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Psychoanalysing psychiatrists and psychologists who torture

By Robert Burrowes - posted Monday, 9 September 2013

While the history of the involvement of psychiatrists and psychologists in torture programs for political purposes is, tragically, extensive (see, for example, 'Political Abuse of Psychiatry: An Historical Overview' and 'Psychiatry during the Nazi era: ethical lessons for the modern professional'), the tragedy, with more variations, continues worldwide as you read this article. (See, for example, 'America's Commitment Laws Are Silencing Dissenters',  'China is locking up sane dissidents in mental hospitals', 'The Story of Mitchell Jessen & Associates: How a Team of Psychologists in Spokane, WA, Helped Develop the CIA's Torture Techniques' and 'Are People Being Thrown Into Psychiatric Wards For Their Political Views?).

Moreover, in a recent article, 'Hawaiian Mind Games: American Psychological Association Fiddles While Psychology Burns', Roy Eidelson and Stephen Soldz again expose the complicity of US psychologists in researching, designing, implementing, supervising and providing ethical cover for torture inflicted by the CIA and the US military on 'national security' prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

In fact, in a response from the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology to the American Psychological Association's 2005 'Report of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security' (known as the PENS Report) which identified the inherent bias and conflicts of interest of the Task Force's membership as well as irregularities and secrecy in its processes, the Coalition stated that 'the APA, the largest association of psychologists worldwide, became the sole major professional healthcare organization supporting member involvement in the interrogation of detainees held under conditions that violate international law. As Behavioral Science Consultants to interrogators, psychologists provided professional legitimacy and expertise to programs that have been condemned worldwide'.


According to Eidelson and Soldz, the American Psychological Association (APA) has faced repeated calls for action to prevent further such abuses by members of the profession and to engage in a careful reconsideration of the ethics of the involvement of psychologists in torture, but to no avail.

Why does the leadership of the APA still endorse torture? And why do some psychiatrists and psychologists in countries around the world still participate in torture and other forms of violence against people who might reasonably expect considerate treatment from these 'health professionals'? Let us psychoanalyse the torturers.

It takes someone with a particular psychological profile to torture another human being: Most of us cannot do it. Clearly, any torturer falls readily into the category of someone with a 'violent personality'.

In essence, torturers and those who endorse torture are people who have suffered an extraordinary level of terror and violence during their own childhood and this leaves them particularly badly emotionally damaged.

Interestingly, perhaps, this might be concealed behind a good-looking face and/or a superficially pleasant personality, which any psychiatrist or psychologist might have. Careful scrutiny and analysis, however, reveals that individuals who torture, whatever their professional background, share a number of feelings/attributes, most of which are invisible to casual observation. See 'Why Violence?' Let me describe the general psychological profile of a torturer while acknowledging that each torturer is unique.

Fundamentally, perpetrators of torture are terrified and they are particularly terrified of those individuals who perpetrated violence against them when they were a child although this terror remains unconscious to them. Second, this terror is so extreme that torturers are too terrified to consciously identify to themselves their own perpetrator (one or both parents and/or other significant adults who are supposed to love them) and to say that it is this individual or individuals who are violent and wrong.


Third, because they are terrified, they are unable to defend themselves against the original perpetrator(s) but also, as a result, they are unable to defend themselves against other perpetrators who attack them later in life. This lack of capacity to defend themselves leads to the fourth and fifth attributes – a deep sense of powerlessness and a deep sense of self-hatred and this latter attribute, in turn, negates any sense of personal self-worth, leaving them with an extremely negative conception of themselves as 'bad', the sixth attribute. However, and this is vitally important, it is too terrifying and painful for the torturer to be consciously aware of any of these feelings/attributes: they remain deeply embedded within their unconscious and they are not necessarily apparent to others.

Seventh, the extreme social terrorisation experience to which torturers have been subjected means that the feelings of love, compassion, empathy and sympathy, as well as the mental function of conscience, are prevented from developing (or they are seriously underdeveloped and/or perhaps skewed so that they have sympathy for other perpetrators of violence).

This is because the human potential to have a conscience and to have the feelings of love, compassion, empathy and sympathy depend on exposure to these and cultivation of them during childhood: they cannot be fully developed later. Devoid of conscience and these feelings, perpetrators of torture can inflict violence on others without experiencing the feedback that conscience, love, compassion, empathy and sympathy would provide.

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If you wish to join the worldwide movement to end all violence, including torture, you can sign online 'The People's Charter to Create a Nonviolent World'

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About the Author

Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach, State University of New York Press, 1996. His email address is and his personal website is at

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