Torture, the Greater Good, and the American Government: What does it mean for your rights?


By Sonia Hernandez


According to Dick Cheney, it was necessary for the United States to cross “to the dark side” after 9/11 in order to prevent another terrorist attack and save American lives. As a result, the US government paid two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, over $80 million to create a torture program that promised to be tough and effective against al-Qaeda.

The psychologists based this program on the concept of “learned helplessness,” a theory developed by psychologist Martin Seligman in 1967.  Seligman tested his theory on dogs by shocking them repeatedly until the dogs no longer needed abuse in order to be submissive.  After being tortured repeatedly, they had “learned” submission -- the dogs lost any will of their own and submitted to Seligman’s desires without hesitation or rebellion.

Surprisingly, the US paid millions of dollars to test Seligman’s experiment on around 119 alleged terrorists by using methods more severe than electric shock, including waterboarding, “dry boarding,” stress positions, rectal “feeding,” sleep deprivation, auditory overload, and many more.[1] Learned helplessness implied that the tortured terrorists would provide any intelligence at the soldiers’ request. In secret detention facilities known as “black sites,” the United States used these techniques to torture detainees following 9/11.

After several years, new intelligence would reveal some of the detained to be innocent Muslims who never committed any crimes or had any connection to Al Qaeda. However, these innocents confessed to the crimes that they were accused of because they would do anything to deter the torture imposed on them. Upon recognizing the innocence of some detainees, American officials would release them, but without acknowledgement of their detention, reparations, or even a formal apology.[2] To this day, under President Obama, America admits to torturing people but has yet to apologize, still believing it did what was right to protect the greater good.        

But what are the consequences of establishing a notion of “the greater good” in policy? The minority is dehumanized, and the needs of the majority are defined as superior or more urgent. Although it may seem that the government only uses torture when absolutely necessary, the US has been extracting information through these methods, domestically and internationally, for years. On the domestic level, Jon Burge, a police chief in Chicago, wanted to make the city crime-free in order to protect the greater good, which was the majority of white citizens living there. As a result, he dehumanized black citizens in Chicago by torturing them for information on local crimes, many of which the suspects did not commit, in the police station along with other officers. In Homan Square, a secret black-site still operated by the Chicago police, records show that at least 7,531 people, again predominantly people of color, have been questioned without an attorney and subjected to violence. These methods that police continue to use domestically mirror the methods used by American personnel internationally. In the pursuit of intelligence, interrogators use abusive methods to coerce confessions out of civilians who are often innocent. In the past 40 years, 55 cases from Chicago were found to be wrongful convictions.[3] Although the falsely convicted American citizens have been provided reparations, the survivors of the “war on terror” torture program have yet to be compensated, and a group of them is suing the psychologists responsible for the program.  Both the Chicago police and US Government officials have yet to apologize to their victims, claiming that what they did was necessary for the safety of America.

How can ordinary Americans, like the Chicago police officers, support routine torture? In an atmosphere of fear and imbued with the notion of American exceptionalism, the government has convinced us there should be no limits to our actions when it comes to protecting the majority.  If this means dehumanizing black lives or Muslim lives, then it is necessary.

Evidence of how this dehumanization works comes from psychological theories about authority tested in the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments. In the Milgram experiment, subjects were asked to apply electric shocks to an unseen individual when that individual answered a question incorrectly.  As the shocks got more intense, the subjects hesitated, but always kept going at the prompting of the authoritarian researcher who told them they simply must continue. Of course, it wasn’t a real person behind the wall, but the results are still valid:  if authority, like the American government, orders subjects to do something, either to ensure their own protection or simply to keep an experiment going, the orders will be followed.

What kind of example does this set for the rest of the world? After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States committed thousands of human rights violations to “save American lives.” Clearly, the legitimacy of the United States as an international police force is severely diminished when it hypocritically resorts to torture. For example, last year, Obama promised to take military action against Syrian targets affiliated with the Assad regime, which tortures systematically.  But how can Obama, or any future President, condemn the actions of the Assad regime and other human rights violators when the American government utilizes torture methods both domestically and internationally? [4]

In a world where, in the name of the security of the majority, “anything goes,” international law is invalidated and human rights for everyone are always in danger of being forfeited. You never know when your ethnic or religious group will be the targeted minority; when national security is in danger, can you count on the American government to protect your rights?






Sonia Hernandez is a first-year student studying Biology and Computer Science at Duke University. She is interested in the politics of healthcare and public policy. This semester, she is taking a course in Human Rights, which analyzes issues of torture, the death penalty, and genocide.