The ordinary people who are capable of evil: Emma Daly talks to a psychologist who painted a portrait of those who torture

Emma Daly
Sunday 09 August 1992 23:02

MOST torturers are not born but fashioned deliberately from ordinary people, Dr Mika Haritos-Fatouros says. She believes that the powerful can, like latter-day Frankensteins, turn the boy or girl next door into the instrument of an evil state.

When Dr Haritos-Fatouros began her research 15 years ago into the minds of torturers - particularly those who served the Greek dictatorship of 1967-74 - she assumed they must be sadists. But even before she started to interview torturers, she 'had stopped expecting a monster'.

She had come to believe instead in what might be called 'The Obedient Torturer'. Her conclusion - that torturers are, indeed must be, 'normal people' - did not disturb her. 'But other people became very sad and worried. I had given them the idea that maybe they could become torturers.'

While most of us would admit to having hurt another person deliberately, we recoil in horror from the thought of subjecting someone to extreme pain for impersonal reasons. But Dr Haritos-Fatouros, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Thessalonika, concludes that such feelings of shared humanity are often not strong enough to override our obedience to authority. Any of us might torture a stranger, even a friend, she says, if we were told to.

The key lies in the principles used to train elite military corps the world over. 'It's not a question of one ideology or another. All military elite corps training is similar - some states use soldiers for atrocities, some don't. The state must destroy the individual and remake him - sometimes in the image of the torturer.' The methods used at KESA, the Greek Military Police training camp, involved putting recruits through a punishing physical regime and brutal treatment by NCOs to build esprit de corps.

One KESA graduate, who was known as a superstar in the world of torture, said of his training: 'They aimed to produce tools - people with no minds of their own, people who, when you said 'stand up', stood up.'

Recruits were forced to march along dusty tracks on their knees, packs on their backs, caps held above their heads; they were awoken and made to hop on the spot, half-naked and loaded down with sandbags, for two or three hours. 'It was incomprehensible,' he told Dr Haritos-Fatouros. 'It was completely crazy. You felt totally lost, you didn't know what was happening or why.'

The generals lost power in 1974, and two years later the first Greek torturers were put on trial. Dr Haritos-Fatouros followed the cases and began her research by interviewing 10 torturers.

She says the first rule for those selecting potential torturers is: do not hire a sadist. A delight in inflicting pain is a disadvantage; a sadist might make it personal. One Latin American country drew up guidelines which specified that torturers must be able to control themselves; must go as far as is necessary and no farther; and must have goals that are both important and impersonal.

Regimes seeking the ideal torturer need candidates who are young, educated, with a track record of obedience to authority - to parents, teachers, priests - and who come from families sympathetic to the political aims of the state.

Some people are more susceptible to recruitment than others, the doctor says: for example, older people are less easily influenced than the young. 'But I think there is a breaking point for everyone.'

Torture does not need to be a male preserve, she says. The vast majority of torturers are men simply because it is usually men who do military service, work as police or in concentration camps. Women could be trained in the same way.

Those who graduated from KESA had made it as members of a close-knit elite. Men with potential were sent to torture school and underwent a process of desensitisation. They took food to prisoners, mopped up the blood and performed minor or group torture sessions, under supervision.

'They simply left you no chance of thinking like a human being,' said the former torturer.

'The strange thing is that outside the camp, many of the torturers led normal lives,' Dr Haritos-Fatouros says. 'One of the cruellest had a girlfriend who had many friends involved in the struggle against the regime and he would go with her to cafes, where they would sing songs against the dictatorship.' And then he would go back to work.

Only one of the soldiers Dr Haritos-Fatouros interviewed said the use of torture was justified. 'He thought it was OK, he had no scruples about it, but he was not selected. I think this was perhaps because the kind of personality he had was not always willing to obey, he did not have a 'normal' psychology. I think they needed normal people who would be in complete control of themselves, who wouldn't get carried away by any sadistic impulses.'

Dr Haritos-Fatouros found herself making friends with most of the torturers she interviewed. 'There were two or three who didn't have any remorse; these people I didn't feel comfortable with. With the others I felt . . . on the same side as them because they were saying they had been tortured themselves in a way, had been turned into animals, tools. So I felt close to them.'

It is the system that is to blame, she concludes. 'That does not mean they can be absolved - the element of personal responsibility will always be there.

'The point is, if you go through this training and can't escape, for whatever reason, be it political, social or economic, you are responsible, but are not to blame as much as, for example, the officers.

'My desire was for punishment, not revenge, and was directed at the officers who gave the orders - perhaps because of the interviews.'

The doctor was herself arrested during the dictatorship after a colleague named her, under torture, as a member of a clandestine socialist movement, Democratic Defence. 'I knew there was a great possibility that I would be tortured. My comrade who had talked and named me had been tortured very badly.'

They brought him out so he could denounce her in person. 'I denied everything.' They released her unharmed. 'I never felt badly about it,' she says. 'I liked him a lot, we're still close politically and good friends. All the time, I was shouting at him, saying he was telling lies, I was trying to give him signs that I didn't mean it, and he told me he saw that.'

Can torturers be rehabilitated? 'I don't know. I don't know what they would do under the same circumstances, I'm very worried about that. A lot maintained their links to former officers.

'One reason I continued with my research was the belief that it would help to prevent torture. If people are aware of the fact that (torture) is the fault not of bad people but of bad systems - social, economic, political - then they will be more careful, and will examine the systems and try to change them, not the people.'

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in