Dehumanization through torture: victim, interrogator, nation…and reader

Dehumanization is a topic on many journalists’, pundits’, academics’, and bloggers’ lips of late. It’s applicable, unfortunately, to a wide variety of current situations – the discussion about the treatment of Black men by police forces across the United States, the swath cut across western Africa by the Ebola epidemic, even the overuse of standardized testing in public schools (of course to a much lesser degree) – and brings the reader face to face not only with the sufferings of his or her fellow human being, but also with our own capacity to feel pain, either as victims or those watching.

We may ask ourselves: how does torture dehumanize the individual? In today’s shocking report about widespread and widely concealed tortures that took place in CIA prisons all over the world, we have learned of new ways to torture a human being into prostration, humiliation, total degradation to the point of becoming animal (some inmates looked “like a dog,” according to witnesses). There is total removal of control of self, including even one’s ability to refuse food in protest (and what the CIA interrogators did as a result is yours to read about), and normal human social, cultural, and physical boundaries are obliterated. Basic rights to food, rest, mental calm, and sense of safety are called into question, constituting the psychological forms of torture concomitant with the physical ones in the case of these awful, undercover prisons.

How do these acts, in turn, dehumanize the torturer? In the case of the places examined in the report, the interrogators had been instructed to get information from suspected terrorists, which provided the no-holds-barred excuse that predominated in the earler stages of the interrogations. But the information obtained, according to the committee which reviewed the reports from the CIA and others investigating these prisons, could have been “obtained through other means.” Which means that the humanity each interrogator ostensibly has within him or her was consulted, and then rejected, in favor of…what? Power games? The opportunity for acting vengefully and with impunity toward suspected terrorists? The freedom to sexually abuse and destroy the health and dignity of over 200 men? I suppose one could plead that they were following orders, or that they had succumbed to groupthink and were not thinking rationally…but this is a tough line to toe.

Okay, bad men found. Case closed…or is it? I would suggest that we as a nation, also, are becoming increasingly comfortable with the dehumanization of others through such gruesome and sensationalistic media representation. The way I first heard about this report was through the following headline: The Most Gruesome Moments in the CIA ‘Torture Report’. I felt like I was reading about a new TV show, in the vein of The Walking Dead or American Horror Story. The first line of the story, written in The Daily Beast, went like this:

The Senate Intelligence Committee is finally releasing its review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs. And it is brutal. Here are some of the most gruesome moments of detainee abuse from a summary of the report, obtained by The Daily Beast…

Great. A well-organized, section-heading-ed story that prioritizes the particularly brutal parts of the torture for me in an easily readable form.

What is the goal of writing like this? Was the story of any of the detainees told, beyond his torture? If we really value human life, freedom, and dignity, shouldn’t we consider that regardless of whether or not these men were involved in terrorism, not a single one deserved to be treated this way? And such treatment shouldn’t be a spectacle for us all to gawk at in obscene, morbid curiosity. Truly seeing these men as human beings, we would act to change it…not see it as another, pornographic form of entertainment. And the media has a role in this, as do we: one feeds another in a frightful ouroboros of supply and demand.


To drive the point home, consider that this story rests just below another document of human suffering: the story of the kidnapping of Yazidi girls by ISIS in Syria. After the introductory backstory, the following lead-in appears:

Below—courtesy of the Washington, D.C.-based the Middle East Media Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that monitors extremism—are some highlights of the ISIS rules governing the enslavement of women and how slaves should be treated.

Highlights, indeed. I felt less human reading that story, more like a media-consuming beast who could see humans writhing, burning, dying miles away as nothing more than a slight rise in the pulse before sipping my wine. I don’t know what the answer is to finding anew one’s sense of humanity among such profane images of the worst we can do to each other, but it might mean considering that the media’s version of the story can contribute to the very dehumanization process it purports to decry.


One thought on “Dehumanization through torture: victim, interrogator, nation…and reader

  1. Katie makes an excellent point about media coverage of torture. There is definitely a salacious quality to these reports, which (like most news these days) are designed to be irresistable. On a different note, these torture revelations have made me think about the military in general. Frankly I don’t see what the surprise is: militaries (our own, and any other given the chance) kill people, and worse, as a matter of course. What does surprise me is the consistently positive tone of the conversation surrounding the military in this country. We are consistently told that we should be proud of the troops and grateful for their sacrifice; what exactly inspires these feelings? Is it the savage behavior described in the torture report? There are those who would argue that this behavior is rare, an aberration, but let’s not kid ourselves: the only thing unusual here is the fact that it came to light in the press.

    Liked by 1 person

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