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The Missing Answer to ‘Why Torture?”

Carolfrances Likins: It is, however, difficult to accuse someone of being sadistic, for it’s hard for friendly people to imagine someone taking pleasure in causing pain to others.

As I lay in bed the morning after watching the excellent movie, The Report, all the thoughts I ever had about torture replayed themselves, including those I had had decades ago from seeing a exhibition of medieval torture instruments, and right into the revelations I had had when a little girl drew a picture as a gift to me when I was her teacher for the day.

Why Torture

So how do all these thoughts relate to each other, and how do they lead to what seems to be the missing answer? It all has to do with the human need to cause. To cause what? Anything. Something. We need to cause.

Did you all see The Report? See it.

In this excellent movie, the question was asked as to why they kept the torture program going all these years if it was yielding no results, or even why they restarted it after it had proved unsuccessful during the eighties in Latin America. The only unsatisfying part of this movie was, to me, the incomplete answer to this. The answer given by the torture apologists was the need to help people heal the trauma of 9/11, but that only explains why they started it. Then, if all the positive findings one gets are the results of methods other than torture, why not heal that trauma by announcing that – and then changing the course of the investigation?

I believe the missing answer is sadism.

It is, however, difficult to accuse someone of being sadistic, for it’s hard for friendly people to imagine someone taking pleasure in causing pain to others.

The closest the movie got to that is when the answer was given as “revenge,” and, indeed the difference between hurting someone to get information and hurting them for revenge is sadism, the feeling of pleasure from causing pain to another.

It is, however, difficult to accuse someone of being sadistic, for it’s hard for friendly people to imagine someone taking pleasure in causing pain to others. But isn’t that what you encounter when you ask a child why he hit his classmate and he does not say, “to keep him from hitting me again” (deterrence) but rather “because he hit me first” (revenge). It is “I want to cause you hurt because you caused it to me.”

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Decades ago, Paula, some friends of ours, and I were visiting México and went to a museum exhibiting torture instruments from the Inquisition, everything from hand-held instruments to the rack. Afterwards, young Adalila asked, if it is just a matter of forcing a person to do what they want, why do they keep inventing new instruments?” Much like the movie asking, “If waterboarding works, why do they have to apply it to one man 183 times?”

Adalila’s question first awakened in me the reality that people were getting sadistic pleasure from torturing. In contemporary times, it’s, “You may have never done anything to hurt anyone, but someone with your language, your culture, and similar facial features hurt us really bad, so I’m going to hurt you.”

Why Torture

In her book, Teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner speaks of a person’s need to vent; if we can’t through our creative vent, we have to do it through our destructive vent. That meant a lot to me throughout my years as a teacher. It particularly hit me in one of my early years of being a substitute teacher when, a few minutes after I started talking to this class of kindergarteners, a girl handed me a picture she drew for me. I blurted out, “You made this for me? Wow!” She glowed.

Later I asked myself, what if my response to this gift had been, “This is not art time! Now, pay attention!” And I realized that we have a human need to prove to ourselves and to the world that we exist and can have an affect on our surroundings. “If drawing a picture and giving it to someone causes the effect I want, I’ll go that way. If not, let’s see if it works through my disrupting the class so they can’t do what they came here to do.”

That is, torturing them.

carolfrances likins

And so, to all those people who surrounded me in my childhood, for letting me cause you pleasure through my creative vent, thank you.

Carolfrances Likins

Carolfrances Likins is a board member of the ICUJP, a retired elementary teacher, and screenwriter.