December 13, 2005

ON TORTURE, VI(B): The Truth that Lies Within, and the Truth that Many Will Not Face

Children who become too aware of things are punished for it and internalize the coercion to such an extent that as adults they give up the search for awareness. But because some people cannot renounce this search in spite of coercion, there is justifiable hope that regardless of the ever-increasing application of technology to the field of psychological knowledge, Kafka's vision of the penal colony with its efficient scientifically-minded persecutors and their passive victims is valid only for certain areas of our life and perhaps not forever. For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath. -- Alice Miller, at the conclusion of the "Afterword" to For Your Own Good
I have read extensively in my life, and Alice Miller is the most profoundly courageous writer in the world today to my knowledge. She writes unflinchingly and with a gaze that never turns away from what it perceives, no matter how horrifying it may be. Miller describes the untold cruelties that are inflicted on the most innocent and defenseless of victims -- infants and very young children. Almost all of us accept these cruelties to one degree or another. I am not speaking only of the obvious cruelties, of corporal punishment and similar barbarities -- although we should never forget that the great majority of parents believe that spanking is sometimes necessary. I will begin to trace the connections here at the outset: just as Charles Krauthammer maintains that we are "morally compelled" to utilize torture in rare circumstances in the name of our own survival, so most parents believe that physical violence is sometimes morally "required" if their children are to be taught to be "civilized."

Let us try to be as brave as Alice Miller: what we mean by "civilized" when we speak in this way, is that children must be taught to obey. If the principle of obedience is instilled in children from earliest infancy, and if parents further teach their children that physical violence is the means of commanding obedience, why do we wonder that some adults will torture those who have been rendered helpless and delivered into their control? They are merely reenacting what their parents taught them.

But we refuse to see this. We will not acknowledge what has been done to us. Miller continues in her work, because she understands better than anyone that these issues must be understood if the horrors are to be stopped. But she has met with fierce resistance every step of the way. In a similar way, although on an immensely more modest scale, I have found that many readers who agree with me on many issues -- and many readers who may have followed this series so far, nodding their heads in confirmation at every point in my argument -- will stop here. They will not acknowledge these particular truths, because they are too threatening.

This is because there is a necessary corollary to the obedience we are taught: the idealization of the authority figures in our lives. As children, we dare not question what our parents do: we depend on them for life itself. To comprehend fully what is being done to us would be unbearable, and it might literally kill us. So we must believe that, whatever our parents do, they do it "for our own good." To believe otherwise is the forbidden thought. So we must deny our own pain when we are young; such denial is necessary if we are to survive at that stage in our lives.

But if we maintain the denial when we become adults, it spreads throughout our lives. When such modes of thought are established in our psychologies, they cannot be isolated or contained. We deny our own pain -- so we must deny the pain of others. If we acknowledge their pain fully and allow ourselves to realize what it means, it will necessarily call up our own wounds. But this remains intolerable and forbidden. In extreme cases, we must dehumanize other human beings: they become "the other," the less-than-human. By using such devices, we make inflicting untold agonies on another person possible: if they are not even human, it doesn't matter if we torture them. This is always how we create hell on earth.

I said I was not referring only to the obvious cruelties inflicted on children by physical violence. Just as important, and often of much greater significance, are the psychological agonies to which parents subject their children. How often do we hear parents say to a child who will not follow an order: "Why are you making me so unhappy? You don't want to make your mother unhappy and sad, do you, darling? Now just do what I say." We should recognize this for what it is: emotional blackmail. The unstated threat -- but the threat that is deeply felt by the child, even if he is not able to understand it -- is that the parent's love will be withdrawn unless the child obeys. Since the child knows that his life depends on that love, the threat is a terrifying one. Such blows are delivered countless times every day, by millions of parents around the world.

This knowledge is inaccessible to the majority of adults. We are taught to obey, and we learn to idealize our parents. We tell ourselves they did the best they could, or they couldn't help it. In one sense, that is true: they raise their children as they were raised. They learned obedience very well, and they do to their own children what was done to them. But most of us cannot leave this truth at this point: to maintain the veneration of our parents, we must insist that they in fact were right -- that they did it "for our own good." That is where the great danger lies.

When the idealization of the authority figure spreads once we become adults, it can encompass additional authority figures. There are two primary such figures: God -- who may have been there from the beginning, if the child is raised in a very religious household where God is the ultimate authority, and the parents only speak on His behalf; and country. When one's nation becomes such an authority figure, there are subsidiary ones as well: the nation's leaders, and the nation's military.

I realize that people often do not follow links. If this subject is of interest to you, I hope you will make an exception here. An earlier essay of mine presents a fuller version of this argument: When the Demons Come. I trace the connections between cruelties inflicted on children -- methods of "discipline" such as "hot saucing," and the kinds of punishment recommended by religious leaders such as James Dobson -- and atrocities committed by adults, such as those committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. That piece also summarizes some of the major themes in Alice Miller's work.

Many of today's hawks exhibit the kind of denial to which I refer in an extreme form: because they will not acknowledge any of this, they must insist that the U.S. military could never commit such atrocities. It must all be a vicious lie. As I explain in that earlier piece, this was the ultimate root of the hatred heaped on John Kerry: he dared to speak the truth about what had happened in Vietnam. For the deniers, this is the one crime for which no forgiveness is possible. As I wrote about this kind of denier (and Rich Lowry and Andrew Sullivan were the particular writers to whom I was responding, but the same is true of many millions of additional people):
With no effort at all, you could multiply examples such as these a thousandfold, every single day. In this manner, defenders of our current foreign policy wipe out of existence all the facts, all the costs, all the deaths, and anything else that might bring into question what is an absolute of their faith: the United States is right, what we have done and are doing in Iraq is right, our military is right, we are inherently unable to make mistakes, and the authorities must not be questioned.

These are the victims described by Miller -- now grown into adulthood, continuing their denial, with additional authority figures added to the ones they first had. Besides the original parent, they now revere our government and our military and, beyond a certain point, nothing they do is to be challenged. ... [T]o do so would bring into question these individuals' entire false sense of self, it would undermine their worldview completely, and it represents a threat that cannot be allowed to come too close. As always, what is dispensable in all this are facts, untold national wealth, reputation and prestige, and above all, the lives of human beings.

As I have said before, it is in this manner that horrors are unleashed upon the world. And if this mentality is carried far enough, you will finally end up with the kind of thinking, and the kind of psychology, that lies behind the journal entry from World War II (written by a German soldier) that I quoted in the previous part of this essay:

"On a roundabout way to have lunch I witnessed the public shooting of twenty-eight Poles on the edge of a playing field. Thousands line the streets and the river. A ghastly pile of corpses, all in all horrifying and ugly and yet a sight that leaves me altogether cold. The men who were shot had ambushed two soldiers and a German civilian and killed them. An exemplary modern folk-drama. (1/27/44)"

If you never allowed your authentic self to develop (or your parents never allowed you to develop one), if you denied and continue to deny the reality of your own pain, then you will deny the pain of others, even as the corpses pile up -- and you will be prepared to believe anything.

And the horrors continue, beyond all human reckoning -- and without end.
In "When the Demons Come," I also offered a brief summary of my own of Miller's central thesis (from another essay):
By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:

"This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology."
At the conclusion of the previous part of this series, I noted two types of person that almost no one seeks to explain: the man or woman who will refuse to inflict unbearable agony on another human being, even when that refusal ensures his or her own death; and the person who will engage in torture, even when he knows that torture does not work, and even if he senses in some vague form that he is engaging in sadism for its own sake. He knows there is nothing to be gained from his unforgivable cruelty, yet he does it anyway.

About both types of person, I asked a simple question: Why? Why does one person refuse to act cruelly, while another does so with an eagerness that horrifies us? Since last evening, I have been struggling to find another way of identifying the chasm that separates my approach from that utilized by someone like Andrew Sullivan. The difference is crucial, especially because Sullivan condemns torture in no uncertain terms. But as I explained, the entire perspective that informs his condemnation is profoundly different from mine. Therefore, identifying the difference in our outlooks with precision is of immense importance.

In the previous essay, I analyzed how Sullivan approaches the question of torture as a political one: he considers the legitimizing of torture in terms of its effects on the United States as a political entity. He discusses torture's ghastly effects on the victim -- but only in very abstract, impersonal terms, as if he were writing a textbook on political theory. And, very significantly, both Krauthammer and Sullivan -- even though they come down on opposite sides of this dispute -- exhibit the same blind spot: the reality of the person who will always refuse to inflict torture on another does not appear to exist for them. We are left with the sense that, in their world, if the order comes down to torture, the order will be obeyed. So the critical question for them is whether that order should ever be issued. Krauthammer says it should, and Sullivan says it must never be.

For me, the question is a profoundly different one. I recognize that the order will not necessarily be obeyed. So for me, the key lies right there: why will some people refuse, while others won't? Krauthammer and Sullivan never ask this question. They are both the victims that Miller describes. Obedience is the ruling principle that informs their approach -- and the only question is: obedience to what? (I note the following, because it is very revealing of the extent to which the principle of obedience dominates Sullivan's approach. Sullivan is an openly gay man, who writes extensively about gay issues -- and also about his Catholicism. It is quite striking to see the enormous struggles that engage Sullivan -- struggles which are entirely self-selected and to which he voluntarily submits -- as he tries to reconcile his own homosexuality with a Church that continues to explicitly condemn gay people for their sexuality. He cannot make peace between these warring parts of his worldview and of himself because, in fact, no such peace can ever be attained. But he refuses to give up the principle of obedience that is still represented by his allegiance to the Catholic Church.)

As I was reflecting on these issues, I recalled a line I once heard or read somewhere. I've tried to remember its source, but I can't. It is not the way I would choose to make the point; it's a sentimental, not fully serious manner of expressing the thought. The line went something like this: "Nothing happens in politics, that did not happen first in the human heart." Let us set the style aside: there is a great truth contained in that statement. It is crucial to appreciate what it is.

For me, the ultimate truth of any question is an individual one. Individual human beings are the ultimate components of all the questions that concern us, whether they are philosophical, political, aesthetic or of any other kind. Politics represents the summation of many individual actions. In all the heated debates about politics or foreign policy, we too often forget where the final consequences of our actions are felt: by individual human beings, by people who are happy or sad because of what we do, by people who all too frequently today live or die as the result of our actions. Obviously, this is why politics and foreign policy matter so much: the lives of countless people are affected because of the decisions we make. This is why I spend so much time on these questions myself.

But the final significance of all these issues is intensely personal: these questions matter so desperately because of how they affect me, and you, and all of us. And this is why, when I consider a subject like torture, the most critical question for me is the personal one: why are there some people who will refuse to obey the order? If everyone refused, the problem would never arise. This is another way of expressing an old cliche. It may be a cliche, but it goes to the identical personal issue: "What if they gave a war and nobody came?"

Think about that for a moment. What if no one did come? Put it another way: why are so many people willing, even eager, to engage in violence? Almost all of us reject violence on the narrower scale: we all condemn the thief, or the individual murderer. But when violence is engaged in on a wide scale by governments, many of us enthusiastically embrace it. We allow ourselves to forget the personal impact, and the horror becomes manifest. And when it comes to the question of torture, some of us will approve it, while refusing to consider its ultimate source -- and while refusing to acknowledge that some people will never permit themselves to act in such a manner. Still others, while they condemn it, similarly refuse to consider the issue in any but the most impersonal and abstract of terms. They cannot imagine the person who simply says, "No" -- because they themselves would not. They have been taught to obey, and they will not challenge the principle that lies at the foundation of their identity.

This is why, even though I agree with his ultimate condemnation, I reject Sullivan's approach and the means by which he arrives at his conclusion absolutely, and across the board. He is incapable of seeing what the critical question is: he cannot understand the roots of such violence, nor can he see that our current foreign policy itself embodies that same violence. In the end, his condemnation is irrelevant and futile. People who condemn torture for the reasons Sullivan does do nothing to stop the violence that threatens to engulf the world.

Because she is the preeminent expert on the subject, I will leave the final words to Alice Miller herself. Here is the main page of her site. Because it utilizes frames, I recommend you follow the links, until you get to the page that lists "Articles," "Books," "Interviews" and other categories, and you will be able to access the particular articles I mention from there, in addition to a wealth of other exceptional and illuminating material.

From her article, "The Origins of Torture in Endured Child Abuse":
Many people have claimed to be appalled by the acts of perversion committed by American soldiers on ADULT people, Iraqi prisoners. Amazingly, I have never heard of any such reaction in response to the occasional attempts to expose similar practices committed towards CHILDREN, as for instance in British and American schools. There, these practices come under the heading of "education." But the cruelty is the same. The world appears to be surprised that such brutality should rear its head among the American forces.

After all, America presents itself to the international public as the guardian of world peace. There is an explanation for all this, but hardly anyone wants to hear it.

It is definitely a good thing that light has been cast on the situation and that the media have exposed this lie for what it is. Basically it runs as follows: We are a civilized, freedom-loving nation and bring democracy and independence to the whole world. Under this motto the Americans forced their way into Iraq with devastating results and still insist that they are exporting cultural values. But now it turns out that alongside their bombs and missiles the well-drilled, smartly dressed soldiers are carrying a huge arsenal of pent-up rage around with them, invisible on the outside, invisible for themselves, lurking deep down within, but unmistakably dangerous.

Where does this suppressed rage come from, this need to torment, humiliate, mock, and abuse helpless human beings (prisoners and children as well)? What are these outwardly tough soldiers avenging themselves for? And where have they learnt such behavior? First as little children taught obedience by means of physical "correction," then in school, where they served as the defenseless objects of the sadism of some of their teachers, and finally in their time as recruits, treated like dirt by their superiors so that they could finally acquire the highly dubious ability to take anything meted out to them and qualify as "tough."

The thirst for vengeance does not come from nowhere. It has a clearly identifiable cause. The thirst for vengeance has its origins in infancy, when children are forced to suffer in silence and put up with the cruelty inflicted on them in the name of upbringing. They learn how to torment others from their parents, and later from their teachers and superiors. It is nothing other than systematic instruction by example on how to destroy others. Yet many people believe that it has no evil consequences. As if a child were a container that can be emptied from time to time. But the human brain is not a container. The things we learn at an early stage stay with us in later life.


The media quote psychological experts who contend that the brutality displayed by the American soldiers is a result of the stress caused by war. It is true that war unleashes latent aggression. BUT TO BE UNLEASHED IT HAS TO BE ALREADY THERE. It would be impossible for individuals who have not been exposed to violence very early, either at home or at school, to abuse and mock defenseless prisoners. They simply couldn't do it. We know from the history of the last World War that many conscripted soldiers were able to show a human face, even in the stress of war, if they had grown up without being exposed to violence. Many accounts of the war and the conditions in the camps tell us that even such extreme stress will not necessarily turn adults into perverted individuals.
From another Alice Miller article, "Taking It Personally: Indignation as a Vehicle of Therapy":
There is no shortage of books and articles informing us about horrific deeds and circumstances (cruelty to animals, exploitation of nature, torture, despotism, etc.), and it is only natural that we should respond to such accounts with strong feelings. The reaction displayed by a large majority of the thinking and feeling population is one of indignation. But there is an exception to this rule. To a striking degree, reports on the physical abuse of children in the form of spankings or beatings meet with almost total indifference. Most people are still convinced that for children physical "correction" is both necessary and harmless.

How can anyone possibly believe that youngsters will benefit from being beaten, particularly at a time when they are still growing and their brains are developing? One might perhaps assume that the advocates of corporal punishment have never heard of the fact that the human brain is still at the development stage in the first three years of life, and that it is precisely in this period that violence is learned by example. But what explanation is there for such ignorance? After all, this knowledge is not a closely guarded secret. At least educated people like teachers, priests, or lawyers (politicians, statesmen, ministers) must surely have been confronted with the facts of the matter at some point.

Reports on cruelty to children have been common knowledge for at least 20 years, yet there are still no signs of revulsion and horror at this ruthless exploitation of the helpless situation children find themselves in. Cruelty of this kind serves one single purpose: the discharge of the feelings of hatred pent up in adults, parents, and so-called caregivers. But what do we say when we hear a child has been beaten? "So what? That's quite normal, isn't it?"

In the last 20 years or so, some people have been raising their voices and insisting that it is in fact anything but normal, that it is both dangerous and ethically unconscionable. But these people are still a small minority. My numerous attempts to persuade the Vatican to assist me in enlightening young parents about the dangers of hitting their children have all failed. I have invariably come up against a wall of indifference and silence.

How can we explain this? We can hardly assume that there is no single person in the Vatican able to react with indignation to the violence done to children. This surely cannot be the reason why no one felt prompted to pass my information on to the Pope. Yet my experience indicates that nothing of the kind has in fact been done. And this applies not only to the Vatican. All over the world, governments have done very little indeed to put a stop to these barbaric practices.


Time and again, I ask myself why it is so difficult to communicate this knowledge, why the perfectly normal response - horror and indignation - fails to materialize when the question at issue is cruelty to small children. Deep down I know the answer, though I keep on hoping I am mistaken. The answer I have found is: Most of us were mistreated as children and had to learn to deny this fact at a very early stage in order to survive. We were forced to believe

"that we were humiliated and tormented 'for our own good,' that the beatings we received did not hurt and were harmless, that such treatment served to protect the community (as otherwise we would have turned into dangerous monsters)."

If the brain stores this aberrant information at a very early stage, then the message it conveys will normally retain its effect throughout our lives. It causes a persistent mental bias. In therapy, such biases may be resolved. But most people are not prepared to question and abandon preconceptions of this kind. Instead they chant this perverse litany: "My parents did their best to bring me up properly, I was a difficult child, and I needed strict discipline." Obviously, people who have been brought up to believe this cannot conceivably feel indignation about cruelty to children. Since their own childhood, they have been dissociated from their true feelings, from the pain caused by humiliation and torment. To feel their indignation they would need to get back in touch with that childhood pain. And who will want to do that?


Both in forensic psychiatry and in psychoanalytic circles we constantly hear it said that the abominable deeds perpetrated by mass murderers could hardly be the fruits of childhood abuse because some of these killers come neither from broken homes nor from families with an appreciable history of violence. However, if we take the trouble to inquire more closely into their parents' upbringing methods, we are invariably confronted with horrors that are just as execrable as the crimes committed by serial killers. Indeed, as these perversions were visited upon children - for years on end - what we usually refer to as corporal punishment fully deserves to be branded as murder - murder of the soul. As the book Base Instincts by Jonathan Pincus demonstrates (cf. Thomas Gruner's article "Frenzy" on this website), it is by no means difficult to elicit details about parental cruelty from murderers because they themselves hardly ever consider them to be evidence of perversion. They see them as instances of a perfectly normal upbringing. Like almost all people abused in childhood, these killers are fond of their parents and prepared to go to any lengths to shield them from blame and accusation.
From the same article, this is the most crucial point of all:
So what about terrorist attacks, or instances of genocide as in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and so many other places in the world? Can we imagine people wanting to blow themselves sky-high if they were loved, protected, and respected as children? I refuse to accept the idea that people capable of such abominable deeds should be regarded as incarnations of pure evil, thus relieving us of any attempt to identify the roots of this compulsive destructiveness in their biographies. These roots are readily discernible once we open our eyes to the fact that, horrific as the crimes of these adults may be, they are no more appalling than the tortures these criminals were exposed to as children. Then, suddenly, the apparent mystery is solved. We realize that there is not one single mass murderer or serial killer who as a child was not the victim of all kinds of humiliations and psychic murder. But to see that, we need the capacity for indignation that normally lapses into abeyance when we think and talk about childhood. (Once again, let me point out that my concern here is not to condone the crimes of adult sadists but to understand the sufferings of the children they once were).
And, because this subject is a very grim one, and because these horrors are all too real, I also repeat Miller's statement set forth at the beginning of this final installment:
For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath.
That is a great truth we must always remember, and the hope we must never lose.

And I think the other great truth is the personal one, as I have described it. It lies within every one of us -- and it lies within you.

Each of us must struggle to find it and, as may be required, we should tell others about what we discover. That intimately personal truth, that inviolable part of ourselves where we can choose what we are and what we will be, is where our humanity lives, and where the possibility for glory may be found.

Each of us must find it -- and then we must make it real.