16 August, 2022


Torture (And Empathy)

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

The following arises from the furore caused by sending one Mr. Sisira Mendis, a senior police officer, to attend an international conference on torture because, it is alleged, Mr Mendis was a torturer himself. As one “Pentheus” (Sorrowful) responded in Colombo Telegraph, if to a conference on banking we send out best bankers, then it’s logical that to a conference on torture we send our best torturers. (There’s also the fear that the in-coming American President, Donald Trump, will condone “enhanced interrogation” – a euphemism for torture – and so encourage the practice elsewhere as well.)

But leaving aside levity and not-funny humour, torture is the intentional inflicting of pain, be it on humans, animals or insects: it’s appropriate that the word “torture” comes from the Latin meaning “twisted“. The impression or knowledge of torture that most of us have comes, fortunately, from a distance. We have neither seen nor heard but only read about torture. What follows is the thought of one who has no special knowledge nor has undertaken any research into the subject. The intention is to elicit response, provoke discussion and so work towards a better understanding of torture. The casual use of the word “torture” is not helpful: “It was a real torture to sit through that film”, etc.

tortureEarliest records lead to the sombre conclusion that torture is as old as human history. Right from the beginning, we have indulged in it. Perhaps the experience centuries ago when we, little creatures with rudimentary tools and weapons, fought for our very survival, implanted in us a streak of cruelty which has persisted. Children are known to trap small creatures, and settle to having fun in torturing them. Is our willingness and wanting to torture natural, that is, from nature? The psychiatrist, R D Laing, wrote that, inhabiting a crazy world we all are, to a greater or lesser degree, maladjusted. Then is torture nurture, rather than nature? Or is it both?

It seems to me that a torturer cannot see himself as evil. (For convenience, I will use the masculine, though women have also participated in torture.) On the contrary, the torturer sees himself as serving a high cause, be it the state, ‘race’, religion or ideology. I suppose his declared intention is to punish; secondly, extract information and, thirdly, act as a deterrent to others. But is it as simple as that? Paedophiles are known to seek work where there is opportunity for them to give vent to their sickness. Similarly, torturers may gravitate to jobs which give them the opportunity, and the power, to vent their sadism. Cruelty becomes duty, the inflicting of pain, a pleasure. It can also be that certain work-environments (for example, the armed forces, the police, prison-guards) inure those employed to brutality. In some situations, crudity and brutality can become the norm, the every-day reality; no longer noted and thought about. It’s a case of nature and nurture coming together.

“It seems to me that a torturer cannot see himself as evil”: this sentence needs further thought. Paedophiles, compulsive sadists and others of their ilk are foreign to such thought; indifferent to such considerations: they are amoral. Or should I say, “Amoral where their immortality is concerned”? The torturer, particularly those ‘in government service’ can pass off what he enjoys as the carrying out of onerous duty: “Well, somebody has to do the dirty work”. Another aspect is that of obedience to authority. Perhaps, the most famous experiment here is the Milgram Experiment (1963), conducted shortly after the trial of Eichmann who claimed that he was merely carrying out the orders of his Nazi superiors. I’ll not go into details here of Professor Milgram’s experiment since there’s enough information on the Internet. It remains a thought-provoking and disturbing study.

I suppose the first necessary step in torture is for the torturers to erase the victim’s humanity: surely, one cannot see the other as fully human and still inflict excruciating pain? Or am I being naïve? The erasing of human identity should not be difficult because the victim, having been suddenly, roughly, arrested and transported (often blindfolded), is now disorientated and terrified; dishevelled and, most probably, dirty. Often, she finds herself in a small, windowless, squalid room with marks of torture on the walls. So right from the beginning, the torturers have an intoxicating sense of their power: they are veritable gods vis-à-vis this whimpering creature who “twists” (etymology) and pleads before them, only to be met with laughter and ridicule. All-powerful and proud, they do not realize that their actions bring great shame on them, their people and culture. “Creature” is the operative term: the shivering, cringing, woman or man is not human but a creature and, I have written elsewhere, victims of torture remain damaged, crippled, for life. They never quite regain their former selves. Regarding the obliteration of the victim’s human identity, one recalls the comfort reportedly offered by Buddhist monks to King Duttugemmunu grieved by the number of Tamils he had killed in battle: he had killed but one and a half men; the rest weren’t human. Not being human, they didn’t count. Identity, the label (foreigner, not “one of us”, etc.) that one sticks-on is of the utmost importance. Perception is fundamental. If human beings can be re-classified; if their common humanity can be denied, then much is cleared for the torturers to begin their work. The trembling, whimpering, pleading ‘thing’ is not a fellow human being but a creature; a member of a different and, moreover, contemptible species. The result of brutality is used to justify continued, and even worse, brutality. So it was in the days of African slavery; so it is with our reaction to the abject poor. Degrade individuals, and then use their degraded state to justify degrading attitudes and treatment.

In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the point is made that what distinguishes us from animals is our possession of intelligence but, if that intelligence is corrupted, we become worse than, inferior to, animals. We, possessed of intelligence, settle down to devise fiendish methods of torture. Really “good” torture must be (a) intense, (b) prolonged and yet, as far as possible, (c) not fatal. The last is to ensure that the victim does not elude the torturer’s clutches; does not finally escape through death. In reports on torture in Sri Lanka, ingenious methods have been allegedly (emphasised) used: inserting a needle into the penis; inserting a rod with wire into the anus, and removing the rod. If there is validity in such reports, it’s a case of Swift and intelligence corrupted. Then there are allegations of gang-rape of women and men, and of rape with metal objects: see, We Will Teach You a Lesson, reviewed by me in Colombo Telegraph, 3rd April 2015. I apologise for these distasteful and distressing details but if we are nauseated by merely reading, what of those who undergo this treatment? A superior distaste is woefully inadequate, almost tantamount to avoidance and hypocrisy.

At the end of their work-session, the torturers can have a bath, make themselves (physically) clean, change their clothes and resume their social roles of husband, father, and convivial friend. That is, until the next time they settle down to work. Meanwhile that pitiful creature, that wreck of what was once a human being, continues to be tortured because she dreads their certain return, and the resumption of their work. (I use the word “pitiful” conscious of what psychologists have established: contempt can be, and often is, a concomitant of pity.)

At the beginning, I said that we who are far distanced from torture are fortunate indeed. But this has a negative side: not knowing what some others are subjected to, we can easily deny it exists or make casual (in some instances, suave and superior) dismissal. The word ‘education’ etymologically comes from ‘to lead out’, and suggests a broadening of knowledge and awareness. It follows that, as we see, highly qualified individuals can remain “uneducated”; and individuals with little or no qualification can be highly educated. Sympathy can be distant: I can send a cheque to ‘Save the Children’ or to Oxfam; feel I have done my bit, and get on with my life. To get a full measure of the degradation and horror of torture, one must attempt to imagine something of its ugly and terrible reality. If we haven’t personally witnessed torture, we can’t begin to take something of its measure. Torture remains a word which, I repeat, one can glibly deny or make light of. Irrespective of country, to deny without pause and any reflection that torture is practised, is to be mentally lazy and morally indifferent or mendacious. To understand torture; its effects and consequences, the people must be ‘educated’. But without thought, not to mention imagination, can there be empathy? The indifference and silence of the people is tantamount to license, if not encouragement: of course, this applies where the system of government is electoral and not dictatorial. To casually, automatically, deny the practice of torture is (to a degree) to be guilty of torture.

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

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Latest comments

  • 2

    The UN Committee last week has ordered a Canadian citizen to be compensated for torture by Sri Lanka. If this country is willing to torture foreigners who have some level of protection from Her Majesty, what would they do to their own second class citizens.

    • 1

      Hi AJ
      Not second class citizen; third, class citizen compaiired with citizens of other countries.

  • 2

    Torture is carried out by USA and UK too of terrorist suspects. Waterboarding is an useful tool for the Whiteman who pontificates. It’s that simple. Agent orwngr, millions of Tons of cluster bombs in Laos and Cambodia etc never resulted in war crimes for Para Suddhas.

    • 2

      What’s your point, torture is carried out by the UK, therefore we should do it too? Do you know international criminal court is already investigating these allegations. U.K. didn’t make this extensive effort to stop the investigation like Sri Lanka.

  • 2

    He sounds like the speeding private bus driver who do not want to be fined!

    If you hate torture, do not engage in terrorist activities isn’t it? Its very simple I thought.

    • 3

      if you don’t want terrorist activities, stop terrorizing your own citizens. Lanka, the country that ranks 2nd just below war-torn Iraq in enforced disappearances has no right to talk of “terrorism”!

    • 2

      Terrorist activity is a consequence of frequent programs inflicted on a hapless minority.
      If you hate terrorist activity don’t plan and carry ot pogroms.
      Both contain seeds of terrorism.

  • 1

    Trump wants to bring back “waterboarding”.


    He may have a good reason.

    Many UN Rapporteurs have come, investigated, and found that the practice is rampant in Sri Lanka.

    Our politicians know, but ignore, as it would not be proper to taint the image of good old Ma Lanka.

  • 0

    Torturers, if caught would say torture has a reason; so torture is to continue as far as the reason exists.

    So the responsibility to torture the torture’s reason/s until it’s eliminated.

    What are the reasons for torture?

    Mentioning what I know may cause mental torture to many and may lead to physical torture.

    Be hurry to make it one race, one religion (means human religion), one law, global village, one language, white=black, man=woman etc..etc

  • 1

    Thanks Sarvan Anna for articulating to us the golden “experiential releasing philosophy”:

    “….. can become the norm, the every-day reality; no longer noted and thought about.”

    “It’s a case of nature and nurture coming together.”

    This is the very philosophy that finally explains to me how the people in the North and East in the late eighties and the nineties carried on despite the unremitting deafening noise and blinding light of the all too frequent bombs falling around them quite unannounced and the quizzing bullets about, when they were bothering me so. As you imply, the lesson is that one had to come to the point of internalizing the dazing fact that death is a highly enhanced possibility each moment in our children’s as well as our own life, (ever-reminded by the packing case/carboard box one kept, in the event of, for the then bad-shortage of coffins):

    “the every-day reality; no longer noted and thought about.”

    before one could at least marginally function.

    Wish you could still come and teach English in Jaffna, for as we read today in CT, we are a sad lot here. At least for my husband’s sake you should come, for I dread to think how they would engrave my epitah and the English they were instilled with in Jaffna during their time, makes some of them altogether allergic to English, Tamil and punctuation mistakes.

  • 0

    BattiVeddah writes that Western countries also engage in torture.
    It’s an ‘argument’ one hears, over and over again, in various different contexts.
    But, as it’s said, “Two wrongs do not go to make a right”.
    No, instead the world is left with TWO wrongs – and all the more a sad place for that.

    De Silva’s argument (if it can be called an argument) is on similar lines. It quite rejects the higher morality the Buddha taught – or attempted to teach – apparently with very little success in Sri Lanka.

    I remember Michelle Obama’s words: “When they go low, we [try to] go high”

    PS. “Pentheus” means “Sorrowful”

  • 2

    Sinhala society tolerates and celebrates rapes, looting, pogroms, shelling hospitals, temples, schools and civilians, torture, war crimes, book burning, extrajudicial killings, assassinating journalists, pedophilia (especially if done by Buddhist monks), necrophilia (especially with corpses of Tamil women raped and mutilated by Sinhala sexual predator soldiers) and beastiality (especially with lions).

    If you fight against their depraved culture, they will call you terrorist and get their imperialist american, terrorist pakistani, apartheid israeli and impoverished indian friends to help them defeat your already outpowered and outmanned force and celebrate such a fake and borrowed victory shamelessly.

    • 2

      Sinhala Propaganda,

      You make your point – spot on. Methinks the problem is while millions of Sinhala Buddhists try to learn the essence of Prince Siddhartha’s lofty teachings, it is simply not hitting home. The chemistry does not synthesize. By nature, it seems to many, they are biologically and inherently bestial. Remember in July ’83 at Welikada Jail either that airline hijacker Sepala Ekanayake or one of his accompanying “Buddhist Sinhala patriots” ate the flesh of the corpse of Kuttimany loudly proclaiming the devilish deed. Have you heard the regular refrain of the fisher-folk in the South “thoge muss mang kanawa” (I will eat your flesh) Doubtless, Kuveni’s DNA still runs deep in the Sinhala psyche.
      Rogue monk Gnanassar and growing number of friends testify to this.

      Yet, in fairness to them, one must say then and now there are many good Sinhalese living scrupulously by the resplendent teachings of the Buddha originally practised here in the Island by Tamil Buddhists from across the Straits – that includes the Monk Mahanama. Curiously, how is it if the credo found consonance with the then Tamils of the Sangam era it fails to find
      depth with the Sinhalese of today? Will the several Mahanayakas please institute an early study – that can benefit many.


  • 1

    They say that “tortured”, given a chance will become a worse “torturer”
    Is it true!

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