Reflections on Torture

A group of slaves in front of the US Capitol. Author unknown.
Published prior to January 1, 1923. In the public domain.

By Guest Author, Anthony J. Marsella

My study of the history of torture led me to conclude that our understanding of the nature, meaning, and consequences of “torture” may best be advanced by construing “torture,” not solely as a separate and distinct act of brutality and violence, but as part of a broader spectrum of behaviors, events, and forces that justify, promote, and legalize atrocities and brutalities within many contexts and circumstances.

These contexts and circumstances include all forms of asymmetric power relations including those promoted and sustained by political, military, economic, educational, domestic, and religious institutions and powers.

In this respect, acts of torture must be seen as ultimately related to the spectrum of extreme and lesser forms of violence and abuse including genocides, massacres, war crimes, human sacrifices, domestic abuses of women & children  that are driven, promoted, and sometimes sanctioned by biological, psychological, societal,  cultural, and situational variables.

Separating torture from other brutalities may be useful for legal reasons (i.e., criminal prosecution).  But ultimately, our understanding of acts of torture will best be considered within the broader spectrum of forces, events, and situations that have occurred.

The “Genus” (i.e., a class of objects or acts) of atrocities, brutalities and extreme acts of  violence that constitute forms of torture include”: Genocides, Massacres, Human and Animal Sacrifices, War, Battle Brutalities and Atrocities, Ethnic Cleansing, Sadistic Entertainment, Serial Murders, Hate Crimes, Lynchings, Witch Hunts, Death Marches, Capital Punishments, Assassinations, Terrorism/Counter Terrorism, Bullying, Forced Prostitution, Rapes, Acts of Torture.

To these I must add the institutions of  Slavery, Colonization, Imperialism, Economic Exploitation  and Abuses, and Various Entertainment and Recreational Sports and Games. All are or include forms of torture.

All have in common the explicit motivations of control and domination, and a willingness to inflict pain, suffering, fear, trauma humiliation, powerlessness, and death to achieve certain ends.


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. He can be reached at


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5 Responses to Reflections on Torture

  1. Barbara says:

    Dr. Marcella, I agree with so much of what you say. My father did many things that I think amounted to torture–especially to my brother when we were growing up. I still have a letter he sent me after he had left grown up and left home, where he described his experiences and their effects. Here is an excerpt.
    “A child should never be deliberately and severely burned by the parent by holding its finger in a flame. This will merely make the child hate its parent, and will not satisfy its curiosity. Instead, as a child is human like adults, such treatment may arouse the desire for revenge, which it will express by doing the very thing it was punished for. Similarly about bed-wetting. A child should never be punished for wetting its bed. To make a child smell its wet clothes will not cure the habit but merely impress it with the cruelty of its parents and a needless feeling of guilt.
    A child who fears its parents will be a misanthrope, a criminal, an introvert, perhaps hopelessly incapacitated for normal human enjoyment.The child judges the world by his parents. If they are severe without explanation, the child will draw into himself, become timid, perhaps hate, then, hate himself, hate the world. No one can understand another’s feelings, but I tell you that I would face war, mutilation, death and all the horrors and terrors of wars rather than go through my childhood again.

    I hated my father. He was a man who rarely smiled. I rarely saw him during the day, and when he was away I was happy. When my father came home, I could expect to be whipped with the razor strap. Mother always took my part and several times she threatened to leave him, not only because of his treatment of me, but of her. They had terrible quarrels which I did not understand, but they hurt me, frightened me — even terrified me. How little parents realize the effect of their actions on the minds of children. To the adults, a quarrel is not an overwhelmingly bitter experience — they get over it. But to a child a quarrel may be like the death of the gods. It brings division and discord into his world, and fear, oh God, what fear. My world was a world of terrors. I was afraid of the dark. I saw terrible creatures hiding in wait for me in the shadows. I would always hide under the covers, and then I would have dreams of falling, drowning, being strangled. Many is the time that I wished I were dead.”
    It seemed like torture at the time and it still seems that way to me these many decades later. Would anyone disagree?

  2. Gold DusTwin says:

    Dr. Marsella’s descriptions of various types of torture were horrifying. If just reading about them made me shudder, how ghastly it must have been for the victims. The picture of the slaves was enough to make one weep. I’m thankful that such attrocities are far, far in the past. Or perhaps I should say I’m hopeful that they are. If sadists are still among us, they should be prosecuted and locked up forever.

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  4. Barbara says:

    On Page 141 I came to this phrase in the book I’m reading by Isabel Allende, Island Beneath the Sky. It made me think of the image for this post and the discussions of torture and power in this post and the next one.

    “The price of slaves was high. . . .Now there was a practical reason for taking care of one’s slaves, not merely humanitarian scruples that could be interpreted as weakness. The worst of the twenty-three years at Saint-Lazare had been the absolute power he held over other lives, with its burden of temptations and degradation, worse than his wife’s madness, the climate that corroded health and dissolved man’s most decent principles, the solitude and the hunger for books and conversation. Just as Dr. Parmentier had maintained, the revolution in Saint-Domingue had been the inevitable revenge of slaves against the colonists’ brutality. Louisiana offeredd Valmorain the opportunity to revive the youthful ideals smoldering in the embers of his memory.”

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