Psychology of Being a Torturer (From Max Beckmann’s “The Night” to 21st Century)

beckmann-thenight1 Max Beckmann, The Night, 1918-19

Even twenty years ago nobody in U.S. and Europe could predict the monumental resurrection of physical torture before the public eyes since the times described by Max Beckmann who has stylized the terrorism of torture into the sublime nightmare of behavioral archetypes.

Four men (three torturers and one tortured) and four women (one tortured and three witnesses) are crowded in an improvised torture chamber. The three torturers are represented in two combinations – both are typical for the situation of domination: two men prevail over the one, and a man prevails over a woman.

In the witnessing/observing women Beckmann depicts three psychological postures of reacting to torture – horror, compassion, and withdrawal. He personifies these paradigmatic feelings through the female characters for the purpose of emphasizing, it seems, the passivity of these feelings, as our inability to feel resentment and indignation toward the tortures to the point of taking steps against it. In other words, we are all psychologically feminized in the presence of torture; a primordial fear transforms our reactions into a mute emotional response to the world. Torture has the same effect on us as Freudian primal scene on a child.

The three torturers are positioned against five people (the two tortured and the three witnesses) – the majority are, obviously, not on the torturers’ side! Had the three witnesses unite with the potential victims of toture they would have been able to overrun or prevent the toture. But the witnesses retreat into an introverted, internal reactions connected to the posture of observation rather than action, and that’s how torturers triumphantly prevail. That is, according to Beckmann, the paradigmatic situation with torture in human history including countries claiming democratic sensibility. Shame on us!

Everybody remembers, of course, the numerous pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Juxtaposing them with Beckmann’s painting what we see is the night and, on the other hand, the day of torture: ones torture that hides from the day light, and another openly proudly shows/displays itself smiling. Aren’t we here seeing the very evolution in the acceptance of torture in Western civilization, devolution or evolution of regression?

Please, compare the facial expressions of the torturers in the painting and in the pictures from Abu Ghraib. And describe the difference.


Torture is not without its theatricality. Torturing somebody, it seems, always takes place on the stage. The filthiest dungeon, the most revolting cave with jumping spiders and hissing snakes become the limelight if torture is involved. “I am torturing!” – rings in the torturer’s soul. “I am stronger than my victim! I am in charge! I define things! I am achieving results! I want the whole world to know about my success!”

The situations of obvious domination through torture are over-burdened with demonstrative intention. Domination is a spectacle. That’s why the pictures of torture of the Iraqi prisoners were released to the press with a mysterious speed and a puzzling generosity – torture is nothing without demonstration by the powerful one of his/her domination over the powerless. Torturers are never just the subjects of annunciated – they feel that they are the authors of torturing actions, even though they meticulously follow instructions. This quick appropriation, by the torturer, of the status of the subject of annunciation is a little miracle of torture. Torturer always feels like a general even when he is just a PFC. Torturing has this magic power to provide torturer with the feeling of having been immediately promoted.

Torture exists for the sake of torturers (those who order and those who execute it); it is a radical support of their depleted egos. Because they feel they are nothing in the world of peace, negotiation and collaboration they are ready to torture – without getting the identity of the torturer these individuals could (ontologically) collapse into non-being. “I am torturing! I am fighting the evil forces! I am somebody! I am great! I am super human!” For many people it is enough to be born and grow up at the bottom of the social pyramid to be ready to answer the call of their leaders and to become a career- or part-time torturer. Soldiers, cops and bodyguards, for example, are paid for their readiness to die. They themselves are the real pariahs (hidden behind their visors and guns) – they are compensated by survival money for their readiness not to survive. Isn’t this the very prototype of torture – to hope to survive on one’s own very death, to invest death in ones survival? For these people to become torturers of those who are defined by their bosses as licensed torturees, is a triumph of miraculous proportions, the very redemption from their destiny to die instead of others. That’s why we see such a childish enthusiasm on the faces of the young Americans who are allowed to assert and to upgrade themselves through torturing others. For this felt bliss they are ready to die again, this time not for the sake of survival but in gratitude for that bliss.

Torture is popular because it is the ultimate image of the most extreme domination of one human being over the other. And because everybody, in the depth of the soul, is in panic of being enslaved into a condition of being extremely dominated and simultaneously dreams about being in a position of guaranteed (extreme) domination, people cannot take moral stance on torture. Torture as an archetype is too deeply rooted in human history and in human psyche. Torture is a temporary cure of a tormenting insecurity in a person who occupies the position of a torturer and in people who identify with this position.

Torture is the most literal and the most obvious demonstration that the torturer is in the most guaranteed position of the most radical victory over another human being who is now in the most disarmed and helpless position and, therefore, is in the most radical sense unable to harm us.

Torture is a primordial truth about human nature.