THE BLOG
12/29/2014 09:28 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

The Captive: A Measure of Our Humanity

What is it like to live in captivity? How does one survive, physically and psychologically, the experience of the deprivation of freedom? Which captives are remembered, and which forgotten?

Events over the past year have brought these questions to our attention: the horrific beheadings of civilian hostages by ISIS; the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl; and the ongoing saga of the Guantanamo detainees -- the eye-opening details of which were recently brought to light through the publication of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the C.I.A.'s Detention and Interrogation Program.

This year has also made us think again about the complex relationship between captives and their captors. Certainly, the way we come to know about that relationship has radically changed over the course of this century. There can seem to be an abyss between the diaries and letters of both captives and captors called forth by the 100th anniversary of World War I, with its 8 million prisoners of war, and the video and audio testimonies of recent situations, which, as in the ISIS cases, also document what is often kept out of sight: the termination of that relationship by the captors' killing of the prisoner.

Throughout the history of captivity, men and women have responded in surprisingly similar ways to imprisonment -- and to being placed in the role of captor. A written record going back millennia -- graffiti scratched with desperation and determination on the surfaces of prison cells, notes smuggled out of dungeons -- reveal an essential sameness of the human response of those deprived of their liberty: meditations on impending death, expressions of religious faith or political conviction, vows of revenge, and worries about loved ones.

And despite the availability of 21st-century technology, those torturing prisoners are often unwittingly repeating the exact actions of captors in centuries past. The ISIS beheadings put on public display an ancient execution method used by governments throughout Europe and Asia through the early 20th century. Most of the torture methods used by the C.I.A. have their own long past: waterboarding, singled out by Senator John McCain as a method used by the Japanese on American POWs in World War II, and before that by many other powers, is merely one example.

Governments invest much time and money in setting up the infrastructures of imprisonment: think of the labor involved in building camps and prisons, transporting the living and the dead, formulating policies, and educating chains of command. Yet all of this bureaucratic planning fades away at the moment of the fateful face-off between two human beings: prisoner and captor. The unstable space of that meeting can quickly become its own moral world, and it is significant that the worst abuses often occur in situations where the captor is left to his or her own devices, as it were: when instructions are unclear, or training is lacking, or when there is license to disregard reigning international norms regarding treatment of prisoners (as happened in Russia and Japan during World War II, among many other places).

World War II offers a particularly fertile ground for the study of humanity in situations of captivity. The release on Christmas Day of the movie Unbroken, about Louis Zamperini's time in a Japanese POW camp during that conflict, crests on this fact and on this new wave of interest in imprisonment. Laura Hillenbrand's book, on which director Angelina Jolie based the film, emphasizes how Zamperini's defiant and resilient nature, which had contributed to the highs and lows of his life before his service in World War II, carried him through his two-year plus ordeal. Zamperini became well known after the war for his mission to meet with and forgive his former torturers.

Military captives face the issues of all veterans in knowing how to adjust back to civilian life, talking about their battle experiences outside of their circle of fellow soldiers, and recovering from the seen and invisible injuries combat can inflict. Yet these men and women also have another dimension to wrestle with, namely the particular mix of feelings that captivity can bring out: shame and anger at having been captured -- anger that can also be directed at one's own comrades; a sense of having been abandoned; traumas from experiences of torture as well as battle; and a terrible isolation that can be difficult to shake even after freedom is regained.

Captors figure heavily in the thousands of diaries and memoirs published by former POWs on all sides, and the former prisoner's portrayal of his persecutor becomes a kind of speaking back, on his own terms, to an antagonist who either imposed silence or inflicted pain to extract information.

Captors know well that the real danger in such situations is the possible weakness of their operatives in the face of their prisoners' personhood. So the elaborate torture rituals that shut down the senses and batter the flesh, rendering the prisoner barely recognizable, also aim to protect the guard and interrogator from acting on any humanitarian impulses that may arise.

There is a thin wall, in this sense, between the black sites of today and the concentration camps of yesterday. Both spaces are designed with the captor as well as the captive in mind, revealing the fraught intimacy of that encounter. And both spaces produce witnesses. It is our responsibility to listen to the voices of those who have made it home, still able to speak, for they are the measure of our humanity, knowing firsthand all the good and evil that we are capable of.