Clarifying torture as collective trauma demands shared moral responsibility


By Jeremy Rinker


When most people think deeply about the physical and psychological effects of torture on the individual human body, they shudder in revulsion. So why do we hear such raucous applause when Republican Presidential candidates talk tough about using torture against “terrorists”?

Regardless of the lack of specificity in the “terrorist” label, I believe this disconnect occurs because most Americans are too quick to misconstrue what English philosopher John Stuart Mill called utilitarianism. Mill’s  “Greatest Happiness Principle” assumes not only that we know and agree on what happiness is, but that the greater collective’s sense of happiness trumps any individual’s personal desires. While this sounds nicely communitarian, in America -- the most individualistic nation on earth -- the interpretation of utilitarian ethics gets skewed. Let me explain.

Americans often justify acts of torture by their government by arguing for a utilitarian ethics based on an ill-informed and myopic sense of the greatest happiness principle. The argument goes something like this: if torturing one evil person helps stop some good people from being injured or killed (and therefore unable to achieve happiness), then torture is justified. But this argument assumes a great deal. First, it posits an all-knowing government intelligence unit that can be certain the person being tortured possesses specific and actionable information. French Philosopher Michele Foucault called this ‘governmentality,’ and warned us against such blind trust in systems of knowledge-power. Second, this argument automatically positions people as either good or bad, when humans are actually much more complicated.

Third, and crucially, a strict focus on the common denominator of group rights as the primary vehicle for happiness stifles any critical appraisal of local and collective moral responsibility. Any harms bought in the service of the greater good (in this case the protection of the homeland) are ipso facto good. Put more simply, by focusing primarily on individuals and their group rights, we miss important collective obligations that we all have toward our fellow humans. In short, a focus on post-traumatic individual rights often misses the local obligations humans possess to uphold standards of collective moral responsibility. A focus on utilitarian ethics in a society in which individual rights are held sacrosanct blurs the true effects of trauma as a collective phenomenon.

When Americans think of trauma and other negative human experiences, they usually envision them as happening to a person. This individualistic and psychologized view of human suffering does little to broaden our sense of moral responsibility to others, much less provide collective definition for “happiness.” Our individualistic view of the world is one reason we see an increasing lack of confidence in our government institutions. Torture certainly delegitimizes the U.S. government in the eyes of the world, but just as importantly it leaves a legacy of trauma and suffering in its wake. This collective harm has sociological, even genetic, repercussions for our society.

When we think of rights and obligations, local and state governments may not be the first institutions that come to mind. But increasingly, this level of government has much power to control the status-quo narrative and/or shift the discourse of social change. One need look no further for evidence than the on-going controversy between North Carolina’s State government and the federal government over HB2 (the so-called “bathroom bill”). Further, North Carolina’s invocation of states’ rights over the HB2 controversy is completely hypocritical: when it comes to taking responsibility for our state’s critical role in torture and rendition, North Carolina’s government is content to let the federal government control the discourse. Why the different responses? Our public officials fail to see that TOV (torture and organized violence) leaves a physical and psychological legacy of collective harm that has on-going local manifestations.  Regardless of who actually gave the orders that involved North Carolinians in torture, for us as a state this is now a question of collective moral responsibility, not just individual rights or political expedience.

What are the responsibilities of local governments when citizens can show evidence that they are culpable in systematic wrong-doing? This central question has been kept alive by a small number of anti-torture activists, and must continue to be asked of local and state leaders. You see, accountability assumes a shared understanding of moral responsibility. Local collective understanding of the duty to provide redress is crucial to overcoming fear and cycles of retaliation. But often we as Americans, or North Carolinians, fail to recognize the collective legacy of seemingly individual acts. Restoration after TOV can only be realized when collective social harms are acknowledged and discussed.

Photo Credit: Scott Langley, 2006

Photo Credit: Scott Langley, 2006

Central to activists’ calls for accountability is whether, in the wake of a TOV program, real reconciliation and repair are possible at all. I believe they are, but only if government officials, as representatives of the people, take formal responsibility for their past actions, only then can reconciliation and resilience begin.

Torture must be understood as a collective harm – you, our neighbors, and I have all suffered from our government’s use of it. Holding responsible those involved requires truth-telling at the local level as much as at the international level. As John Paul and Angela Lederach remind us “individual and social healing do not follow and are rarely experienced along ‘lines’ of phase-based progression.”[1] Truth-telling and accountability are the only avenue to both individual reconciliation and societal resilience to any future push to use torture.  Of course, we cannot prevent individual violence simply by acknowledging that structural violence, institutionalized racism, or ethnocentrism exist.  But grasping that torture is a collective social harm does allow change-makers to aim beyond individual rights and responsibilities and toward collective accountability and restoration.

While the collective legacies of trauma exist, they may not fully explain either the social impact of TOV or, even, the means to overcoming it.  However, acknowledging these collective legacies does allow us to envision and clarify our moral responsibilities and put to rest an understanding of torture based on fear and fed by pseudo-utilitarian norms.


Jeremy Rinker, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina, Greensboro’s (UNCG’s) Department of Peace and Conflict Studies where he researches the intersections between narrative, violent conflict, and nonviolent conflict transformation. Having previously taught at DePauw University and Guilford College, Jeremy brings a passion for critical liberal arts education to his teaching and writing on social justice and the legacy of injustice. Jeremy can be reached at

[1] John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach, When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 45.