Power, pain, and psychopathy

Posted 5/23/18

In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio show “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in the annual “Joke Show,” and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but …

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Power, pain, and psychopathy


In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio show “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in the annual “Joke Show,” and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) Here it is:

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”

“Bush and Cheney tortured.”

“Bush and Cheney tortured who?”

“Sorry, that information is classified—and you’re under arrest.”

The Bush-era torture program—sorry, “enhanced interrogation”—was no laughing matter, of course. From the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo and who knows how many “black sites” around the world, prisoners were subjected to horrific treatment, ostensibly to extract information about possible future attacks. Convoluted legal and moral arguments were put forward to justify conduct that violated not only international law, but fundamental standards of civilized behavior and the very values that Americans were supposedly fighting to defend. A great debate erupted about what the willingness to torture said about the character of the American spirit. (The Senate’s final investigative report remains classified, though a summary was published.)

This sordid history has been resurrected with the recent nominations of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State, and Gina Haskel to replace him as Director of the CIA—but let’s go a little deeper.

Part of the debate about torture involved whether or not it was even an good way of obtaining information. Conservative commentators and politicians, caught up in fantasies of Jack Bauer from “24,” expressed an almost religious faith in its efficacy. Academic studies, meanwhile, suggested that the practice was not only useless but counterproductive. Not only were prisoners likely to give false information just to make the torture stop, the revelations undermined America’s reputation, and gave potential enemies greater motivation to attack us. Less coercive and vicious means were shown to provide viable alternatives and produce worthwhile results.

Watching this debate unfold, I was suddenly struck by a dark and deeply disturbing possibility.

Why, I wondered, would these people be such cheerleaders for torture, despite the contrary evidence? Why so passionate, so insistent, in its defense?

Could it be simply… that they liked the idea?

Go back, if you have the stomach, and look at some of the photos that came out of Abu Ghraib. Look at the gleeful smiles, the thumbs-up gestures. They weren’t just doing a job…

They were having fun.

There’s a word for that, and that word is sadism.

(Please note that I‘m not speaking of the sexual hobby, but the psychopathic condition—wherein one derives pleasure from witnessing or causing someone else’s pain.)

There is a certain correlation between sadism and the urge to have and exert power. Consider this quote from Orwell’s 1984, in which Winston is being tortured by O’Brien:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation….”

Would it be so crazy to imagine that within the halls of power there are people who seek and wield power, who devise, influence and implement policy, motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to inflict suffering? Could such gratuitous cruelty actually operate openly, undetected and unchallenged?


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