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What Is It with Men and Torture?

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Hint: It's not just upbringing and culture.

Back in 2005 James Wolcott wrote of torture: "Women may take part -- though I imagine it's rare, and under duress -- but only men could devise the intricate and cruel tortures and torture devices that have been inflicted over the centuries."

This is one generalization about women that feminists let slide. Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib fame was a blip on torture's radar screen and women would like to keep it that way. But what infuses men with the urge to torture?

For starters, never underestimate the impact of a hard-ass father. Then there are the tyrannies under which many live where rule by force is the norm. Meanwhile, for those men who live in a democracy like ours (however putative), our cultural cup runneth over with blood from movies like the Saw and Hostel series and video games like Mortal Kombat and Gods of War.

Then, of course, there's 24, which, in effect, gave license to embrace torture to a whole nation -- including West Point cadets and Guantanamo personnel. Philippe Sands reports in the May Vanity Fair: "Jack Bauer had many friends at Guantanamo" said an administration lawyer asked to sign off on enhanced interrogation techniques. "He gave people lots of ideas."

Wolcott adds: "Only [men] would draw up the blueprints for machines and procedures to exact the maximum amount of pain and humiliation just shy of death."

At one time, diabolical machines were devised for torture: from the brank, the brazen bull, and the breaking wheel to the heretic's fork, the instep borer and the iron maiden. Since then, other than the electronics of stun guns, torture implements have become more basic.

Today, a torturer is likely to equip himself with non-specialized, dual-use items like a baseball bats, cables, iron pipes, pliers, sticks, and maybe a hook on the ceiling for the strappado (suspension by the wrists, tied behind the back).

In the US the torturer's arsenal is even more stripped down. But its effects are maximized by techniques designed by psychologists using, among other things, sequence, duration, and humiliation, not to mention, of course, near-death drowning experiences.

In other words, men who once would have applied themselves to devising the hardware now concentrate on the software, as it were, of the process itself. Men love this kind of brainstorming: Aside from designing software on the job, in their leisure time they play Rotisserie Baseball, Fantasy Football, and games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Speaking of dungeons, torture holds myriad other attractions to men. For instance. . .

What man doesn't love basements? Actually, torture done in a basement is usually the province of a serial killer, the only form of life lower than a torturer. State or terrorist torture is usually carried out in a basement-like environment such as an interrogation room in a prison. Meanwhile, in some countries, like Pinochet's Chile, where people were tortured in National Stadium, a sports site is used.

Torture is actually like a sport. In its cruelty it's comparable to dog or cock fighting. Those are spectator sports, though, while torture is hands-on, though there's no danger to the participant like, say, in Mixed Martial Arts. Yet you get your ultra-violence rocks off like in no other contact sport, even football. But, in common with spectator sports. . .

It calls for drinking. In fact, only an ideologue, a religious fundamentalist, or a psychopath is likely to torture sober. Though, outside of Abu Ghraib, it's hard to imagine Americans who torture drinking while on duty. Troubling as that sounds, why should they? It's not torture, they're told -- only enhanced interrogation techniques.

It lets you play with guns. Not actually, since torture seldom incorporates shooting. But hand-held electro-shock batons and stun guns are used in 20 countries.

Electricity is not all that electrifies. Women are often raped, sometimes by a roomful of torturers. Beyond that, the homo-erotic frisson is to die for. Not just the psycho-sexual thrill of hurting other men, including assaults on their sexual organs. But guys banding together to do work deemed invaluable. In other words. . .

Male bonding to the nth degree. Not just over the shared activity -- they're complicit in double super-secret work verboten under normal conditions. They're thus bound together in a secret society.

Why get all bent out of shape over torture when it's just guys being guys? A man has got to let off a little steam, doesn't he? Sure -- as long as he understands that his superiors may offer him up as a sacrificial lamb or turn him into a scapegoat to escape prosecution themselves.

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