US soldier stands close to hotel near Australia's diplomatic mission in Baghdad

Dr. Khalid Sohail

Dear friends,

You have asked me about my understanding of the psychology of those American army officers who tortured Iraqi civilians. You are wondering who is more responsible: American officers or the American Government.

Dear friends, I might be a psychotherapist but I am not an expert on the subject of psychology of torture. Based on my limited study I can say that in this area of human psychology there are two distinct schools of thought that I am aware of.

The first school focuses on the personality of the torturers. Those psychologists believe that those men and women who have psychopathic personalities are inclined to abuse power and get involved in sad-o-masochistic behaviors and interactions. Since these psychopaths are quite bright and charming, it is not very hard for them to get into positions of power. They can easily join police department, armed forces or correctional services and then abuse power socially and politically. Eric Fromm in his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Ref 3) and Harvey Cleckley in his book The Mask of Sanity (Ref 4) have provided an excellent overview of those personalities. I have also reviewed the literature on psychopathic and socio-pathic personalities in my book The Myth of the Chosen One. (Ref 5) During my research I was shocked to find out that the highest rate of serial killers and mass murderers in the world is in United States. Elliot Layton in his book Hunting Humans wrote, “…their numbers do continue to grow at a disturbing rate, until the 1960s they were anomalies that appeared once in a decade, but by the 1980s, one was spawned virtually each month. Today, according to unofficial U.S. Justice Department estimates, there may be as many as one hundred multiple murderers killing in America, stealing the lives of thousands.” (Ref 6) In my book I have also focused on the policies and practices of correctional services and how administrators of those institutions are more pre-occupied with punishment than rehabilitation.

It is amazing how in the last year right in front of our eyes ‘liberation’ became torture; symbols of democracy transformed into symbols of autocratic domination and representatives of human rights became violators of human rights.


The second group of psychologists focuses more on the social environments than the personalities. They are of the opinion that the dysfunctional and autocratic environments play a major role in abuse of power. They believe that when healthy and normal people are exposed to abusive environment they start behaving in an inhuman and sadistic way. There are two psychological studies in North America that became famous for their focus on abuse of power in institutional settings.

The first study was conducted by Stanley Milgram “ at Yale University in 1961-1962. He found, surprisingly that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks up to 450 volts to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. But, during the experiment itself, the experience was a powerfully real and gripping one for most participants.” (Ref 7) The study showed that ordinary people become quite obedient to authority figures in an institutional setting.

It is tragic how Bush Government has presented Muslims and Arabs as evil and devils. Such vilainization has created an atmosphere where the enemies are deprived of their humanity. In many ways Bush’s speeches are not much different than the speeches of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussain. When the Commander-in-Chief promotes such a dehumanizing image of the enemies, it is not hard to believe that American soldiers are not treating them with respect. 



The second study was conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. That study is known as Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment that was supposed to last for two weeks was aborted after six days because of the emotionally disturbing and sadistic behavior of the participants. Zimbardo wrote, “ Our projected 2-week experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days because of the pathology we were witnessing. Pacifist young men were behaving sadistically in their role of guards, inflicting humiliation and pain and suffering on other young men if they had the inferior human status of prisoner.” (Ref 8  p 14)

Those two studies highlight a number of interpersonal factors that encourage the sadistic behavior and condone abuse and torture. Those experiments show that ordinary human beings become violent when

A, Victims are dehumanized. When victims are perceived as ‘enemies’ and ‘outsiders’ and ‘inferior’ and ‘evil’, they no longer remain human. In the present war Bush has presented the enemies as ‘terrorists’ and ‘members of al-qaida’. By dehumanizing Afghanis and Iraqis and Muslims and Arabs they have been transformed into enemies of America.

B, Offenders are ‘de-individualized’. When ordinary people are offered uniforms of police, or army or security officers and given a rank, they start playing a violent role assigned to them by their superiors. They are no longer John and Bill and Walter and Linda and Carol, they transform into soldiers and officers and Colonels and Generals and become abusive and sadistic. Assigning different roles also promotes anonymity and “anonymity promotes destructive behaviour.” (Ref 9 p 8)

Those experiments also highlight that people exhibit violent behaviour when they feel they the authorities condone such behaviour and they would not have to face the consequences.

Zimbardo highlights that abusive regimes introduce religion or some other “ideology” such as “national security” that often provides the nice big lie for initiating a host of bad, illegal, immoral policies.” (Ref 9 p 6)

The activities of American Government in Afghanistan and Guantanamo had already set the stage for future human rights violations and abuses of power.

It is tragic how Bush Government has presented Muslims and Arabs as evil and devils. Such villainization has created an atmosphere where the enemies are deprived of their humanity. In many ways Bush’s speeches are not much different than the speeches of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussain. When the Commander-in-Chief promotes such a dehumanizing image of the enemies, it is not hard to believe that American soldiers are not treating them with respect.

One of the major psychological factors in torture in Iraq was the role played by the American Military Intelligence. A number of abuses took place to ‘soften’ the enemy so that they break down and cooperate with the interrogation. The intelligence authorities believed that since their enemies are Arab men, they would have more success if they

A, used dogs to harass them

B, forced them to perform homosexual acts


C, asked women to watch them.

All these techniques were used to humiliate Arab Muslim men. Many Intelligence authorities were proud rather than embarrassed of their abusive behaviour.  Some of these torture tactics went so far that they had some casualties. Torture joined hands with murder.  Some of those soldiers who are accused of those crimes are now being investigated and some officers might be facing court -martial.

It is amazing how in the last year right in front of our eyes ‘liberation’ became torture; symbols of democracy transformed into symbols of autocratic domination and representatives of human rights became violators of human rights. Such a tragedy has not only devastated Iraq but is also taking a toll on America. Hundreds of American soldiers have already lost their lives and there are thousands who have come back home with wounds on their bodies and scars on their souls. Some conscientious American soldiers have been so traumatized that they have contemplated suicide or applying for refugee status in other countries including Canada. Vietnam war has shown us that it takes a long time for those physical and emotional wounds to heal. American public is gradually realizing that they were deceived and misled by their government. There are more and more every day who feel betrayed.

The abuses of power and violation of human rights have reached such a crescendo that Red Cross, Amnesty International and many other International Human Rights organizations are contemplating to forego their traditional confidentiality and share their observations and experiences publicly. They feel that American violations of human rights have to be stopped before we lose thousands of more innocent lives.

Dear friends,

If you ask me which school of thought I belong to, I would say that both schools have some truth in their theories. I believe that abusive and violent behaviour is multi-factorial. Personalities and environments both play a significant role. For people with delinquent and psychopathic tendencies there is not much need of social provocation but when the environment becomes abusive and violent, the way Bush administration has created in the Arab and Muslim world in the last three years, even normal and healthy soldiers are vulnerable to become abusive and violent. So in my opinion American officers as well as the American Government, Linda England, who put a leash in an Iraqi’s neck and dragged him like a dog, alongside Donald Rumsfield and George Bush, who are leading the armed forces, are all responsible to create a violent and inhuman environment where innocent human beings are dehumanized by declaring them enemies and terrorists. They are all responsible for torture. Dehumanizing is a double edged sword, it dehumanizes the victim as well as the torturer.

With each passing day there are more and more conscientious American men and women who are critical of Bush administration and their foreign policy especially towards Arab and Muslim world. They feel American Government lacks wisdom. Zimbardo wrote, “The ‘war on terrorism’ can never be won solely by current administration plans to find and destroy terrorists, since any individual, anywhere, at any time, can become an active terrorist. It is only by understanding the situational determinants of terrorism that programs can be developed to win the hearts and minds of potential terrorists away from destruction and toward creation.” (Ref 9 p 20) Let us hope that American Government and public realizes that bitter reality before it is too late. Bush’s dream to make Iraq an ideal democratic state for the Arab and Muslim world has already become a bloody nightmare where human rights are being violated day after day, everyday, night after night, very night. The whole world is wondering whether America has ever promoted democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds or always supported monarchs, army generals and dictators that they could easily bribe and control and the holy war is less about liberation and democracy and more about holy oil. There is a growing concern internationally because America has not been respecting international treaties, disregarding world opinion and dismissing United Nations. I remember the week before Bush attacked Iraq when millions of people all over the world had come out in the streets asking Bush not to threaten world peace by attacking Iraq, but he paid no attention to peace marches as he had already declared a ‘war on terrorism’, a war that has been producing more terror and torture than preventing them.

Nelson Mandela had warned all of us that Bush might push the whole world into third world war, a war that he might be able to start but may not be able to stop. After attacking Iraq without the blessing of United Nations, Bush had put the world democracies in an impossible dilemma. And by insisting that either the world governments were with him or against him, he was trying to divide the world between black and white ‘us’ and ‘them’, which was a dangerous proposition. Such dilemma has been harder for Canada because of her geographical and political position. In the last few years Canadian Government has been walking on a tight rope. On one hand Canadians want to maintain a neighborly friendly relationship with United States and on the other hand criticize America’s human rights violations. Historically Canadians have felt proud in cooperating with United Nations and International Human Rights organizations. Finally when United States repeatedly ignored human rights concerns of the world, Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign minister had to speak out and expressed his frustrations and disappointments in United States in these words, “…The Geneva Convention doesn’t really work anymore…The Americans just say ‘put them into Guantanoma and throw away the key.” (Ref 10 A6)

Canada like other conscientious countries, communities and international organizations, who care for the future of humanity, are “well aware that bringing a nasty brutal and small country to heel is far less complicated than attacking the world’s superpower.” (Ref 10)

Dear friends, Let us hope that other world governments and world opinion become so strong that torture can stop and human beings, whether prisoners or civilians are treated with dignity and respect.



May 21st, 2004.  


1.     Sohail Khalid…In Search of Peace

Creative Psychotherapy Website

2.     Mahurin Matt

Illustration for Time Magazine Canadian Edition

May 17, 2004  Toronto Canada

3.     Fromm Eric…The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness

Holt, Rinehart and Winston Publishers

Toronto Canada 1973

4.     Cleckley Hervey…The Mask of Sanity

Emily Cleckley Augusta Georgia USA 1988

5.     Sohail Khalid…The Myth of the Chosen One

White Knight Publications Toronto Canada 2002

6.     Leyton Elliott…Hunting Humans

McClelland and Stewart Inc Toronto Canada 1986

7.     Stanley Milgram Website Internet

8.     Philip Zimbardo Website Internet  

9.     Zimbardo Philip…A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators

Arthur Miller Edition The Social Psychology of good and evil: Understanding our capacity for kindness and cruelty

New York Guilford 2004

10. Ward Olivia…Iraq report opens door on Red Cross secrecy

Sunday Star May 16, 2004 Toronto Canada  

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