T173. How do People Become Torturers

 

Ready to read another transcript?
Click here to return to the transcription home page

 

Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: WRS6
Panelists: Bill Skidmore
Host: Metta Spencer

Date Aired:   28 January 2021
Date Transcribed and Verified:  15 April 2021
Transcription: Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar

 

Metta Spencer  

Okay, Hi, I’m Metta Spencer. And today we’re going to have I don’t think we can call this fun. I don’t know what to call it. It will be interesting though; I promise you that we’ve got to talk about torture. I’ve got a friend here, a new friend, who’s a professor just recently retired from Carleton University, who specializes in human rights studies, was in a program that quite often runs on human rights, and one of the human rights is (I suppose) not to be tortured. But he has… some expertise in that topic. The thing that immediately I wanted to know about was, how can you get people to do such a thing? So that’s one of the things I want to explore with him. This is William Skidmore. Hello, Professor Skidmore

Bill Skidmore  

Metta, you can call me Bill.

Metta Spencer  

All right. We’ll do that. So, hello. And let’s get right down to work. I asked you to to come and talk to us about torture, because this is not a topic that I have ever covered before. And yet, you know, everybody has to worry about the social psychology of… how do people become tortures

Bill Skidmore  

Become torturers… well, there’s not a single answer. It varies depending on the person, the circumstances or whatever. I think one can go back and say, Okay, what is torture, and there’s a torture… convention: severe pain or suffering of a physical or psychological nature. But part of what the torture convention also speaks about —

Metta Spencer  

excuse me, when we use the word Convention in this sense it means a treaty

Bill Skidmore  

… the International Convention on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment… a UN treaty ratified by most states, many states, — 

Metta Spencer  

 when did that come into existence? By the way,

Bill Skidmore  

… I think the official ratification I think, was 1984. But there’s reference to torture in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and their International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and others. But it’s been long understood, since at least the Second World War, if not before, that torture is both immoral and illegal failing, and to engage in that… if I go back to this notion of the involvement of the state, and one can question if that definition is correct, but that’s the one that’s there — torture, in a sense, is a crime of obedience. Often people think that the people who torture… the soldiers, the police officers, are driven by a particular sadism, a personality that wants to cause suffering for other human beings. But in fact, that’s usually not the case. Or if it is, they need to constrain it, because they are the upfront perpetrators of harm, but they’re doing it on behalf of other authorities. So, they have to be constrained, prepared to act in the interest of the state, for instance, don’t kill the subject if the state doesn’t want them killed… You don’t want to just give vent to sadistic impulses. And so often it’s said — torturers are like us, ordinary people who… become that. Now, after being a torturer, especially for any length of time. I think one loses the moral sensibility that one normally has, which is not to inflict pain on other people. You know, most of us don’t, in our day, begin thinking, “Oh, how can I go and really hurt somebody in the deepest way.” And torture is perhaps the most profound way of causing suffering because — it’s a little more complex than this, but — unlike killing, you prolong the suffering. You maintain it, you gradually destroy the person’s sense of self. You make them into such a desperate person who will do anything to get out of the pain, who’s… normally a proud, self-confident person… perhaps begging, crying, you know, deprecating urinating on themselves, begging… feeling totally unable to control their circumstances? That is the pain that has caused so… I’m not really answering your question in this moment. Oh,

Metta Spencer  

You… really are and because that, you know, you’re giving a very full explanation of what that kind of experience is like. You —

Bill Skidmore  

… partly what draws me to teaching about political repression — and torture is part of that, it’s not the whole… — is the suffering, it causes unbelievable suffering… that doesn’t stop when the torture stops. It… remains with the person throughout their life, whether … physical consequences, muscular skeletal problems, headaches, insomnia, I have a friend… who was tortured — an engineer, can’t do math anymore… so cognitive harms, and then psychological harms of anxiety, of depression, of losing faith and trust. I mean, this is one of the greatest shames — in the same person, but I’ve heard others speak of this as well — in his case, he was blindfolded right into a certain office, he thought he’d be able to just explain things, he wasn’t that worried. And out of the blue… a horrible slap on his face. So, he lost. He said, my understanding of life changed at that moment and other torture survivors say that as well…  the first instance of the humiliation, of the pain, of the total control exercised over them — to imagine that another human being could be treating them like this. So, it has long-term effects like destroying trust, the inability to be close to others, even the inability to be close to one spouse or one’s children or… friends. So, it’s horrific what it does. But again, my interest in it wasn’t simply, this was part… Because I’ve met people through my work before academia, who had been tortured, and talked to them to some degree. And of course, I’ve read about it. But this incredible damage that is done and lasts the lifetime. But it’s done for a reason for a state reason, usually, a very… simplistic notion would be that it targets those who dare to challenge the power of the state, to stop political activity, to stop those who would challenge the state’s activities. And it’s not just in dictatorships, it’s in democracies as well. It’s as even the now-deceased Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galliano once said, I don’t remember the exact quote… the torture chambers: these are the consequences of inequalities of wealth of the powerful wanting to maintain their wealth, their status, their power, and this is what it comes down to. So much. How did you get into this? It probably started in my early 20s. When I moved to Ottawa, I’m from Saskatoon, and I had worked there in a crisis center. So, I was familiar with individual, personal life traumas, from people who would I meet through my work, suicidal-depressives, victims of spousal abuse, whatever, really horrific stuff, but then I got more involved around the political side. And part of that when I came to Ottawa, I did my Master’s in social work. And I met people who were from different countries, Central America, Chile… this was in the early late 70s, early 1980s. So, we have different waves of refugees coming to Canada, depending on the circumstances of that time. And some of them would talk about it. It’s rare and you don’t go and ask somebody, “Hey, were you tortured?” … in my own [life] I guess I was 30-31, I moved to Zambia in southern Africa, to work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. I’m not a legal person, so I wasn’t doing the protection elements of according refugee status, finding third countries such as Canada to immigrate to — I was on more the social service, small-business creation side of it, for people who would be remaining there. But through that work, of course, either people would tell me, or I would become familiar with certain cases of people who had come to the UN, who would describe their treatment, some of it quite horrific.

Metta Spencer  

They always bring it up, or do they avoid it? Mostly?

Bill Skidmore  

I don’t know… the lawyers if they ask right out, I have a feeling often they need to build the case. They probably do that. I wouldn’t…. People would confide in me. Tell me You know, it’s like, I guess comparison when you don’t ask somebody sexually-assaulted… you allow somebody [to talk] if they wish, and then you have to decide how … to deal with it. And… 1985 to 88. I was there. And it was also the time of the apartheid struggle in South Africa, in Namibia. And it impacted the what they call the frontline states, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Botswana. And so, I would meet members of the African National Congress. And sometimes they would tell me something about this, or at meetings, people would talk. So, it was just gradually I became more aware of the depth of, of the violence used to suppress people, and the long-term impacts. And even at the time, I wouldn’t necessarily understand it… well, it’s over time… I often think of this one guy who used to irritate me and ANC members. And the reason he irritated me, it was only this one thing, every hour on the hour, he stopped all conversation, if you’re at a party or with a group talking, and put the news on. He was obsessed at knowing… what was happening at home… any news. And so, there was such an attentive… I don’t know if he was ever tortured. But he was in exile. He obviously had had to flee his country. He had been subjected all sorts of harms… At that time, I didn’t realize that that was one of his coping techniques. I learned that more later, the more I studied the research on torture. So that’s the long answer to how I why I came to do what I do. As a teacher I wanted to… talk about human rights violations, let’s say even economic and social and cultural rights violations. Okay, what role has force, intimidation, coercion, and the infliction of deep pain [play]? …in maintaining social and political and BDS — don’t challenge the system…

Metta Spencer  

I’ve heard people say that it is counterproductive. That, you know, they were talking a few years ago about waterboarding the in the US, which is torture of, I guess, absolutely.

Bill Skidmore  

torture. Absolutely.

Metta Spencer  

And, and there was a debate, I guess as to whether or not you were actually going to get the truth out of people with that. Now, how often is torture used as a means of extracting information from people who might be otherwise, you know, in on a secret that they don’t want to share, political… conspiracy or something?

Bill Skidmore  

Well, they commonly seek information. The question becomes how, how genuine that information is, if people tell you, it under extreme duress… we will say whatever, to save ourselves from the pain. Sometimes people try to commit suicide while they’re in prison and being tortured, because it’s so, so horrific — so to gather information, to punish. It’s a way of saying, if you dare speak out, you will suffer the most incredible pains. It’s to create collaborators, those who will, in order to end the pain — and then you create a large society of collaborators. Its… primary role is to deter challenging authority, it’s to deter political activity.

Metta Spencer  

But that’s a big category… These are two different things. Getting collaborators is one thing, punishing people and making an example of them… a warning. And then getting extracting information from those would seem to be all three. And maybe there are other types of or motivations for it. But they’re… all a matter of trying to get conformity with the government.

Bill Skidmore  

So that’s the overarching… to change how a person thinks politically… get them to betray their cause, and actually identify not just doing it so the pain stops, but that they then fully identify with the cause of their own [repressors].

Metta Spencer  

That happens much?

Bill Skidmore  

I don’t know how much that happens. I can’t give you stats and even if you look at different research… and going back to your first question, how do you get other people to do this. There’s a lot of difference of understanding based on research of what are the factors that lead people to actually —

Metta Spencer  

remember during the Patty Hearst case, there was a story about the Stockholm Syndrome, that she… moved over to becoming one of the kidnapper group. She joined the group, the Symbionese Liberation Army. And but I don’t think she was ever tortured. I think that she, this was a case in which she, her psychological strength was just not strong enough as she joined the cause. That, you know, but it the idea that you would torture somebody and actually get them to, to want to be part of your outfit. Oh, that’s hard. But,

Bill Skidmore  

but if you look at, again, the causes are bringing people to torture, there’s many different [ones], this is what I would start with. But I think response to your question that one way of making people torture, is in a systematic way for a state government. After you’ve selected those who will do it, they become part of a professional… unit that’s set to do it — usually, to varying degrees, they themselves are degraded or humiliated, even tortured. And so, the notion is, you would think they would then never want to do that to anybody, but often they, they actually identify so much, ultimately with those who are abusing them. Because they’re so dependent on them, amongst other reasons. So… learned helplessness. They, they become extremely loyal to them. They… have been brutalized, themselves, initially hating… the treatment of themselves, but then the identify with those who did it to them and then become part of the group who does it to others and… I don’t want to compare the two exactly, but even initiation rituals for fraternities —

Metta Spencer  

You know, yeah, I mean, I’ve never understood that. But yes, they certainly do go along with it, don’t they? That’s part hazing. Yeah,

Bill Skidmore  

… You degrade the person, you make them feel lesser, you destroy their own identity, their selves, their sense of self confidence of their own beliefs, you break them down, and you build them up again. I mean, military training does that to some degree, and it can be done more severely. But this is what you’re doing. You’re destroying that person’s capacity for agency, to act on their own moral beliefs, and brutalizing them, and then they join, and are so connected to the authority that did it. And that’s the most important thing because you want torturers who will obey orders. You don’t want freelancers; you don’t want those who will do something that will harm what you’re trying to do. They have to be completely obedient to those who control them without question.

Metta Spencer  

I was waiting to bring that up. Because even before we met today, I was thinking about Dave Grossman’s work, you know, Dave Grossman, is a lieutenant colonel or something retired from the US Army, where he was, I don’t know what his own role is, but he certainly was a military instructor. And what he argues, and he’s got really good evidence that people inherently will avoid killing, and that in previous wars, most of the people who were supposed to be shooting to each at each other, would often deliberately miss even though it would expose them to harm because the other… could shoot them back. But… they didn’t want to kill so they would shoot over their head or in the ground or someplace. And, you know, they’ve done things like collect spent bullets after a battle and compared to how many people actually got hit. And, of course, it’s a fraction of the number of people who could have been hit if they were trying to shoot straight. So, he says that people inherently will avoid… inflicting pain or killing another person, but the army then has to overcome that. So, they’ve done some very creative things they’ve developed, you know, like video game trainings, and they’ve done various things to make people shoot at targets that look human first, and they work their way up to overcome this resistance. And recent wars, he says have shown… that they’re much more successful nowadays, in getting recruiting any ordinary young man, I guess a woman to… do this, and, and overcoming their reluctance might even start with having them kill a chicken, you know, I’ve never killed a chicken, although I’ve watched my mother do it. And, you know, you start with doing something that you would sort of be repelled by doing, and then work your way up to horrible thing. So, I suppose that becoming a torture would be like the last stage in this learning process, educational process, or…redefining of the personality?

Bill Skidmore  

Well, you do, of course… basic thesis was, the further away you are from your victim, the easier it is to inflict harm on them. So, if you’re launching a missile or your bomber, at 40,000 feet, it’s easier to press the button than if you have to do it up close. And then torture, of course, is even a step closer, because you’re not killing. Normally, that can be at the end. But you’re actually as I said earlier, keeping them alive, in such a degraded state. And in, essentially what you said about the chicken… when I got in my early 20s, I lived in India, and I worked with a guy who had been in, in the Indian military, and he told me that they would practice bayoneting on dogs… as an example of how to do it. And then there’s various rituals that people are put through…  like even being given the blood of animals to drink as a ritual, because who would be inclined. So, these are unifying rituals as well… these are your comrades, you’ve done this. So, but there are these antecedent conditions, besides the training in all the notion of — you create the sense, often of certain persons in a society — being either inferior or a danger, and often both. So… the famous example of what the Nazis did to Jews and Roma and others. Before the Nazis came along, these groups of people were already devalued, already seen as a threat, already seen as harming the society. So, it could be you look down on people because of their ethnicity, their religion, but it could also be their political views. So, they pose a threat. And so, you develop this in-group/out-group, they are the threat, we are saving the country from them. You… become part of a… professional network within the military, of one’s country who does this, and you see what you’re doing as an important job for the state. And you view your comrades… as doing an important job doing it capably, and you look down upon those who you torture. And the more you torture them, the more you look down upon them, because of course, they’re looking, you know, horrible state, it’s like… we often will pass poor people or people begging for money and look down on them even without wanting to… or they’re ragged and dirty. And, and we… have this just-world thinking that, well, I’m fine. Why are they — you know, it’s their fault. So, we even look at the tortured person, it’s their fault. They’re in this predicament because it’s a just world. One wants to believe that. That’s how we, if we are doing well, we’d like to say… because the world will reward people who work hard and have whatever characteristics we think matter. So, we see people being tortured or otherwise they, they deserve that they’ve done something wrong, they’re a threat and look at them… what a pathetic piece of garbage sitting in front of me. Even the one who has done the degrading of them themselves. They still look down on — So interesting. Now, you’ve we’ve got to the point of talking about the after-effects, you’ve begun by saying that they’re broken permanently. Is everybody broken permanently? Or do you know of cases of people who somehow have overcome the trauma in a way that they do not have nightmares or whatever other horrible, lasting effects? Well, yes, I mean, I’ve known people who have impressed me so much by what they’ve had to deal with, let’s say it’s a permanent state, you’ll always remember, it will always affect you in some way. People grapple with a greater degree — depending on their circumstances, the support they get, just their basic life circumstances. Some people think — some therapists think… you have to work through — others would say no… imagine somebody who’s been tortured, arrives in Canada as a refugee, they have a family, you have to learn English or French, they have to find housing, they have to try and find a job. They have to recreate a whole life. So often, the traumas they experienced, whether through torture or other traumas of fear of being persecuted, or just the traumas of going in [unclear audio], often those have to be pushed aside, in order to just deal with the practicalities of daily life and also find meaning in them, especially if one of them… has others who depend on him. Now, some people might think, well, but maybe 20 years down the road, when life is… more stable, maybe it will come back to affect them. So, there’s… varying theories of whether you actually indeed have to work through. There are different understandings, depending where people come from of what causes this thing. How do you… go to a therapist? That’s not a common notion in many cultures? Do you even talk about it to anybody, especially imagining certain tortures, like sexual torture — which is we even know here with rape survivors? … many feel so ashamed, and torture survivors feel the same. They didn’t do any wrong, but they are made to feel something is deficient in them. And then you add in on top of other non- sexual tortures, the sexual tortures? It can complicate that. I think that so I’m not sure what the answer is, you know, because I’ve known people who have so impressed me… how they’ve, I can describe it as — a generous spirit of caring for others, of maintaining their political goals and organizing. On the other hand, I want to be careful about turning them into heroes, because that can put some pressure on them that they don’t always feel they can live up to.

Metta Spencer  

You find anybody who can actually make of empathizing with and understanding or feeling? Well, I don’t like the word forgiveness in this context, but trying to understand the mentality of the torturer? I’ve heard of people who 20 years later they run into their torturer in a social situation, you know, and their stories about what happens in their encounter. I guess it varies a lot. But are there people who can feel any common humanity between themselves either from the from the park, part of the torture toward the victim or vice versa?

Bill Skidmore  

Well, some torturers… somehow acknowledge what they’ve done and confess to it. Recognize just how much they dehumanized, are examples of, maybe the torture actually knew the person they were a family friend or something. So, there they can. It’s harder to dehumanize the victim when you also know them in another way. I wrote up cases of people who were in a good point… I have known people here, for instance, on a busy downtown Ottawa Street, they didn’t tell me directly, a third person who’s from the same country, because they’ve never talked to me about their torture. But I’ve heard about it, it was horrific, from this third person, and they said they run into their torturer on a busy downtown street in Ottawa, has somehow gotten to become a Canadian citizen — and it’s shocking, and it’s frightening. And it’s terrifying. And it reminds you of the degradation. I have read of people who have tried to forgive, who would have said if there’s different attitudes, some religious attitudes, I once had a student in class and he said in his faith, we do forgive and I said, “Well, is that just, you know, a rationalization like a psychological way of dealing with the pain?” He said, No, “We actually truly believe that.” He was a very authentic guy so I can see it. I’ve seen people try to do that. I’ve seen others who for instance say, my… treating them well, was my best revenge.

Metta Spencer  

Well, revenge yes, but I have a dear friend with whom I have an ongoing debate, let’s call it that. But she is a spiritual person, Christian who believes that the most important thing in life is to be able to forgive everybody all the time, unconditionally, no matter what they’ve done. And I think, no, at some level, you do that if you think the other person was not, was in a position where they either didn’t know… better. Like she talks about Christ on the cross talking to the about, you know, forgive them because they know not what they do. Well, I think the reason, he says, because they know not what they do is that the only circumstance under which you could forgive somebody, either there, they really didn’t know better, or you know, they’re too young or too mentally incompetent or something like that. So, you can forgive them for being unable to understand. Or in a situation of duress, you might say, you can forgive them, because the circumstances were such that they, they had no effective choice. So, there are conditions under which you can forgive. But I think if you for the most part, the real responsibility we have is to, to require that others apologize and feel remorse before forgiving them. I mean, it’s a duty not to forgive, until we’ve seen in the other person, a real repentance and remorse.

Bill Skidmore  

No, I don’t think there can be genuine reconciliation without acknowledgement of responsibility, and awareness of the harm that was done. And then if one determines it’s a genuine remorse, because sometimes people express remorse to get out of hot water. It’s not necessarily if —

Metta Spencer  

it’s fake, but you I would think one would need to really sense of the other person really was hurting. For about having done it.

Bill Skidmore  

Yeah. And maybe even over a period of time to see how genuine it is. It’s not just plays ==

Metta Spencer  

I am, by the way early, I was reading, watching a video of a woman who was a specialist in early Christianity, and it’s called Patristics… this is a branch of theology, I guess, where they look at the early church. And apparently, the early church fathers also required repentance before forgiveness. They did not go around telling you forgive everybody, no matter what. That to me. That’s, that’s kind of an important point. to note.

Bill Skidmore  

Maybe there’s a continuum in some ways, like there’s people who are psychotic and do horrible things. I’m willing, obviously, to say that they didn’t know what they were doing. But that’s not the norm. And… there are different levels, even the, for instance, the frontline torturer, who maybe says, if I don’t torture, I will be tortured, I will be killed. You know, they’re in tough circumstances. And yet, one would say, well, you shouldn’t do it anyway. You’re doing to somebody that they would do to you. But then they can say, Well, yeah, well, if you don’t torture, we won’t torture you, we will torture your children. You know, there’s so many ways to coerce people and put them in these most horrific dilemmas, who I often feel rage or anger… the officials, or those who give the orders of those on whose behalf they’re actually giving an example. I remember George W Bush … the second. And there was something came up about, maybe it was the Iraq war. I know it was Iraq, war, Guantanamo, or whatever. I don’t remember the context. But he said, I sleep fine at night. And I thought, Oh, yeah, I guess you do. What about the people, the soldiers that either are living in fear of their own lives, or after they’ve done horrible things, to other human beings, they have to live with that reality for their entire life where you don’t have to, because you just gave the orders and your hands are clean. They’re… the folks that I just have the greatest derision for, because they may let others do it on their behalf and carry that burden.

Metta Spencer  

Well, you could say that for every war maker, you know, everybody, every General, … everybody who even pays taxes that they know is going to… support military… complicity with warfare is so much a part of everyday life, that it’s a gradient scale, I’m sorry to say, you know, it’s real. I mean, it’s not many people devote their entire existence to opposing being involved with a system that does harm to other people.

Bill Skidmore  

Well, we often expect that that should be what the citizens of an enemy state do. For instance, we talk about the “good German”, referring to the Germans during the Nazi era who pretended not to know, or if they did know they didn’t do anything and I think well, they lived under a totalitarian state where for them to resist carried… severe consequences. I’m not justifying what they did. But even those in some resistant, there was a German resistance. It was huge, I think like the French or Polish resistance other countries, but the… at least there’s an element of fear. It’s fascinating to me when persons who really don’t have a whole lot of fear, still remain bystanders. They still accept the state, doing horrible wrongs or whatever they are. Even in now, we live in a time where the information is so accessible to us, we can find good studies on different issues, academic journalistic, whatever, there’s still some people prefer to remain just uninvolved.

Metta Spencer  

Yeah, but I mean, look, this is a, you know, we’re really talking about more than just torture. Now. We’re talking about all kinds of political decision-making about…  what’s right and what’s wrong. I mean, the Republicans in the US right today are not going to vote for the conviction of, of Trump, for the impeachment, because there’s political gain to be had from a being. Okay, you know, that, and then they try to find an argument. I mean, now, we’re into the quicksand, you know, are we talking about more morality more, much more generally, then, then the question of torture, I want to go back to an earlier assumption that, or assertion you made that, that it’s always about trying to get the state to get people to conform to and obey the state. Because, you know, there’s other kinds of authority. And if you think about the Milgram experiment, where it wasn’t the state, but it was, it was a guy with a lab coat, who looks authoritative. So, you say This is Professor so… of the Psych department, and he’s a leading authority on this or that, and if he tells you to do something, of course, you will do it, because you want to be a cooperative, good citizen. So, this isn’t political, but it is certainly obedience. On the other hand, there’s even more than that there’s not authority, but wanting to be approved of by one’s peers. So become being party… to a particular group, can lead a person to, to make judgment errors, or to hide the truth about their even their perception. I mean, think of the Solomon Asch studies back, you know, 50-60 years ago, when Solomon Asch would get six or eight people in a row, and they were all stooges, and then the sixth, the seventh person, or so would be the real subject. So, he would draw two lines, and he’d say, which is longer this one or this one? And all six of them would give the wrong answer. And then when you get to the final one, the final person who’s the real person will also give the wrong answer. Because they, they, anybody could see how long this line is. But in order to not be considered deviant, they go along with this ridiculous thing. Well, so much of human interaction is a reflection of that kind of conformity was desired to be approved off. And it’s not political. It’s, it’s more like, I just want to be regarded as a good person. Right? Normally,

Bill Skidmore  

I remember those. I was in one of those experiments, where you, yes, in when I was doing my undergraduate degree, and I actually said what I thought not, I didn’t go along with the others. But I know I’ve seen it in other cases, too, for instance, working in organizations, and you’re in a meeting and somebody is going on and on about something you don’t understand that is confusing, but you don’t say anything because you think you’re the only one. And then after the meeting has started talking to people, you realize nobody understood it either. But we don’t want to appear, we don’t want to appear foolish. There is an interesting thing. I mean, with Milgram, and in some dispute, whether his thesis and it’s been tested in various with various variables, but basically obeying an authority and as you said, the lab coat. You know, Milgram himself was at Yale, so that carries prestige, etc. But it was been replicated all over. You’re obeying an authority to a point that you would do great harm. That’s the other thing. It wasn’t just a minor thing.

Metta Spencer  

Yeah. They thought the other person had been, they could hear them screaming in the other room, and they thought they maybe even killed the person

Bill Skidmore  

Yeah, because it would show on the meter, they’ve read the, you know, danger all that. Some, no, who walk out. Again, these antecedent conditions, you know, indoctrination in a society, of belief of in groups or groups, the threats, they also look at those who perhaps, have either been had more of an authoritarian upbringing or for whatever reason, tend to have a greater belief in authority or willingness to obey, rather than to challenge authority. And I know I used to have a button, a friend gave me and I think I wrote on it, he said, challenge authority, at least question. But there’s, whether it’s here, whether it’s a belief in authority, because authority will make the world work, right. For instance, one of the strongest reasons, job, people justify either what they do, or accepting like in the case of William Calley… in Vietnam with the My Lai Massacre, I think the strongest reason given for those who thought he shouldn’t have been punished is he was obeying orders. He was — and that loyalty to your superior in the military, or whatever authority was a higher value than not harming others. So, a lot of people carry that as a belief. And I even recall a case year ago, not that many years ago with some people who left the US military after the Iraq invasion and sought refuge in Canada, exile in Canada, and a lawyer for the federal government, when they these folks were claiming… we’re being forced to commit war crimes. And a lawyer for the Canadian government who was denying them their claim of refugee status here, said, you’re a low-level soldier, you don’t have to make those decisions. Therefore, there’s no reason to give you status where this was a moral [issue]. These were moral beings still, who did not want to create harm, honestly, I joined the military thinking I was going to be defending my country, saving us. And here I am now killing Iraqi civilians.

Metta Spencer  

I’m not surprised that the person in authority would go along with that argument. I mean, wouldn’t it historically have been considered a reasonable defense of that? You could, you could say I… was ordered to do it. And… that would be good enough, I think, and maybe until maybe the war crimes tribunals after World War Two, this really was discussed, and it was established that it’s not a defense. But you know, it’s sure is a pervasive assumption. And even today, I think there are all kinds of people would assume that it is not only true, but it’s a good, good argument. That’s all you have to say is, I was ordered.

Bill Skidmore  

Yeah, I think since the Second World War with the Geneva conventions of 1949. And, … there are additional protocols and …  quite universal, you are not to obey an illegal order. Before that… even different armies have their own codes of conduct. So, someone sometimes says No, you shouldn’t obey an illegal order. An unlawful order, rather, is probably the terminology. And others would say you have to do it. But again, then there’s the reality when you’re in the heat of battle, and you’re ordered to do it. And if you don’t do it, it could be done to you, or you will be abandoned by your comrades. You’re left with a sudden, difficult circumstance plus, you’ve also in the heat of battle, developed hatred for the enemy. You’ve seen what they’ve… killed your colleagues, your friends in uniform, and it gets very jumbled up… psychologically at the moment… there again… the soldiers were trained to degrade the enemy, it made it easier for them to say I have to be these orders because look at who we’re dealing with here is beasts. Hmm. 

Metta Spencer  

Well, I think your course is something — sounds like everybody in the world should be exposed to a lecture… covering the things that we’ve been discussing.

Bill Skidmore  

I created courses that I thought were important and most of mine focused on political violence within human rights, that was my own strongest interest. I think it matters for many reasons that we understand. Even that societies ultimately operate through coercion… some coercion is legitimate… in order to force the person to attend their trial in court, or who’s accused of a crime, whatever…  I do think we need to understand the violence that underlies a lot of what we just see as economic issues. Some students have had that own experience in their own lives, or family members tortured, perhaps even them. I did have a student who also was a guest speaker, he had been tortured badly and severely, but he wanted to talk about it, you don’t ever I’ve never just asked somebody to do it, it was more it came to my attention that they would speak or they came to speak about a more general situation, and then talked about their torture as well. But I, of course, like I said, at the outset, very careful about their own state of mind. And yes, I tell the students, this is very hard stuff, you are going to be upset. And I will have, you know, I talked about that, how to deal with what you what you encounter some of it, you may not be able to sit through — I had a student once, and I won’t give any details about them. But they come from an area we call a war zone, an area of conflict, intense conflict. They couldn’t bear the sight of blood… but they could bear the sight of skulls… I once showed a video on Rwanda. And there’s a famous scene from a church where all these skulls were piled up and the students that — I can handle that, but what I can’t, in their own personal lives, not in a political context, but in personal… abuse, sexual assault, whatever, they would be sensitive to that. So, I try to work around it. But I think, mostly, I think what I heard from people was they were glad to be informed. They obviously I had no idea about this kind of stuff… And they also — …in the student evaluations, the number one best thing I got it every year, because I’d have a lot of guest speakers, and they really appreciated hearing their story. And I asked my guest speaker said, don’t try and be academic, I do the, you know, the academic side, tell the stories. And in the stories are profound. I feel emotional. And I can remember, students feeling very emotional, but they didn’t want to not know they did. And there are victims, and they are also survivors. They are people, the people you see here have been acting and still speaking out about what was done to them and others were evil, but I was also trying to be understanding if you can’t listen to this, leave, or I would warn in the film, if something coming up, I’ll tell you close your eyes, you know, you want to be sensitive and know they all have their own different backgrounds to

Metta Spencer  

thank you so much for this. This is really very, very meaningful. We get a lot of people watching it because I think everybody needs to go through a little of this. It just as you said it, we all need to know.

Bill Skidmore  

Thank you for inviting me. I enjoy talking to you.

Metta Spencer  

I’ll probably get back to you and talk about other aspects of human rights, because you’re always there. Thank you. Glad to do that. a terrific.

Bill Skidmore  

Bye.