12/17/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

The Psychology of the Torturer

Torture will always imply a certain mode of brutality. When torture is committed it becomes an undeniable reality. Torture, however much one attempts to make it seem vague, is in fact a definable actuality. Torture is the use of excessive force, often at the cost of treating the tortured as subhuman, that will temporarily or permanently alter a sense of ego, self, and personhood.

Torture does not explicitly use a physical means for its intended goal -- yet in the modern context it often implies that this is true. If one were to look at the archaic measures of torture, and even some contemporary means, it becomes clear that observing torture as simply a physical practice is false. Yes, physicality is important, and will always be implied, even through verbal threats or abuse that undeniably take a toll on the body. Yet it cannot be defined in singularity. Torture does not need to function at the physical level -- it permeates the individual in a way that is inevitably physical but more important, indefinable in its consequences on a victim's psychology.

Physical means of torture are undoubtedly meant for psychological consequence. The United States government, implementing measures including waterboarding, was attempting just that. Whether they considered the permanent consequences of behaving in such a manner is a question of morality, which will be addressed shortly. But, in its most explicit interpretation, the perpetrators were using the mechanism of torture in hopes of their stated goal of protecting other's lives that would be victims of a far worse crime.

Morality, which was being so cleverly utilized by the United States government, would implicate the tortured as outside the realm of humanity and therefore state that the application of morality to them is unreasonable. Therefore, even before people are tortured, there is a superficial assumption of their lack of humanity, and a justification that divides people into categories: human and inhuman, the former that cannot be tortured and the latter that can.

Yet the problematic nature of this statement becomes clear quickly. Can we truly grant humanity and deny it simultaneously? And how can one slip from human to inhuman -- from non-person to person? It appears under that assumption there is a barrier once one slips under the grasp of non-person. One may not re-gain humanity, but one can surely lose it.

This duality does not function in the torturer/tortured pretext, even if common perception is that only one person involved in the act is being brutalized. Or in the assumption that it is only the tortured who move from human to inhuman, without considering the context of the person committing the act. Indeed, torturers must move within the same spectrum to commit the atrocity. Yet one view of torture: they are doing so in the name of humanity, instead of against it. This is also an entirely false argument.

If one is to commit acts of unspeakable horror, one cannot look at them solely from the end of their goal.

This is the often unremarked motion of torture -- that in the sense of the end goal, there is a rank to the torturer that allows him a status of godhood -- not only over the tortured, but also in the context of heroism. His means are supposedly justified because his ends are admirable. As much as it can be argued that torture is justified because of its ends, it can be stated that allowing someone a status of godhood over another human implies another as subhuman.

The question of torture becomes clearer with an explanation of godhood. Full control over another's life and wellbeing is explicitly elevating them to something above human. Yet throughout history, whether it was slavery, servitude or torture, even the implication of this status entailed a form of abuse. How can they be elevated to the status of a god when the only reason they possess this control is to commit harm?

The torturer/tortured duality is ultimately false. Yes, one can be a victim of torture and be innocent of any wrongdoing, therefore putting their brutal treatment into the realm of evil. And yes, a torturer can be attempting to save more lives at the cost of one terrorist's life, which appears more admirable. However, it becomes painfully clear that no matter the culpability in either case, someone cannot inhabit the paradox of torturer and god without implicating himself or herself as sub-human as well.

Torture then, is unjustified under any circumstance. We are not only implying a lack of humanity for the tortured, but for the torturer as well. Why should we condone any act that strips someone of his or her humanity, especially if we create a system in which one can slip from the grasp of personhood and never regain it? How can we exalt someone as more than human simply through the means of lowering another person, and then celebrate them as heroes?

We must continually question not only what it means to be cruel, but also what it means to receive cruelty, and the ultimate interpretation of power through these mechanisms. We should forget arguments such as the "slippery slope" or moral impetus and instead focus on what it does to our personal psychology and our beliefs as a society. If we cannot condone other injustices, like slavery, false imprisonment, and servitude, then we are fully denying that man can take the sacrilegious position of god.

If we cannot be gods, we cannot condone torture. Ownership over another life, in any sense, implies our irreverence and ultimately, the absolute irrelevancy of human life.