1 March 2007

Uganda: The Psychology of Torture


Last Friday, Daily Monitor carried a story: "Did the media facilitate Rwanda genocide?" The media seems to be on a conscience clearing exercise by accepting part of the blame for the gruesome massacres of 1994 that they ignored.

Away from the consuming discussion about the facilitators, I was drawn, in retrospect, to the perpetrators - the men and women who exacted the crime. How could man become so cruel, so insensitive.

In seeking to understand the reasons for such ghastly human behaviour, I stumbled on a Stanley Milgram's article "Behavioural Study of Obedience", hidden in the middle of Wayne A. Lesko's 4th Edititon of "Readings in Social Psychology" (2000).

Read with another shorter article by Janice and Mika "The Education of a Torturer", one can get an insight into the world of human rights violators.

Sanity in abuse

It is unnerving to know that most of the human rights abuses committed by groups and, yes; governments are carried out as acts of obedience to some sort of authority. Obedience is a basic element in the structure of social life. Human Rights organisations in Uganda have recorded hundreds of cases of torture by security agencies, acting under command.

Ugandans have of late been perturbed by the ease with which policemen unleash teargas at non violent crowds.

We don't understand how Kony could have a child soldier slash a fellow child abductee with a machete or make a group of children bite their agemate with their bare teeth till he bleeds to death.

It is easy to assume that the person who commits such an atrocity is deranged or even inhuman. Sometimes it is the case. But not always. It is possible for a normal individual to commit an abnormal, sick act just because of the situation s/he finds him/ herself in, and the training s/he is exposed to.

Many studies of Nazi behaviour concluded that monstrous acts, despite their horrors, were often a matter of faithful bureaucrats slavishly following orders.

Obedience, Milgram observes is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. Obedience is such a deeply ingrained behavioural tendency, so deep it often overrides training in ethics, sympathy and moral conduct.

Governments torture people worldwide. To do so they train the torturers. Recruits are carefully screened for physical, intellectual and sometimes political attributes. They are then helped to "bind". They could be taken through rites to isolate the recruits from society and introduce them to a new social order, with different rules and values.

They are then helped to reduce the strain of obedience in several ways. Often by blaming and dehumanizing the victims, so it is less disturbing to hurt them. They are socially modelled by watching other group members commit violent acts and then receive rewards.

Recruits are also systematically desensitised to repugnant acts by gradual exposure to them, so they start appearing routine and normal despite conflicts with previous moral standards.

Most state security and militia training worldwide is designed to make recruits comfortable with violence. Their revulsion is diminished by screaming chants and songs about violence and killing during their marches and runs.

The 'enemy' is given derogatory names and portrayed as less than human. This makes it easier to have them killed.

The Interahamwe, like their Nazi counterparts were recruited from normal young men and women of sound intelligence and physical composition and given an object of hate to target: Human rights abuses in the world will continue for as along as the methods of training security personnel do not change to allow for the principle of the sanctity of human life.

Often there is no difference between the training of terrorists and government security. This is a scary thought.

Many governments designate a section of their citizens as undesirable. These could be opposition groups, ideological no-conformists, or challengers. They are then made "legitimate targets" for torture and often extermination. At different times in Uganda different terms have been used to desribe and demonise "undesirables".

Easing the pain

We recall terms like: Nyaru, Anyanya, Abayeekera, Kipinga, Abebibiina, Abatabuliiki, the all encompassing adui and others. Once categorised as undesirable, the security agencies were then trained to regard them as expendable and unqualified to enjoy freedom.

It starts with vocabulary. A government designating some derogatory label on a section of its citizens is an indicator that its security agencies are being shown the target to torture and exterminate if need be, without guilt. In the name of obedience, even your fellow high school buddy can turn against you without remorse.

And he is not mad. Just obeying orders.

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