In the shoes of the Torturer

The 1995 film, Braveheart showed Mel Gibson’s talent for action and drama as well as his complete disregard for history. But there is one scene from the film which has stuck in my mind. At the end when the English forces capture William Wallace, he is sentenced to be tortured to death. We see him on a rack, being torn limb from limb. Every time, he is ordered to confess his crime, he shouts defiance. In the end just before his death, even his torturer begs him to give in and spare himself the additional pain but he persists till his death.

This scene kept coming in my mind as I listened to the BBC interview of James Mitchell, the retired US Air Force Lt. Colonel turned psychologist who developed and carried out the CIA’s notorious “enhanced interrogation techniques”. I’ll explain the relevance of the movie scene later (I do NOT equate terrorists with William Wallace). The interviewer Seinab Badawi wisely allowed her own judgments to take the back seat and let Mitchell speak freely giving us access to his mind.

Mitchell had retired from the US Air Force in min 2001, but was called back in by the CIA in the aftermath of September 11. He helped draw up the program of waterboarding and personally interrogated Al Qaeda leaders including Khalid Shiekh Mohammed using these techniques.


Khalid Shiekh Mohammed

The interview itself went as one might expect. Mitchell insisted that the methods:

  1. Did not cause permanent harm to the prisoners
  2. Were legal
  3. Were effective in getting information to stop terror plots

But at another level, they revealed a great deal about Mitchell’s own thinking as well as his own rationalizations for what he did. Of all the points above, Mitchell kept returning to the second one. He seemed obsessed with the fact that his actions were completely within the law as authorized by the officials of the Bush administration. The idea of morality separate from legality did not seem to occur to him.

Indeed, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists dismissed complaints against him in 2011 saying there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Mitchell violated its rules.

The second remarkable thing about the man was his insistence that these techniques were not the first option and that all the victim had to do to stop them was to answer all the questions posed to him. It was in this context I remembered the film scene. Gibson’s Wallace could also have ended his pain if he had cooperated. I was also reminded of Hannah Arent’s observations from here experiences in World War 2 that the 18th century idea of the Rights of Man was dead.

In the popular imagination, the abuse of power by US forces is linked to the shocking images from Abu Ghraib. The image below is famous as it is oddly the least offensive of the photographs taken of the US forces abusing Iraqi prisoners.


Prisoner at Abu Ghraib

Mitchell insists that he or his interrogators had nothing to do with this and the actions there were done by Army personnel. It is worth remembering the words of the former US commander in Iraq.

If you allow mistreatment, it’s a slippery slope, you can’t climb back up. And at the end it destroys you.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Former Commander of US forces in Afghanistan


Gen. Stanley McChrystal

When asked if he had any regrets, Mitchell responded that he regretted that he was no longer able to practice psychology as a profession. But he knew that would happen when he took the assignment with the CIA. In April 2009, the CIA cancelled the contract with Mitchell and Jessen’s company, after having paid $81 million out of the authorized $180 million.





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