How torturers are made: Evidence from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

Christopher J Einolf

Journal of Human Rights
Journal of Human Rights


Because of the difficulties in researching torturers, little is known about how they are recruited, trained, and authorized, and how they morally justify their actions. This study examines oral history testimonies from 14 former torturers in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Torturers volunteered for jobs in the security services, and attributed their choice of career to psychologically traumatic childhoods. Torturers were trained to think of their victims as subhuman and dangerous, and to cultivate mercilessness as a type of strength. They carried out torture under direct orders, and two were tortured themselves when they failed to obey. They justified their actions morally by diffusing responsibility, blaming victims, and using just-cause thinking. Overall, the findings show that there is no single path to becoming a torturer, as there is great variation even among torturers from a single country. Much more research is needed to fully understand how torturers think and work.

Einolf CJ. How torturers are made: Evidence from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Journal of Human Rights. 2021;20(4):381-395.

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