The tortured, not the torturers, are ashamed

The tortured, not the torturers, are ashamed

David Shapiro

The Tortured and the Torturers

PRIMO Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, tells us that survivors of the Nazi camps felt shame about their experience (1989: 73). Levi calls that shame “absurd” and “paradoxical”; he says that “on a rational plane, there should not have been much to be ashamed of, but shame persisted nevertheless” (77). Paradoxical though it may be, it is apparently common among victims of torture or violent coercion. According to Dr. Murat Paker, director of clinical programs at the New York-based Safe Horizons/Solace Program for Survivors of Torture and Refugee Trauma, shame is a major psychological issue for survivors of torture. Reports or evidence of such shame have also come from numerous other sources. It is well known that women who have been raped are often, perhaps typically, deeply ashamed of the experience. Even those women willing to talk about their rape before the South African Truth Commission did so behind a screen (Hayner, 2002: 78). The Algerians of the National Liberation Front who were tortured by the French military during the Algerian struggle for independence were reportedly advised to avoid speaking of their experience because they felt ashamed (Schatz, 2002: 53). The reaction was apparently known, also, among former American slaves: one, interviewed in North Carolina in 1937, is quoted by Cornel West: “My folks don’t want me to talk about slavery. They’s shame niggers ever was slaves” (Gates, 2003). Survivors of torture in Chile under the Pinochet regime are described by Chilean psychologists as fearing “being devalued for having gone through such an experience” (Cienfuegos and Monelli, 1983: 50) and they are treated with the aim of “restoration of serf-esteem” (43). In general, of course, people are reluctant to speak directly of feeling ashamed, since to acknowledge shame is (in their eyes) to admit that there is something to be ashamed of. So we must sometimes rely on indirect indications of shame, or efforts to dispel it, to identify it. The defensiveness or the exaggerated and extremely sensitive pride that I will describe in more detail later are indications of that sort.

When Levi speaks of the irrationality of shame in this connection, he is speaking of people who of their own choice have done little or nothing to be ashamed of, but on the contrary have suffered the shameful acts of others. It is true that they have been forced to endure experiences or perform actions that in themselves might be considered shameful. But, in Levi’s phrase, “on a rational plane” the fact that these actions were coerced and were in no way carried out at their own initiative might be thought to obviate shame. Not at all. It seems that the very condition of subjugation has the opposite effect; it intensifies or adds to feelings of shame. In other words, it is not only the experiences these people were forced to endure or the actions they were forced to perform but their very helplessness and inability to resist that is reason for shame. It is the fact of subjugation itself that is damaging to self-respect. The shame of this kind of subjugation can extend even to those who identify themselves closely with the torture victim. The daughter of a former camp inmate tells us that on learning of her father’s having been beaten and humiliated, she thought, “How could my father, so tall, so strong, let that happen?” (Epstein, 1979: 62) The idea that prisoners in the Nazi camps simply “let that happen” is, as we know, not rare and something of that idea seems to be present in the victim’s own shame.

As for the perpetrators of torture, the rapists, the enforcers of apartheid, the Nazi medical experimenters, and the rest, there is little evidence of shame. A former police torturer in what was then Rhodesia seems to be typical; when asked if he felt any guilt (in this case we may assume that the question was understood to include shame), he “acknowledged none and showed none” (Conroy, 9000: 93). Torturers under the junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, report that, after training, acts of torture came to seem routine; it “became a job” (Conroy, 9000: 94). Robert Lifton’s interviews with former Nazi medical experimenters indicate the same attitude: the process of selection became “almost routine,” after some initial disturbance (Lifton, 1986: 175).An Argentine officer says simply, “I was (at the time) totally absorbed in my career” (Verbitsky, 1996: 55).

Writing of his interviews with the German doctors who had 30 or 40 years earlier conducted medical experiments on prisoners in the camps, Lifton says it was his impression that many of them “retained pockets of guilt and shame, to which they did not have awareness” (Lifton, 1986: 8). But he adds on the same page that “none of them–not a single former Nazi doctor I spoke to-arrived at a clear ethical evaluation of what he had done.” No one can say of course that shame was totally absent in these men, certainly not if we allow for the possibility of such feeling beneath conscious awareness, but Lifton’s report does not show evidence of it. If shame is present in any intensity beneath consciousness, one would still expect its occasional appearance in consciousness, or the appearance of clear defensive efforts to avoid it. There is some discomfort, of course, as could hardly be avoided by people who had in the meantime faced harsh criticism and moral condemnation, but it does not seem particularly of the sort that reflects significant underlying shame. One of the German doctors, for example, says he would feel “a little awkward” wondering what people would think (Lifton, 1986: 106). But others recall satisfaction about their work and even boast. One doctor is still proud that after a pathology department was established at the killing center, “the Berlin Institute gave recognition to this … work.” Another doctor, 37 years old at the time, wrote home: “Our work here is very interesting … I told [my superior] I could handle it all by myself” (Lifton, 1986: 140).

It has been said that shame or the threat of shame acts to sanction and inhibit uncivil behavior, that “normal shame is necessary for the regulation of all human interaction” (Schiff, 1987: 222). If that is indeed its aim, it has, in these instances at least, badly missed the target.

Shame and Self-Respect

Guilt is concerned with what one does; shame has to do with what one is. Obviously, the distinction is not sharp. We do call particular actions shameful, but the shame attached to those actions generally reflects their significance for what one is; a shameful act shows the one who performs it to be cowardly, weak, selfish.

Shame is usually regarded as an essentially social reaction, a sense of exposure of one’s failings to others and a reaction to the image or imagined image in the other’s mind. The person who is ashamed lowers his eyes obsequiously and wants to hide. Nevertheless, shame is a social reaction only in a limited sense. It is a defensive reaction; it anticipates contempt or criticism from the other. But the anticipation of contempt from the other arises when respect for oneself is already diminished, perhaps to the point of contempt. It is in this already self-conscious state of mind that the person who is ashamed feels vulnerable to exposure. It follows that the one before whom the serf-conscious person feels exposed is not a clear and separate figure at all, but is at that moment experienced like the largely unseen audience by an inadequate stage performer. And in fact an actual audience need not be present at all for the serf-conscious person to feel shame.

Normal self-respect is largely transparent. It is like physical health in this way. Illness or malfunction commands our attention, but health generally does not. It is doubtful that conscious, lasting positive feelings of esteem or respect for the self are an important part of subjective life, aside from their simulations in certain kinds of psychopathology. It is damage to serf-respect, in the form of shame or humiliation, that is subjectively compelling. We experience, of course, transient feelings of pride and satisfaction in connection with particular achievements or recognition, but the closest approximations we know of lasting or continual serf-appreciation are easily recognized as compensatory efforts, unconvincing and only half-believed by the subjects themselves. Those individuals we describe as serf-confident or possessed of self-respect seem to be characterized not so much by a feeling of esteem for themselves as by the relative absence of concern with themselves. This is confirmed in psychotherapy patients who are treated successfully. In these people a low serf-esteem or feeling of inferiority is gradually replaced not by an equally self-conscious pride or serf-appreciation, but by diminished interest in measuring themselves.

Serf-respect is comparable to physical well-being in another sense. The state of health has its physiology just as disease does, but there is a sense in which health or the feeling of well-being, unlike disease, does not require explanation. We do not feel a need to explain why someone does not have a stomachache or an ulcer. We regard those things as expected, as sufficiently understood by the physiology of the human being in general. Only disease must be explained by the presence of special conditions. The same can be said of serf-respect as compared with feelings of inferiority and shame. The development of serf-respect, in other words, can be understood as a normal product of growth. Special conditions are required for the development of a chronic sense of inferiority and a particular susceptibility to feelings of shame. And actual limitations and insufficiencies do not explain those feelings. Even severe shortcomings are not necessarily mortifying, as the following example recalled from childhood by a man diagnosed as retarded shows:

I kind of stood in the background–I kind of knew that I

was different–I knew that I had a problem, but when

you’re young you don’t think of it as a problem. A lot of

people are like I was. The problem is getting labeled as

being something…. I liked camp. The staff and counselors

were good. I had this thing with my legs. They weren’t very

strong. When I fell back from the group on a hike I was

light enough so that they could give me a ride on their

backs…. I was glad that I was light because it was easier for

them. I needed help and they helped…. I didn’t mind

being carried…. The important thing was that I was there

(Bogdan and Taylor, 1976: 48).

As children grow and develop, they are less immediately and passively reactive to their environment and increasingly active in directing themselves according to their own plans and standards. In this specific sense they become more autonomous. It is this general development, physical, cognitive, and emotional, in which the child and then the adolescent becomes increasingly deliberate and planful in the determination of his own activity that is the basis of a sense of personal authority and significance, a sense of “being somebody.” It is the success of this development that ultimately constitutes what we call serf-respect. In other words, as the child becomes an adult he comes to feel more significant because he actually has become so. He has become an autonomous agent in the world, capable, if all has gone well (and he has not been “labeled as being something”) of living according to his own lights. This is why self-respect can be found in individuals of all levels of intelligence, all kinds and degrees of particular competence and achievement, and even among severely limited and handicapped individuals.

But under certain conditions it may be difficult or impossible for an individual to live according to his own lights, to avoid falling short of his own aims and standards, or what he sees as his own aims and standards. His efforts to satisfy imposed and ill-fitting standards may be ineffectual; or his own aims and standards may sometimes be out of reach, at least temporarily. Or, again temporarily, he may be forced to surrender his own aims and standards. Under these conditions, some of which I will examine later, the individual’s self-respect will be damaged and he will feel ashamed. This is what occurs sporadically in normal adolescence, chronically in certain kinds of psychopathology, and “paradoxically” in people subjected to violent coercion.


The experience of being an independent agent competent to choose and direct one’s own life develops unsteadily in adolescence. It is a time of new willfulness and insistence on self-determination. It is also a time of great self-consciousness, constant evaluation and measurement of the serf, of sensitive pride and regular occasions of embarrassment and shame. None of this is hard to understand.

The gap, the imbalance, of authority that had existed between the child and the grown-up is rapidly closing. But it has not closed, even less the disparity of resources. Whatever the influence of the grown-up world has been, adolescents are now conscious, very conscious, of their own aims, standards, and tastes. They have some sense of personal authority in these matters and in matters of opinion in general. But the uncertainty of this personal authority is evident in many ways. It is often noted, for example, that while adolescents may be rebellious and reject the standards of the adult establishment, they are quite conformist in their relation to the tastes and standards of their peers. This rejection of an old authority, and the subordinate position it entails, in favor of a new authority, with which they feel a solidarity, exactly reflects their reach for an autonomy that has not yet been achieved.

Above all, the unsureness of adolescents’ sense of autonomy shows itself in their explicit concern with issues of autonomy. They are acutely concerned with personal fights and privileges, including the right to privacy, the right to choose and follow their own tastes and interests, and the right to self-determination in general. They are concerned that their dignity be recognized and their votes in family affairs be fully counted. The assertion of these rights and demands may be insistent, perhaps even arrogant, but it very often exceeds their actual self-confidence. They are conscious of the possibility of personal authority and personal significance, but they do not altogether feel these in themselves. We are not surprised therefore at their sensitivity and, often, defensiveness, with regard to any question of their authority. In short, the constituents of self-respect are not yet completely present in adolescence, or at least not reliably so. They have developed just enough to be conscious of their deficiencies and feel embarrassed or ashamed.


Shame figures in a particularly important way in the dynamics of two kinds of psychopathology, obsessive-compulsive and paranoid. These are the two main categories of rigid character (Shapiro, 1981). They are above all pathologies of autonomy-that is, they are conditions characterized by the exercise of an exaggerated, restrictive, and inauthentic will. This effort of will is partly engaged in a cumbersome and redundant self-direction, taking such forms as a continuous and self-conscious purposefulness and conscious efforts of will power and self-control; and partly engaged in resisting external influence with stubbornness or suspiciousness.

These individuals of rigid character live with a particular kind of internal conflict, more consciously represented in the obsessive-compulsive case, much less so in the paranoid case. It is a conflict between, on the one hand, standards, aims, and ideal images that have their unquestioned respect and that they believe are their own and, on the other hand, behavior and temptations that are inconsistent with those standards, aims, and ideals. These standards and aims are quite different subjectively from autonomous ones. They typically present themselves subjectively in the form of moral rules or injunctions (“I should …”). They are often embodied also in remembered or imagined idealized figures whose choices and behavior are regarded as authoritative and who are emulated. The self-respect of these compulsive and paranoid individuals rums on their identification of themselves with these standards, aims, and ideals. To the extent that they satisfy them their self-image is preserved and they can respect themselves. But this identification can never be completely successful because this image is not a true representation of themselves and these aims and standards are not genuinely and completely their own. And to the extent that they find themselves failing to live up to them, they feel weak-willed and ashamed of themselves.

Consider the following two examples of rigid characters, one compulsive and the other paranoid. In the first case, clear consciousness of shame is present:

A dignified and somewhat formal, originally Eastern European

man makes the following confession to his therapist

with great shame: He says that he is understood to be

Catholic by his friends and associates, in fact by everyone

except his wife, but actually he is a Jew. During the war he

had changed his name and had survived in Europe by

assuming the identity of a Catholic. He was and is ashamed

of having done so, and for that reason continued to hide

the truth after the war, adding to his shame. He says, in a

wavering voice but still with a great effort at dignity, “I have

always wanted to think of myself as an honorable man. But

in this, and continuing to this day, I have not behaved in an

honorable way.”

In the second case, shame is indirectly represented:

The paranoid schizophrenic jurist, Schreber, made famous

by Freud’s study of his memoir, describes himself as

“morally unblemished.” Yet, he believed, he was, to his horror,

being forcibly transformed into a wantonly sexual

female. Having just been appointed to a high official post,

he imagined that the “rays of God” were saying to him, “so

this sets up to have been a Senateprasident, this person who

lets himself be fucked” (Freud, 1957: 399-400).

Compulsive and paranoid individuals, confusing what they are with what they think they should be, are always at risk of falling short. Their serf-respect, though sometimes artificially inflated, to serf-importance in the compulsive character and grandiosity in the paranoid, is based on a sense of personal authority that is borrowed from standards and idealized images that are not their own. Their experience of agency, and their actual decisions, lean on self-imposed rules of behavior. They are not as “honorable” without regard to circumstances, or as “morally unblemished” as it is necessary for them to believe. Hence the importance to them of will power, serf-control, and what they regard as strength; that is, resistance to themselves. Hence their continual struggles of will, and their anxiety about giving in to themselves, especially in the compulsive case, and to others, especially in the paranoid case. These efforts are necessary to forestall shame, and it is in the nature of things that they cannot, or will not, be consistently maintained.

The illusion that one’s values are more elevated or more uncompromising than they actually are, or that we are closer to what we admire than we actually are, is of course not limited to psychopathology. Quite normal people often ruefully say of themselves or others that they have violated their own standards or that what they did was not really like them, when actually they have violated only what they think are their standards or departed from what they think they are like. These unrealistic exculpations sustain one’s illusions about oneself and forestall shame up to a point. But these illusions are more systematic, more extreme and less easily sustained in the case of rigid character. Anyone who lives with such illusions, and therefore these people in particular, is continually faced with reason for shame or the necessity for extraordinary compensatory measures to avoid it.

Coercion and Resistance

The aim of torture is not simply to inflict pain and suffering, but by inflicting pain and suffering to break the victim’s will. As Terrence Des Pres puts it, the aim is “to reduce inmates to mindless creatures whose behavior could be … controlled absolutely” (Des Pres, 1976: 162). The torturers say as much: they speak of having tortured the prisoner until he “broke” (Conroy, 2000: 116) or lost the “will to resist” (246). The prisoner is to be made to feel helpless (often beginning with a blindfold), unable to refuse any command or resist any torment or humiliation. It is this experience of total subjugation by pain and terror that constitutes the greatest and most damaging assault on the will, on the experience of personal agency and competency and therefore on serf-respect. And it is the awareness of this total subjugation, continually underscored by the torturer, that evokes shame. Des Pres quotes an inmate of the camps: “They wished to … destroy our human dignity … to fill us with contempt toward ourselves” (Des Pres, 1976: 62).

According to Des Pres, the SS “never doubted that force and fear could break anyone” (163). But it is not so. It is possible for some, in some circumstances and to some degree, to resist and even defeat the torturer’s aims. Indeed, the same Argentine torturer who spoke of breaking the will of his captives acknowledged his respect for those who successfully resisted being broken (Conroy, 2000: 116). To be sure, that respect is entirely consistent with contempt for the “weaker” ones who were unable to resist. When this man speaks of the prisoner who successfully resisted, he is presumably speaking of open defiance. But, as Des Pres in particular points out, there are many forms of resistance, some entirely subjective, apart from the open, heroic, and probably suicidal forms. He criticizes Bruno Bettelheim (1960), whose emphasis on the importance of retaining autonomy in these circumstances is often somewhat moralistic, for expecting heroic resistance in the camps where it would be suicidal (Des Pres, 1976: 103). Des Pres quotes a former inmate of Auschwitz: “Our entire existence … was marked by [resistance] … When laborers at the spinning mills dared to slacken their working pace it was resistance. When at Christmas we organized a little ‘festival’ under the noses of our masters it was resistance. When we passed letters from one camp to another it was resistance” (108). In fact, the simple determination to survive may constitute an inner assertion of resistance. Speaking of the necessity to avoid hopeless passivity, a former prisoner says that she “knows … that there is a choice to escape death and that it is up to her to win the game” (90).

Despite the one-sided inequality of power between the torturer and the prisoner, it is clearly possible for some prisoners to experience the torture situation as a contest of wills. In this contest the one in the objectively far weaker position may yet feel some elements of autonomy and avoid or at least mitigate loss of self-respect.

Primo Levi makes the point that “Anyone who had the ability and will to … oppose the machine of the Lager, was beyond the reach of ‘shame’ …” (Levi, 1989: 74). He mentions, and it is well known (for example, Bettelheim, 1960; Paker, 2000) that political prisoners of state-sponsored torture are able to endure the experience, if they survive at all, with less psychological damage than the nonpolitical prisoners. Paker (2000) has confirmed this observation in a controlled study of Turkish survivors of torture. It is important to understand that while the political prisoners are more likely than others to organize active or passive acts of objective resistance or sabotage, their subjective consciousness of resisting was not limited to those acts. Des Pres makes that point about political prisoners in the camps: “Political consciousness … gave people a sense of purpose … and enabled them to hold out” (121; my emphasis). Quite apart from objective resistance, political prisoners are able to avoid feeling totally helpless or broken. They are able to regard themselves as engaged in a continuing struggle against their oppressors of which this situation is only a single engagement. Losses and wounds are to be expected in such a struggle and in no way invalidate their purposes or, for that matter, necessarily foreshadow ultimate defeat. This attitude of active purpose even apart from objective action sustains self-respect. A comparable attitude of overarching purpose and, no doubt, solidarity with fellow believers sustained those in the camps with strong religious convictions, notably Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well (Bettelheim, 1960: 20).

The need to avoid or erase the humiliation and shame of helpless subjugation is not extinguished even with the expectation of death; indeed, it may intensify. If there is little possibility of resistance, there is still the possibility of later redress. We know of the passionate determination of many in the camps, as well as many of those who survived the camps, to record what happened there, to bear witness. And we know of their horror at the idea that the world would not know what happened to them, that they would helplessly and silently have disappeared, and by their silence lost all chance of justice. Those records, made at the risk of execution, are not mere histories; they are moral indictments. The making of those indictments before the world is an action aimed at eventual redress. It is an act against the oppressor and a refutation of helpless defeat. One can hardly miss the moral force of such an indictment and, by the act of making it, its refutation of helplessness in the recollection by Alexander Donat, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, of feeling at the time “charged with the sacred mission of carrying the Ghetto’s history through the flames … until such times as I could hurl it into the face of the world” (Des Pres, 1976: 31).

Nor does the need for redress, or at least an emphatic assertion of the survivor’s successful withstanding of the oppressor’s efforts to destroy him, end with release or liberation. The preference–for political activists the insistence–of survivors of torture that they be called survivors, not victims, constitutes such an assertion. Perhaps something of the same is true of the determination of Jewish groups, including those with no direct experience of the Holocaust, not only to memorialize its victims but to keep alive the record of Nazi cruelty. Sometimes it is said that the aim of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive is to ensure that such a thing will not happen again. That motivation, which seems so dispassionate (not to say unrealistic), is hard to credit. The aim of the survivors and those who identify with them in preserving the memories of the Holocaust can only be the same, except in intensity, as the aim of those who recorded it’s cruelties at the time: to make and keep alive a moral charge and thus to refute complete defeat. The point, at least in part, of the numerous truth commissions, is the same. Hayner, for example, notes that “some victims … say that just having the full truth publicly told can provide some sense of justice” (2002: 106). To leave such cruelty and oppression unremembered would be to leave it unanswered.

It is clear that resistance in any form, and the assertion of purpose or autonomy that it constitutes, is critical to preserving or repairing self-respect in the situation of torture. But one must read the equation in the other direction also. Only those who, largely by accident of circumstance or personal makeup, are fortunate enough to have escaped or recovered from an initial complete demoralization and sense of helplessness will be capable of resistance. What distinguishes those who are able to resist from those who are not will depend, certainly, on whether they meet the trauma with a sturdy sense of themselves. But it will depend also on whether there are political or religious convictions already in place, or whether they feel themselves in solidarity with some organized group, or whether they are held in isolation or with other prisoners. And it will depend in addition on the variables of the assault itself: its nature and degree of violence, its duration, and its setting. All these are among the determinants or, if they are favorable, the constituents of the capacity to sustain purpose and to resist.

Transvaluation of Values

The torturers’ most obvious and most familiar defense when questioned later is the disclaimer, “I was only taking orders.” (This defense on the part of the subordinate has its complement in the political leader’s claim that he had no knowledge of what his subordinates were doing.) A German doctor interviewed by Robert Lifton about his medical experiments in the camps says, “We simply didn’t ask questions at the time” (Lifton, 1986: 109). An Argentine officer, speaking of his part in the “dirty war” of the 1970’s says, “I … was sufficiently trained … not to have doubts about my superiors” (Verbitsky, 1996: 55). This is never a strong defense. Its implication that the torturer acted as a passive instrument without attention to the aims or effects of his action, perhaps even with misgivings, is belied by other testimony. High and low, both those who did the work of torture and those who directed that it be done, embraced the cause that in their eyes justified their activity. Their identification with that cause seems to have been secure at the time and, at least for many, had not altogether faded when they were interviewed much later.

An Argentine torturer, for example, speaking in the past tense, says to an interviewer, “I believed absolutely in everything I was doing” (Verbitsky, 1996: 57). But even years later he argues that the country was in a “chaotic” condition, in defense of his work, and he still refers to his victims as the “subversives” (57). Greek torturers under the junta report not just that they were told, but that they came to believe that they were the “guardians of the nation” (Conroy, 2000: 95). These sentiments of course reflect those of the political leaders under whom the torture was conducted.

Still, it is one thing to justify activity in support of a patriotic cause and something more difficult to justify the cruelty of this particular kind of activity. Or so one might think. But whether action is seen as requiring justification or defense or not depends on the attitude of the individual involved, and it turns out that what we might regard as shameful is, from another point of view, not shameful at all. One cannot expect shame about brutality and cruelty in individuals to whom these are not recognized as brutality and cruelty at all, but are seen in quite a different light. Where brutality and cruelty are regarded only as unsentimental military toughness or hardness, quite distinct from cruelty, the capability for that toughness or hardness, far from being reason for shame, is reason for pride.

The distinction is clear to the following two leaders who maintain, probably to themselves as well as to a listener presumed to be critical, a pose of dignified military correctness in regard to that distinction.

Admiral Horacio Mayorga of Argentina, haughtily defending two alleged torturers (and himself) before a critical interviewer, denies that during the “dirty war” in Argentina they cut off prisoners’ fingers so they could not be identified: “That’s a lie! The only thing we had was the electric cattle prod.” He wished to make the further point that he personally disdains torture (“We must condemn torture”). In his opinion “they should have put the prisoners in front of firing squads” (Verbitsky, 1996: 13-14). Mayorga, in fact, emphasizes his distaste for cruelty and his humaneness by reminding his interviewer that they had after all “wasted an injection (of a narcotic)” on prisoners before dropping them from a plane into the sea.

Hermann Goering, in private conversation in his cell with the German-speaking psychologist G. M. Gilbert at the time of the Nuremberg trials, made the distinction between cruelty and hardness, as he saw it, or wished to see it, more explicit: Goering says, “in a quiet, earnest voice, ‘But there is one thing I want you to know–really–you can believe it or not–but I must say in dead earnest, I have never been cruel [grausam bin Ich nie gewesen]. I’ll admit I’ve been hard … I haven’t been bashful about shooting 1,000 men … but cruel, torturing women and children–that is so far from my nature” (Gilbert, 1947: 187).

This distinction between a distasteful cruelty and a correct hardness is less available to the torturers themselves, the men who did the work. Many of them were trained, sometimes formally, sometimes not, to a hardness that was less fastidious. Des Pres quotes Gitte Serenya’s interview with Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, for example, in which she asked Stangl what the point was of all the cruelty if the prisoners were going to be killed anyway. Stangl answered, “To condition those who actively had to carry out the policy.” (Des Pres, 1976: 61). The members of the Greek military police, the torture squad during the junta years, underwent extensive training in which they were themselves subjected to sadistic treatment, including systematic humiliation (‘You ate your meals kneeling on pebbles”) (Conroy, 9000: 94), disciplinary coercion, and physical brutality. The same kind of training (near drowning, kneeling on rough cement for prolonged times) was undergone by the army units in what was then Rhodesia in preparation for their work (Conroy, 2000: 93).

The aim of such training, which is actually an exaggerated form of rigorous military training (Jeffers and Levitan, 1971), is to punish and instill contempt for, even hatred of, weakness or softness, to teach unflinching hardness and to bring about, not surrender to brutal, coercive authority, but respect for it and identification with it. Those who completed this training regarded themselves as an elite group (Conroy, 2000: 95).

These attitudes and this self-image on the part of the torturers are not only demanded by the work itself, but nourished by it. They occupy positions of coercive authority and have, from their standpoint, every reason to feel contempt for and punish the helpless and humiliated individuals before them. Feeling anything but weak and helpless themselves, secure in their identification with an authority of established power, and in a position to demonstrate and experience their own personal strength, what have they to be ashamed of?


Bettelheim, Bruno. The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age. New York: Free Press, 1960.

Bogdan, Robert, and Steven Taylor. “The Judged, Not the Judges: An Insider’s View of Mental Retardation.” American Psychologist (January 1976).

Cienfuegos, Ana Julia, and Christine Monelli. “The Testimony of Political Repression as a Therapeutic Instrument.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Jan. 1983): 43-51.

Conroy, John. Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Epstein, Helen. Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.

Freud, Sigmund. “Psychoanalytic Notes upon Paranoia.” Standard Edition. Vol. 12. London: Hogarth Press, 1957.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Not Gone With the Wind.” The New York Times, 9 Feb. 2003: D, 1, 8.

Gilbert, G. M. Nuremberg Diary. New York: Farrar Straus, 1947.

Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Jeffers, H. Paul, and Dick Levitan. See Paris and Die: Brutality in the U.S. Marines. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1971.

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Lifton, Robert J. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Paker, Murat. “Subjective Meaning of Torture as a Predictor in Chronic Post-torture Psychological Response.” UMI Dissertation Services. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000.

Schatz, Adam. “The Torture of Algiers.” New York Review of Books, Nov. 21, 2002.

Schiff, Thomas J. “Shame in Social Theory.” The Widening Scope of Shame. Eds. Melvin Lanksy and Andrew J. Morrison. Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press, 1987.

Shapiro, David. Autonomy and Rigid Character. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Verbitsky, Horatio. The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior. New York: New Press, 1996.

David Shapiro is Professor Of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the New School University’s Graduate Faculty. He Is the author, most recently, of Dynamics of Character: Self=regulations in Psychotherapy (2000). His Research deals with the psychopathology of character and its treatment.

COPYRIGHT 2003 New School for Social Research

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group