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from the October 2009 issue

Dear Torturer

Evil wears no gloves. You turned red with shame when the slice of cake tipped over onto the tablecloth. Because you've known for a long time what is appropriate in a German cafe. The waiter hissed: "The broom's included in the price." You understood this command, said nothing, and cleared the food from the table, vigorously, quickly.

You were somehow or other on duty, suddenly. Your fingers trembled, and I was thinking of "tea parties" and "grills."

Stains on a German tablecloth! Evil wears no gloves.

75 volts: Ouch!

90 volts: Ow!

105 volts: Ow! (Louder)

120 volts: Aaaaah! Hey—that really hurts.

150 volts: Aiee! Let me out of here! I've already told you I have heart trouble. Let me out of here! I refuse. I'm not doing this anymore. Get me out of here.

Sounds of the trade, you muse.

You were a tormentor of human beings. With the status of a government official. Perhaps five hundred, perhaps seven hundred strangers lay naked on your iron bed, electrodes on their fingers, ear lobes, or genitals. Blood conducts electric current, and truth, as you said yesterday over coffee and cake, is expressed by the formula amperage x resistance x time. You smiled, and I assume it was in order to free yourself from those who provided you with this knowledge.

Maybe it was even a thousand people you sent spinning away from trustfulness on your grate. You tortured in a country you have forbidden me to name, mostly between the hours of 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., and then between 3 and 5 in the afternoon. The word "torture" did not cross your lips. You spoke of a "grill," and the machine you operated was called "Brigitte."

"Why Brigitte?"

"That was an order." In the end you grew quiet, and then you said: "Or almost an order."

In Argentina the machine was named Susana, and it was located in a basement on the Avenida de la Felicidad, the Avenue of Bliss.

That is how the language of the torturers twists the dissolution of the human into its opposite. The persecutor becomes the doctor, a beating becomes a "tea party," and torture a conference in the guest room.

165 volts: Uhhhhh! Let me out! (Screaming)

180 volts: Aaaargh! I can't stand the pain! Let me out of here! (Screaming)

I'll call you Alexander. Actually I had only one question: how does one become a torturer? At any rate you immediately sought to defend yourself by saying that at any rate you had never touched a hair on your wife's or your children's heads. At last, after hesitating briefly, you uttered a sentence that must be used to justify many an apocalypse: "I did it out of a sense of duty." Today I know that every other explanation is a lie.

Alexander, I am sending you this letter because I never want to see you again. I dreamt of your fingers that scraped the cake from a German tablecloth with the anxious diligence of a whipped child. People have been torturing as far back as memories extend. Torture is when one person torments another consciously and coldheartedly, as you did professionally. When the torment is not the goal but rather the purpose. I don't believe there is a lot to wrap your mind around here. But I will allow myself, as someone who has not tortured, the cheap license to despise you, because you have tortured. At some point, thinks the man at the desk, who has never had to provide evidence of this, everyone has the opportunity to refuse. The course of a life is not merely the fulfillment of that which one expects of you. I hope.

I quote:

195 volts: Let me go! Let me go! I have heart problems. Let me go! You have no right to keep me here. Let me go! Let me go! Let me go! I have heart problems. Let me out! Let me out!

You, Alexander, know this kind of begging. You told me in the cafe about your own fear, back then, when as a five-year old your father would lock you in with the pigs, because you had not allowed the pastor's son to win at skipping stones. Because nothing was as flattering to your father as the minister's regard, which he feared he was losing. A certain Rudolf Höss was once commander of that factory of death, Auschwitz. A similar thing befell him, even though he was no child of poor farmers from the edge of the continent. His father pulled him out of his bed because the boy had hung up the horse's saddle-cloth in the garden instead of inside the shed.

Obedience blossoms early. Without obedience, no society.

I quote further:

Order #1: Please continue.

Order #2: You have to continue.

Order #3: You absolutely must continue.

Order #4: You have no choice. You must continue.

Alexander, you told me that you had never taken pleasure in tormenting that naked, shackled person in front of you. Without orders you never would have tortured, and you would not have done it between interrogations or after business hours, as those men in the death squads did in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Then when I saw the way the harmlessness at the coffee table crescendoed into crimson-faced shame, I believed you: you are not a sadist. You tortured in order to please others. If you should ever face judgment for your handiwork, you will repeat the truth of that minor torturer named Lavranos: I feel that it is necessary for me to share with the high court and with the Greek people the fact that I am an ordinary man, like you, like your neighbor's son, like your friend. When I administered blows, it was not my hand but that of my officer.

And even then you were just fulfilling expectations when, destroying their lives, you laughed into your victims' faces: God alone gives life and takes it away. But God is on vacation. I am his representative. God is great!

240 volts: Uhhh!

255 volts: Uhhh! Somebody get me out of here!

270 volts: (Anguished cry) Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Can't you hear me? Let me out!

Five o'clock was quitting time.

The household pets grew to the dimensions of dragons in the nocturnal pigsty of your early years. You lay down in the dung, without stirring, breathless, always scared that the monsters might awaken. Now and then, twenty years later, you would lead a prisoner past the latrine. Then you would amuse yourself by having the man, whose head you had already covered with a sack, stop walking only when he was already standing in the excrement. And everyone who saw it laughed: Alexander the jokester.

I don't want to see you again because you are nothing special. Your face I will forget, but not your fingers. The torturer's life that you related to me is average; the horror in it is banal, as all evil is. The teacher smacked you with his cane, because you, alone of everyone in the class, rooted not for the soccer team of the nearby city but for one from a place with a name you liked better, because it had five A's in it. The officer who introduced you to cruelty used a whip. He asked you: What time is it?

You answered: 1400 hours.

The officer drew back his arm, hit you, and said: "False. It is 1600 hours. What time is it?"

You, Alexander: 1600 hours.

The officer: No, 1400 hours.

More lashes.

This festival of absurdity was a part of your training.

The specialists designate what happened to you as the socialization of a torture tradesman. Before you deprived others of their dignity, yours was taken, not in the barracks but earlier, in your childhood home. That is where you experienced the housebreaking for servility. In the Café Schmidt you recalled the words of your mother: "Don't ask, son. Do what your father says!" In school the revelation known as "scapegoat" arrived: someone else was always culpable for the misery; the enemy of the state, when the clean water ceased to flow; the enemy of state, when an airplane crashed; the traitor, who robbed our weightlifter of victory in the Olympic games by mixing laxative into his food.

On April 5, 1977, when you were eighteen, you were drafted into the army. You told me that the day was unforgettable for you, because for the first time you heard the question that would remain a part of your training: what are the three greatest enemies of the republic, in order of their danger? The answer, as far as you can tell, is still valid today: the terrorists, the internationalists, the imperialists. Who are they?

You showed me a photograph with scalloped edges. You pushed it almost coyly across the table: Alexander on the day he became a soldier. Gaunt and shorn, eyes noticeably sunken into their sockets even then, you are standing by a tree, barbed wire behind you, the uniform of a cadet flapping about your legs, arms crossed helplessly but on your face a smile, the pride of a young military policeman. Without meaning to, I flipped the photo over and saw the wiry handwriting. You translated for me: My sweet mother, now a better life begins.

285 volts: (Excruciating cry)

"She is sitting at the right hand of God," you noted.



Then you hid your torturing face in your hands, only briefly, and stealthily. Your thoughts were on your dead mother and mine were on the old woman whom you ordered, without physically torturing her, to take off her underclothes. It was only a few years ago. The old woman, a grandmother fifteen or twenty times over, did it. Then you, Alexander, and your minions started to laugh and you abused her: What a whoring old bitch you are, getting naked in front of strange men. How many enemies have you done it with? You did not lay a hand on your victim; you spat on her till she collapsed. Your method for grandmothers.

I don't want to lay eyes on you again.

You were powerful, you had nine years of school under your belt, and you had learned English. Above all you were one of the obedient. The officers' motto was enough for you: the military policeman is the backbone of state security. Everywhere and always, security was in peril. The thought that you were surrounded by legions of enemies excited you and your superiors. And so you learned that not everything that appears in human form is really human material. The terrorist, as the teaching materials stipulated, was an animal, or even less: a beast. The person who destroys the beast is entitled to the love of the fatherland.

In the fifth month of your military life, without your ever having asked the why or wherefore of anything, your didactically couched dehumanization began. In order to become a torturer, you were promoted to a nothing. We drank coffee and ate cake on the white tablecloth, and you, suddenly grown loquacious, talked with a strange zeal until my cassette was full. Last night I played back your words. The litany of humiliations seemed to me to be your most recent attempt to justify what cannot be justified.

"Believe me," I heard you say. "Sometimes I got worse treatment than I gave later."

But I had no sympathy. Your story escaped me. Never before has a person been more of a stranger to me than yesterday evening.

With flails and straps the officers worked their devastation. Every touch was a blow, and every word a scream, for months on end. Rationality, as frail as it is, no longer held. Once the order went out to the recruits for there to be no urination for three days; another time, the next seven nights were to be spent under the bed instead of in it. Those were not punishments for mistakes of one sort or another. They were orders and that was it. The order was sufficient unto itself. You learned the sentence, "Who are you, you insect, to think that anybody cares about you?" Alexander, you ate the grass on the lawn in front of the mess hall, arms tied behind your back. You lurched across highways on your knees, swallowing lighted cigarettes. You stroked a broomstick for hours, so as to bring it—this was the order—to ejaculation. Then another time, on command, you ejaculated, along with the entire class, into a colleague's knapsack. Whoever could not ejaculate successfully was tied to a car and dragged away. The others were made to laugh.

Those were the origins of your anti-world. You were nineteen.

In November, 1977, an officer blindfolded you. He said: Go ahead and scream. No one will hear you. Then they put you in a truck, drove you out into the country, for perhaps two hours, back and forth. You explained over the little pot of coffee that you remembered the wind in the leaves of a tree. You were tied to this tree.

Soldier, someone shouted all of a sudden, what do you say in your defense?

What did I do? you cried.

Don't ask any questions! Defend yourself!

You said nothing, and there was only wind and hatred and fear. Then the voice again: Shoot the traitor!

I don't think torture lends itself to being written or spoken about. The reason is that the experience that takes away the torture victim's trust in the world cannot be shared...The first condition making a human life bearable—that the other person has nothing against me in principle—is suddenly contradicted. Terror replaces hope. It is not the pain that is the torture, but rather the fact that this pain comes about through people and for its own sake.

I think that you experienced, handcuffed to a tree that November day, the depths of torture, the loneliness, the impotence, the humiliation, the invalidation of your person. Suddenly, in death's anteroom, the rustling of the leaves grew louder, and you, the farm boy, recognized that only a sycamore rustles like the tree on which you were to die. A sycamore such as stands in the hog-yard of your father, one day's travel from there. Then you saw your father; all at once he was standing next to you, saying nothing, the cane in his hand, the reforming rod of those early years, and you were begging: Father, let me sleep with your hogs.

Finally the officer tore the blindfold from your eyes. Your comrades, apprentices in the trade of torture, were standing around in a half-circle and laughing. They laughed and laughed, deliriously and for a protracted time, and you laughed too. A week later you learned the reason for your mock execution: you were on the syllabus. And you, Alexander, they had designated you as traitor, because the point of the pencil that the officer had thrust blindly into his list of cadets landed on your name.

330 volts: (violent, long-lasting, excruciating scream) Let me out of here! Let me out of here! My heart! Let me out of hear, I tell you! (Hysterical) Let me out of here! Let me out of here! You have no right to keep me here. Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Let me out of here! Let me out of here!

"Do you regret the things you did?" I asked you yesterday.

"Regret? It was my profession" came the reply from the tape.

"Did your wife know about it?"


"Does she know today?"

"She does not."

"Is she not supposed to know?"

"It wouldn't benefit anybody to know."

"Have you also tortured relatives?"

"Once. An uncle of my mother."

"What was that like?"


"Wasn't there ever in your life the possibility of refusing?"

"I believed that I was doing something good."

Your actual instruction in torturing began when your reality had been flattened and all doubts amputated, when your understanding of the world had been finalized. Because the federal security authority enjoined it, you were even allowed to beat a captain of the air force. He was the beast. When you had done this for the first time, still under the tutelage of your teacher, you were proud. The head was not supposed to be the target of your club, nor the stomach or the chest, but the legs and the buttocks; and the wounds were supposed to be opened up in the form of a cross surrounded by a large, bloody field. You beat so hard that for the first time in six months the officer did not scream at you. Now it was: Do it like Alexander!

You were still taking the prisoners their food, and still scrubbing the blood from their cells. But always, by dint of decree and example, you also bestowed blows and abuse on the defenseless ones. You quickly discerned the intricacies of annihilation. If you entered the cell of the half-blind pharmacist, you put on the glasses that you had taken from him, and you never forgot to slide the expensive watch from the singer over your wrist, when the man was taken for a torture session at which you, the novice, were an observer. This is how you learned techniques and holds. With some of your fellows you stormed the cells, put one of the prisoners in your midst, circled him at a run, beating and abusing him, pushing him into furniture and shelves. This was the ordinary "tea party." There was also the "tea party with toast."

The monkey swing.

The pigeon.

Drilling for oil.

The wet submarine and the dry one.

People of your ilk hardly needed to use code words for cruelty, since you believe so firmly that torture is justified—it's better to snuff out a few in order to protect the majority—and yet this is done by the specialized firms pushing it, all over the world. The House of Fun is the name of the newest cell for the destruction of human beings, a high-tech holding pen made by the British company Electronic Intelligence; it exposes the doomed ones to loud noise and glaring light. It leaves no scars. And, what's more, there are courses to keep you up to date on the latest developments in your profession, as in every field. Three times a year the Uruguayans do some torturing for instructional purposes, in the north of Ireland they propagate their five interrogation methods in seminars, and in Indonesia they write handbooks on abuse.

You, Alexander, were quickly given the code name Edison.

"Would you even have tortured your brother?"

"Only on orders."

In February 1978 you first strapped a man onto the iron bed. He did not resist; he kept his eyes closed. You placed electrodes on his ears and fingers. Next to the machine an officer was standing. He gave the command. You carried it out. Sparks sizzled. The man on the grilling rack cried out, he flailed about in his shackles, and they sliced into his flesh. Amperage x resistance x time, a chat with Brigitte. And you are so ordinary. That's what I believe.

345 volts: (no further reaction)

They gave you the name Edison because from the outset you did not shy from using that apparatus. You enjoyed your instructor's motto: Brigitte is your mistress! When a person was receiving shocks, the lights in the building would flicker. Electrical torture, you told me, was more to your taste than beating and stringing people up. And, just as you represent a cultural leap forward over flagellants and throttlers, you added, with hardly any embarrassment, that the Americans used portable generators in the jungles of Vietnam to power their therapy. The vocabulary of old, Alexander, sticks with you.

Then, finally, you were a tried and true master over death. On May 12, 1978, you received from the hands of a major the cap of a military policeman. The national anthem arose from the band. You swore allegiance to the fatherland, for the third time, along with obedience to the officers. You were happy. From that point on you were allowed to wear your hair longer than average soldiers. You drove to dance spots in the city in the cars of the prisoners whom you were martyring. You lived like a civilian. And you saved the nation on a daily basis. That was the conviction that spurred you on to special things. You prayed to your God that he would spare you that fake emotion: sympathy.

"How did the scandal start?"

"Something came over me. I couldn't help it."

So one day you handed a man, whom you had blindfolded—walled up, as you termed it—a glass. The man had the dry submarine treatment behind him. You had put a plastic bag over his head until he almost asphyxiated. But there was water in the glass, and the water was against orders. Because it belonged to the perfection of the method to bring the torture victim even lower, by pressing a glass into his hand and pretending that it was filled with water. But the person who wanted to drink, "walled up," blind, was overcome by terror, because he could no longer trust his own perception. Torturers know people.

This happened again and again. You were ashamed. It came over you again and again, this feeling. Ultimately you feared the scandal of being exposed as a weakling and drummed out of the army, so much so that you commanded the man whose glass you filled with water, a young butcher, to give your name if he were ever asked who the most cruel of all torturers was: Edison, the cross-eyed one.

But, in the end, the cataclysm hit even you. The butcher, on your day off, while on the electric bed of your envious colleague, confessed the name of the person who had given him forbidden water nearly every day.

After a short investigation, your country's army dismissed you. You were, Alexander, according to the findings, mentally ill. You did not dare to go back to your father's village. You were twenty-six, the father of two girls.

The scandal of failure, you whispered yesterday, clings to you like old blood.

Then that Black Forest cake tipped over onto a German tablecloth. The waiter hissed; he wore a uniform. Officer. Orders. Obedience. You executed. You spat on your hands and patted the crumbs from the table.

450 volts: (no reaction)

In the Café Schmidt I told you about the famous experiment of the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram. You just sat there. But am I deluding myself if I claim that you, in your loneliness, took comfort in my speech? Look here, everybody does it! In the end you asked me to bring Milgram's book to our next meeting.

But I do not want to see you again. In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram ran an ad in the local newspapers in New Haven. In it he promised four dollars to factory workers, office employees, hairdressers, business people, teachers, construction workers, ordinary people, for placing themselves in the service of science for one hour. He wrote that it was for a study of memory and learning capacity. Eventually the people who responded were seated in a small room, with an instrument panel in front of them with thirty switches. Underneath each switch a number of volts was written, from 15 to 450, along with the words: light shock, medium-to-dangerous shock, unsafe shock. Under the last two buttons, 435 and 450 volts, were only the symbols XXX.

The participant's assignment—always in the belief that it was helping humanity advance—was to read aloud pairs of words to a stranger, who was tied to a chair and hooked up to wires, and who had to learn them and repeat them correctly. If he made a mistake in doing this, the participant, at the command of the researcher, had to punish him with an electric shock, starting with 15 volts and going as high as 450. In truth the machine was a prop and the man who was supposedly being disciplined was an actor.

Yesterday you looked up at me briefly when I named the figure to you: 65% of the participants exhibited obedience and launched (though not really) the maximum 450 volts through the bodies of the memory-deficient ones, even though the actors were screaming loudly: Let me out of here! I have heart problems! Let me out of here! They would even electrocute them eight additional times long after they were making no further sounds (at 330 volts), that is, when a deathly silence obtained.

I do not know, Alexander, if that should comfort you.

Of course only forty percent of ordinary people tortured up to the maximum 450 volts when they could not only hear but also see the victim in pain. Thirty percent would still do it when they had to press the actor's hand to the shock-plate. But only three percent, Alexander, flipped the switch for 450 when the researcher's orders were inexact, when the participants were free to choose the degree of punishment themselves.

This is something I was still wanting to tell you. Opportunity makes the torturer. For Milgram, the white lab coat of a scientist and a lie were enough: You have no choice. You must continue!

When I met you, I was hoping to find you repentant. That would have made everything easier. But our meeting remained without consolation. Or, if you prefer, my consolation exhausted itself in the hope that no other person would ever get into a situation that would make him into a torturer. Because, after all the efforts made to understand, all that remains is simplistic hope. It's always like that. And until something changes, the truth is: in ninety countries of our world torture occurs. More places than ever. It was, I believe, an Englishman who boiled his insight down into this formulation: Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man. No epoch of history has refuted this sad fact.

You asked me yesterday if I could imagine myself torturing. When I consider the question, every fiber of my being rebels. "But not me!"

But what is my reflex reaction other than exactly the same mechanism that allows you to disavow the destructiveness in yourself?

"But not me!" And I make excuses for myself.

"I did it for my country." And you exonerate yourself.

Obedience—or, let's say, the loyalty that makes the coexistence of human beings possible—is the deepest of our traps.

Alexander. I dreamt of your fingers, and they looked just like mine.


From Vor der Tagesschau, an einem späten Sonntagnachmittag (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2004). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2009 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.

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