to talk about their experiences. This includes going to psychotherapy or getting medication. This is especially prominent in the military where psychotherapy and medication can be viewed as a weakness.

One way to cope with trauma is to talk about what happened or how to, presently, cope with the trauma. Two former torturers shared their stories. Tony Lagouranis stated that while he was actively interrogating detainees he first realized he went too far after looking to the Nazis for tips. [29] At the time, he recognized that his sense of right and wrong became blurred, and he continues to question his sense of self. [30] Presently, he struggles with flashbacks.[31] He also describes having internal conflict in coping with his actions while being viewed as completing a job well done.[32] Finally, that “absolute power” he felt in being able to make detainees do what he wanted is replaced with “a weakness so fearful it dampened his upper lip,” a feeling he cannot escape.[33]

Another former torturer, Eric Fair, described experiencing nightmares of the people he tortured.[34] During his time in Iraq he was instructed to deprive a detainee of sleep by forcing him to stand in a corner and strip his clothes every hour.[35] Now, this detainee visits him nightly in his nightmares.[36] Additionally, he struggles with the effects of deindividualisation by recognizing that he “failed to disobey a meritless order,” “failed to protect a prisoner in my custody,” and “failed to uphold the standards of human decency” by not protecting the detainees he tortured.[37] And for this he believes he can never forgive himself.[38] Both have difficulty understanding how they can be held in high esteem, rightfully so as veterans, while struggling with their self-worth.

Another factor to consider is that abuse is cyclical. This, combined with the unique challenges veterans face, contributes to the risk of domestic violence, or intimate partner violence. This begins with deployment and combat where veterans start to lose their sense of trust.[39] Anger and aggression from combat and other stressful situations may carry over into their personal relationships.[40]Finally, if veterans experienced abuse previously, being in combat or war zones contribute to a higher risk of future abusive behavior.[41]

Does torture work?

There is, however, research into the effectiveness of torture. There is a two-step process in torture. First, torturers “break” their detainees’ spirit with mental and physical torture to instill the belief that the detainees are powerless.[42] The SERE techniques were used at this stage to instill “learned helplessness” in the detainees.[43] After enduring torture for so long, the result is often that the detainee gives false information to make the torture stop.[44] However, detainees may not know the information the torturer wants or did not commit the acts the torturer suspects.[45] So, in these situations, torture is unnecessary and harms both the tortured and torturer, without producing reliable information.

Rather, psychological techniques, such as building rapport, have a higher chance of success in obtaining reliable, correct information.[46] The goal of rapport building in interrogations is to establish a relationship.[47] Building rapport has the opposite effect of torture because it focuses on getting to know the detainees and their positives, rather than the negative.[48] This is especially important because the goal is to get detainees to give reliable information and torture results in the detainees’ refusing to work with their torturer.[49] Some rapport building techniques include learning the background of detainees, providing food and drink during interrogation, acting in a culturally sensitive manner, being patient in building a relationship, offering rewards, and most important, treating the detainees with respect.[50]

Considering the numerous negative effects of torture on torturers it is not worth the price to continue implementing torture techniques. Especially when there is a high probability that information obtained from torture is unreliable. Rather, there are more benefits to implementing reliable, tested techniques and to adequately train interrogators. This will ensure the integrity of the interrogation.

Melinda Dee is a 3L from Monument Valley, Utah and is a member of the Navajo tribe. Melinda is a law clerk at the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association and worked as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker prior to law school. She plans to work in criminal defense upon graduation.


[1] Robert T. Muller, CIA torture techniques harm interrogators as well, Psychology Today (Aug. 18, 2016), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201608/cia-torture-techniques-harm-interrogators-well.

[2] Daniel Goleman, The torturer’s mind: complex view emerges, The New York Times (May 14, 1985), http://www.nytimes.com/1985/05/14/science/the-torturer-s-mind-complex-view-emerges.html?pagewanted=all.

[3] Peter Jan Honigsberg, The Consequences today of the United States’ Brutal Post-9/11 Interrogation Techniques, 31 ND J.L. Ethics & Pub Pol’y 29, 29 (2017); see also M. Cherif Bassiouni, The Institutionalization of Torture under the Bush Administration, 37 Case W. Res. J. Int’l L. 389, 389 (2006).

[4] Id. at 30.

[5] Id. at 31.

[6] Department of the Army, Field Manuel 34-52, Intelligence Interrogation, 1-9 (1992) https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm34-52.pdf.

[7] Id.

[8] Honigsberg, supra note 3, at 31.

[9] David Luban & Henry Shue, Mental Torture: A critique of erasures in U.S. law, 100 Geo. L.J. 823, 833-34 (2012).

[10] Id.

[11] Max Dofman, The psychology of the torturer, Huffington Post (Dec. 17, 2014), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/max-dorfman/the-psychology-of-the-tor_b_6327980.html.

[12] Sherry F. Colb, Why is torture “different” and how “different” is it?, 30 Cardozo L. Rev. 1411, 1417 (2009).

[13] Shane O’Mara, The interrogator’s soul, Aeon Essays (Nov. 23, 2015), https://aeon.co/essays/an-ordinary-person-becomes-a-torturer-with-surprising-ease.

[14] Id.

[15] Lydia DePillis, This is how it feels to torture, Washington Post (Dec. 11, 2014), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/storyline/wp/2014/12/11/this-is-how-it-feels-to-torture/?utm_term=.107477c8fb0f.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Honigsberg, supra note 3, at 40.

[20] DePillis, supra note 15.

[21] Id.

[22] Office for Victims of Crime, The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit, Office of Justice Programs, https://vtt.ovc.ojp.gov/what-is-vicarious-trauma (last visited on November 12, 2017).

[23] DePillis, supra note 15; see also Honigsberg, supra note 3, at 80-81.

[24] Symptoms of PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/symptoms_of_ptsd.asp (last updated Aug. 13, 2015).

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Laura Blumenfeld, The tortured lives of interrogators, Washington Post (June 4, 2007), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/06/03/AR2007060301121_pf.html.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Eric Fair. An Iraq Interrogator’s Nightmare. Washington Post (Feb. 9, 2007), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/08/AR2007020801680.html.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Military & Veteran IPV, Battered Women’s Justice Project, http://www.bwjp.org/our-work/topics/military-ipv.html (last visited on Nov. 18, 2017).

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] Luban, supra note 9, at 856-57, 859.

[43] Honigsberg, supra note 3, at 48.

[44] Goleman, supra note 2.

[45] Luban, supra note 9, at 859.

[46] Jonathan P. Vallano and Nadja Schreiber Compo, Rapport-Building with Cooperative Witnesses and Criminal Suspects: A Theorectical and Empirical Review, 21 Psych. Pub. Pol. and L. 85, 93 (Feb. 2015).

[47]Id. at 86.

[48] Honisberg, supra note 3, at 55.

[49] Id. at 56.

[50] Id. at 68-69.