Tag Archives: Psychological torture

The Way to Heaven

During Gitta Sereny’s extraordinary descent into the mind and memory of Franz Stangle, former Commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, she explores the question of whether he might have made small gestures of mercy, small actions that might have indicated a degree of resistance to the regime of extermination, and thus slightly alleviated the suffering of the victims. At one point during this slow, careful examination, Sereny asks Stangl what for him was the worst place in the camp:

Once naked, the prisoners not only became objectified; they also became more vulnerable and compliant, making the terminal stage – driving the mass of bodies up the barbed wire and pine branch “Himmelweg” (the way to heaven) directly into the gas chambers – easier for the SS guards to accomplish. Shame and sexual humiliation were tools just as powerful as the sticks and whips used to drive the objectified herd up the chute to slaughter.

Sexual humiliation of prisoners has also featured within the regime of psychological torture deployed by the CIA and US military intelligence following 9/11, often under the category of “exploitation of cultural sensitivities”. Shower cubicles at Guantanamo Bay featured glass fronts facing the central atrium, exposing the forced nakedness of Muslim prisoners.

Taken in conjunction with the increasingly invasive protocols of the TSA , the recent decision by the US Supreme Court regarding strip searches provides a clear signal that this regime is now ready for homeland distribution. Citizens who have been arrested – not convicted, but arrested – for even the most trivial offense, can now be sexually humiliated and invasively inspected, in order to safeguard the “rights and interests” of jails and prisons.

Here is an excerpt form a New York Times article, reporting on the case, that began with the arrest of Albert Florence, who was from the very first moment completely innocent of any crime:

In his decision, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed.” The use of the word “detainee” is nothing short of ominous; it appears that Gitmo is coming home. How long will it be before our very own brand of himmelweg  takes shape?

In an interview for an article in the NJ Star Ledger, Mr. Florence stated, “I worry more so for my kids,” he said. “It’s something that I think we all — and I’m not talking about any particular race, or any particular class of people — but we all as American citizens should kind of come together and try and fight this thing.”


Proof Through the Night

The record of a single day in the life of detainee 063 (Mohammed al-Qahtani), as recorded from the “Secret ORCON” interrogation log; the scene opens with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. 


10 December 2002

0000: Interrogation team entered the booth and played the national anthem. Detainee was made to stand and put his hand over his heart. Lead explained rules to detainee. Ran pride and ego down approach. Played loud music to keep detainee awake.

0230: Detainee taken to bathroom and walked. Corpsman checked vitals – O.K.

0300: Detainee offered food and water – eats crackers, peanut butter, and drinks water with koolaid.

0330: Detainee asked about relationships with women and what his mother would think of him. Detainee said the Saudi government knew he was innocent. Interrogators replied that the Saudi government knows he is guilty and that is why he is here.

0400: Lead established control over detainee by instructing him not to speak and enforcing by playing loud music and yelling. Detainee tried to regain control several times by starting to talk about his cover story. Detainee was not listened to.

0530: Detainee was taken to bathroom and walked for 20 minutes.

0600: Futility approach was run. Rules have changed theme was run. It can get a lot worse theme was run. Detainee attempted to talk but was silenced by interrogator through yelling and loud music. Detainee cursed interrogator and pleaded his innocence. Circumstantial evidence theme was run. Interrogator turned on the music and left the booth for the last 20 minutes of the shift, detainee screamed for the interrogator to come back as he departed the booth.


0700: Detainee was put to bed.

1030: Detainee woke up on his own and requested to go to the bathroom. He was taken to the bathroom and walked for 10 minutes.1100: 2nd shift began by waking the detainee to music. Interrogators told detainee how happy they were that he was back. Detainee was mostly unresponsive. Reinforced the notion that the detainee would be here a long time.

1215: Detainee was taken to bathroom and walked 10 minutes. Food and water were offered and the detainee ate one MRE and drank a bottle of water. Interrogators engaged the detainee in conversation about marriage and dating. Detainee said that he had a chance to marry but refused. He said that he would like to marry someday. The detainee then stated that he was having emotional problems and needed to see a doctor for this. Detainee stated the Jinns had control of his emotions and only a trained doctor could help him. He stated that he would tell everything to a doctor in the same way that he had previously stated that he would tell all if he was taken back to Cuba. Detainee was told he would have to describe what was wrong before a doctor could be brought in. Detainee became unresponsive upon hearing this.

1400: Detainee was taken to bathroom and walked 10 minutes. Detainee offered water – refused. Interrogators covered the resistance techniques he had used and asked him to perform the “crazy Mohammed” facial expressions again. Detainee began to cry. Interrogators recounted the “emotional Mohammed” from earlier in the session and the detainee became stoic again.

1600: Detainee was taken to bathroom and walked 10 minutes.

1615: Offered water to detainee – refused. Loud music was played and the interrogators began yelling at the detainee. Pride and ego down approach was run. Al Qaida falling apart theme was used.

1715: Offered water to detainee – refused.

1800: Detainee taken to bathroom and exercised 10 minutes.

1830: Detainee became very annoyed with the female invading his personal space. He spit on her several times. He tried to push her away using his head. He attempted to move her chair by using his feet to push her chair away from him. Detainee was offered water but he refused to drink it.

1930: Detainee was offered water but he refused it. He was taken to the latrine. Medical Representative weighed detainee and logged detainee’s weight at 119 pounds. He was 123 pounds with the three piece suit.2000: Detainee ate two cheese filled pretzels and when he was given his meal he accepted it and began to eat. He devoured all of his MRE.

2030: Detainee was exercised for good circulation and overall good health. He was also taken to the latrine. He was offered water but he refused.

2140: Detainee was offered water; he refused to take the water. He was taken to the latrine; he did not use it. He stood at the door and waited until we allowed him to return to the interrogation booth.

2230: Detainee was taken to bathroom. Detainee urinated on himself as he was being taken to the latrine. Detainee was allowed to clean himself while in the bathroom. He was offered water and refused.

2307: Detainee was exercised.

2339: Medical representative took detainee’s pulse rate and vital signs. She said they were all normal. Detainee was taken to the latrine. He refused water.


In this single day log record, several core characteristics of the Total Theater of psychological torture are in play: learned helplessness; the three Ds of Dependency, Debility and Dread; sensory disorientation; assault on cultural values. Also, the presence of the corpsman “checking vitals” recalls the structure of the Milgram experiments, in which the assurance of scientific authority is crucial to retaining the unquestioning obedience of other players within the scene.

Of particular note is the minimal amount of time devoted to actual interrogation. Instead, we see the “running” of a number of “approaches” and “themes”. From the structure of this log, it would appear that the experience of detainee 063 has far less to do with intelligence gathering than with recording behavioral data for the future of psychological operations, that is, the breaking of the will to resist. Interrogation provides the structural context for ongoing experiments in the permanent “no touch” disintegration of the psyche.

Other “approaches” used on detainee 063 on other days included forcing him to wear a bra; placing a thong over his head; forcing him to perform dog tricks; forced to submit to an enema; forced nudity in the presence of female torturers; referring to his mother and sisters as whores. A more complete record has been compiled by the detainee’s attorney, Gitanjali S. Gutierrez. Despite substantial documentary evidence of US official complicity, not a single person has been held accountable for this appalling catalogue of abuse.


Total Theater

In their frequently cited 1992 study titled “Torture: Psychiatric sequelae and phenomenology”, Otto Doerr-Zegers et al. evaluate the long term psychiatric symptoms resulting from torture experienced by their subjects in Chile during the brutal rule of Augusto Pinochet.


Beyond the anticipated acute post-traumatic disorder, they note deep personality changes in numerous cases, with symptoms not unlike those found among patients suffering from schizophrenia, severe depression and psychosis. Such symptoms include a marked impoverishment of psychic life; a significant degradation of various personal and professional competences; “mistrust bordering on paranoia”; and a general loss of willingness to engage in life, resulting in “a tired human being, relatively uninterested and unable to concentrate.”

Doerr-Zegers and his associates are led to the central question:  What in torture makes possible a change of such nature that it appears similar to psychotic processes and to disorders of organic origin?

They then focus on the phenomenology of the torture situation as presenting a sort of Total Theater, a theater in which the victim’s sense of self, time and space all come under extreme stress at the same time. The detention cells and interrogation rooms are highly staged, complete with remotely controlled lighting and sound, and coordinated to induce persistent feelings of dread and disorientation.

Basic human needs are controlled and disrupted to maximize confusion and collapse all autonomous existential platforms, which are then replaced, plank by plank, with a new platform of defenseless dependence and subservience to the theater’s omnipotent directors. Prior conceptions of the the world — such as the strong commitment to the rule of law within Chilean society – are also shattered, leaving the victim even more isolated and displaced.

Critical features within the perverse dramaturgy of Torture Theater include:


1.   The extreme asymmetry of power.

2.   Victim is known and named; torturer is not.

3.   The painful double bind of either enduring “treatment” or betraying others (often falsely).

4.   The constant infliction of destabilizing fictions such as mock executions and reports of harm to loved ones.

5.   Confinement in spaces chosen or designed to convey entrapment, narrowness, constraint and dehumanization.

6.   Manipulation of time such that treatments appear to be without end; disruption of any sort of structure to days or nights; disturbance of sleep, eating and other basic requirements.

Official denials further exacerbate and perpetuate damage performed within the Torture Theater, once the victim is released from the “play”. Because those who have not attended the theater cannot believe that such things could ever happen in a society purportedly governed by the rule of law, the suffering of the victim is compounded by their inability to testify to their ordeal or to seek justice.

Of course, in Chile and elsewhere, the truth eventually forced its way into the sun, due to the heroic efforts of victims and their families, who refused to accept institutionalized silence.


Alfred McCoy in A Question of Torture and Michael Otterman in American Torture both meticulously trace the scientific and legal-political genesis of torture as Total Theater, and its implementation and refinement during the years following the events of September 11, 2001. We find it curious that there have been few subsequent studies of torture psychiatric sequelae, given the numerous provocative lines of enquiry opened by Doerr-Zegers et al., as well as the proliferation of victims in recent years. Possibly such research is not considered likely to enhance one’s academic career?

Finally, we are intrigued by the suggestion that torture results in symptoms not dissimilar to those found in subjects whose brains have some organic disorder. Might the impact of the trauma be so severe that post-torture brains actually resemble something closer to a Traumatic Brain Injury?