Last month Dr. James Mitchell, the alleged “architect” of the CIA’s alleged torture program, testified in the 9/11 criminal case against five accused terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. Mitchell, a psychologist and retired Air Force colonel, described without remorse the torture techniques he helped develop or witnessed, like the aggressive scrubbing of detainees’ genitals and painful, unauthorized stress positions. One, Mitchell said, involved forcing a detainees body to floor with a broomstick behind his knees, to the point where Mitchell thought it would dislocate them. “Just so you know, I’d get up today and do it again,” he told the court of the program.
Mitchell’s testimony was riddled with profanity recalled from his interactions with colleagues and sarcasm whenever a lawyer used a turn of phrase he didn’t like. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘fair,’” Mitchell would snap every time a lawyer started a question with, “is it fair to say?” But even more peculiar were his repeated assertions about how much he cares about dogs, noting that he is against psychological experiments on them and cries during dog food commercials.
Much of Mitchell’s testimony felt like being in a Psych 101 class. In describing the concept of “learned helplessness,” a term often brought up in the Guantanamo court that refers to the feeling of helplessness brought on by an inescapable situation, Mitchell referred to a model of learned helplessness that used animal subjects. As if someone from PETA was in the gallery watching him, Mitchell felt the need to add a disclaimer in his explanation. “I want to say that I object to these studies because I think dogs should be catching frisbees, not taking place in shock experiments,” he said.
For many, the extent of empathy isn’t tied to a victim’s humanity.
The strange aside had members of the media and non-government organization observers watching the proceedings furrowing their brows in confusion. In a day filled with detailed descriptions of waterboarding and forced nudity in front of some of the very men he had allegedly tortured, a sidebar about animal rights felt out of place and jarring, almost like a dark joke. However, as misplaced as it may have felt, it turns out that the perception of having more empathy for animals than humans isn’t unusual.
While one of the common refrains when experts talk about torture is how it's used to dehumanize victims, the fact is that for many, the extent of empathy isn’t tied to a victim’s humanity. A 2017 study out of Northwestern University found that respondents were more likely to feel empathy for human children, puppies, and dogs than for adult humans. While headlines were quick to latch on and assert that empathy for dogs was stronger than for humans, what the study actually found was that empathy seems to be dependent on how vulnerable the victim appears to be. According to Psychology Today, another study found that around 40 percent of people tested said they’d save their pet’s life over human stranger’s.
Only a couple of times during his eight-day testimony did Mitchell say he felt sorry for a few of the detainees that were abused during his tenure. By inserting his love for dogs into the court record multiple times, Mitchell’s testimony made me curious as to how someone with such clear and emphatic empathy for animals could show so little for the men he allegedly tortured.
Mitchell has grown notorious for his involvement in the CIA’s alleged torture program — we still can’t officially call it a torture program — and has been called a war criminal by the ACLU. But, the reality is it doesn’t take a sociopath to do what Mitchell did and not feel bad about it. According to Dr. Andrea Northwood, a clinical psychologist and director of client services at the Center for Victims of Torture, that’s precisely what makes the practice so unsettling. “This lack of remorse is very common,” she told me. “It is the commonness, the triviality, the banality of many of these people which strikes one.”
It doesn’t take a sociopath to do what Mitchell did and not feel bad about it.
Mitchell was half of the firm Mitchell Jessen & Associates, a civilian contractor that sold the idea of what it called “enhanced interrogation” to the CIA for more than $80 million. Mitchell and his business partner, Dr. Bruce Jessen, allege that they built the program around the military’s “SERE” training — the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape tactics that the military teaches pilots and other personnel in case they’re taken prisoner. However, while Mitchell cited SERE tactics as an effective method of keeping the CIA’s so-called torture program from crossing ethical lines, he also stressed that often, those lines were flirted with and even crossed. In fact, Mitchell wasn’t shy to admit that he witnessed others involved with the torture program go beyond that scope of what he considered safe. “I can tell you for a fact that not every interrogator for the CIA followed the methodology that Bruce and I did,” he said in court.
Later in the hearing, Mitchell described how multiple people in a room where a detainee was repeatedly waterboarded were brought to tears. “I was tearful, you know?” he said of the incident. “I cry at dog food commercials, but it was particularly hard for me to do.”
Northwood thinks fixating on oddities like Mitchell’s kinship with canines distracts from the truth about torture. “I think sometimes unwittingly the media, in its search for a rational explanation for cruelty, seeks some sort of difference in those perpetrators that explains it,” Northwood told me, “and I think that's a mistake because it allows us to really misunderstand how easily this happens and how ordinary perpetrators are, which is much more terrifying for us to face.”
That’s the thing about Mitchell. In the world of the Guantanamo Bay attorneys and the criminal justice advocates that watch the proceedings, he’s become something of a boogeyman. Sitting before the court in January, he looked consistently displeased, and was vocal about it, too. He bit back at the attorneys questioning him, often with a detached and annoyed expression on his face. Highlighted by his deep red tie, Mitchell’s imperial-style white beard made him look more like a menacing movie villain than a psychologist. And his fictionalized depiction in the 2019 film The Report, as one of the psychologists hired by the CIA to create the “enhanced interrogation” program to question alleged Al Qaeda operatives at secret blacksites overseas, doesn’t do him any favors in that department. But Northwood stresses that in reading about and covering torture, the most important thing to remember is that it’s not sociopaths or film-worthy evil geniuses who lead torture worldwide; it’s regular people. “The problem is that it is so easy for us as human beings to do this,” she said of torture.
“If someone is shut off to their emotions, their capacity for empathy is limited or nonexistent.”
Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, told me that the interrogators involved with the U.S. government’s so-called torture program wouldn’t need to be actual sociopaths or psychopaths to not feel anything for their detainees. Rather, they’d just have to figure out a way to limit their feelings towards the detainees enough to do what they perceived as their job. To feel no empathy whatsoever, Orloff told me, an interrogator could either be neurologically wired to not experience empathy in a normal way, or shut off their emotions so successfully that they’re able to take a totally detached approach and bypass empathetic feelings altogether. “If someone is shut off to their emotions, their capacity for empathy is limited or nonexistent,” she said.
Because Mitchell believed he was doing a service to his nation and preventing the next attack, Northwood said she isn’t surprised that he didn’t show any remorse. The post-9/11 fear under which he worked, combined with the belief that the detainees were actual enemy combatants, the use of euphemisms and other moral justifications, and Mitchell’s fat paycheck (remember, his company got more than $80 million for the contract) hit all the major criteria of how a normal person can turn into a serial torturer. “We know that over history, these themes emerge time and time again, no matter what the external threat is, the reason for the fear, or the political ideology,” she said.
Driving home the idea that anyone can go down the path of justification that leads to torture, Northwood quoted a 1991 paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics by researcher Johan Lansen that she says has helped guide her work. “In every one of us hides a minor fascist that, under the ‘right’ circumstances, might turn into a major fascist,” he writes.