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On the Occasion of the UN International Day in Support of Torture Victims.

Vahan Bournazian[1]                                                                                  

 Torture is violence, and as Isaac Asimov wrote in his book Foundation:

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”  Asimov repeated this idea in many of his books, and many have speculated on what he meant.  I think he meant many things, all of which apply the same to violence and to torture. 

First, torture in its most basic and broadest sense is violence used to force the victim to conform to the torturer’s will.  In this sense, the use of violence is an admission by the torturer that they have failed - that they have failed to convince, and that they have failed to justify, that what they want or expect from the victim is fair.  In other words, resorting to torture means that what the torturer wants is not fair, and that the torturer was “not competent” enough to persuade or reach their goals legitimately and humanely.  This is truly a sign of weakness. 

Second, violence and torture are expressive of humanity’s competitive - as opposed to cooperative - nature.  All animals compete for resources.  Primates compete for resources and specifically for status.  According to evolutionary psychology, such competition includes eliminating challengers and opponents.[2]  Violence and torture are the very easy and the most base or lowly ways of winning for oneself at the expense of others, and as such the most primate and primitive.  This is especially true when contrasted with the cooperative techniques of negotiation, discourse and dialogue - all of which recognize that the other person has legitimate interests, too. 

Third, violence and torture necessitate the dehumanization of the victim, and consequently, of the torturer as well.  Evolutionary psychology has identified human empathy and its potential to facilitate cooperation to achieve abstract goals beyond an individual’s personal interest, as humanity’s most important evolutionary advantage.[3]  As humans, we can aspire to new cooperative visions of what our reality should be, when we see ourselves in another’s eyes - should we choose to look.  So torturers don’t look.  Because of empathy, dehumanization - the process of removing the victim or group of victims from the definition of “human,” and thus negating their equality - is a prerequisite for planned violence.  Genocide research is replete with studies about how perpetrators must first dehumanize the victim in order to perpetrate the violence.  Abu Ghraib and other cases prove that this is the same for torture.  But what is less discussed is how this process renders the torturer less human, too.  Exercising power over another human in order to do harm necessitates the negation of one’s own empathy, necessitates the negation of the most distinctive feature of one’s humanity, that element which makes each of us most human.  By negating one’s own empathy, the torturer divorces himself from the essence of being human - empathy - and thereby compromises his own human dignity.  Any ape can torture. 

Fourth, it is a basic premise of human development that a developed society is a collective of developed individuals.  The most important resource of any society are its individuals.  Also, it is the individual alone who best knows their interests, capabilities, and talents - the pursuit of which will best enable that individual’s development.  Furthermore, it is well established that to pursue individual interests and individual development, individuals must have basic needs met, and be allowed to engage in the decisions that affect their lives, so that they are motivated to pursue personal goals and to invest themselves in their society, and its development as well.  Inclusion is key and exclusion is detrimental.  Consequently, this development dynamic requires certain protective securities like social welfare and healthcare; certain social opportunities like education; certain economic facilities like fair pay and safe employment; certain civil and political rights, including equality and participation; as well as transparency, accountability and rule of law.[4]  Without these things, individuals will not reach their full potential and/or will not invest back in their society and its development. 

Torture negates all of this.  Torture negates the essence of the individual; torture negates the potential of the individual; torture negates the value of the individual.  The dehumanized victim, as well as the torturer who is also compromised in his own human dignity, cannot be expected to become the fully developed and participatory individuals that every society needs.  Torture compromises a society’s development by depriving society of the full potential of individuals. 

It is for these reasons that violence and torture do not make sense, are not rational, and are self-defeating for developing, as well as for developed, societies.  Violence and torture harm the individual, and harm the society.  Violence truly is the last refuge of the incompetent.


[1] Attorney and lecturer in human rights.

[2] Joshua D. Duntley, David M. Buss, “The Evolution of Evil,” Chapter Five of Arthur G. Miller, ed. The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, New York:  Guilford Press, 2004.

[3] Kat McGowan, “Cooperation Is What Makes Us Human,” Nautilus, April 29, 2013, http://nautil.us/issue/1/what-makes-you-so-special/cooperation-is-what-makes-us-human

[4] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Anchor Books, 2000.


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