Consult: David Senesh, PhD



Amihud Gilead


     From a philosophical viewpoint, torture is an assault on the Kantian moral principle according to which each human being is an end in itself and not a means alone. In the three kinds of torturous interrogation on which Dr David Senesh reports, we can easily detect this moral offence. First, the Egyptian interrogators considered him as a means to extract information, as it were, but, more than that, as a means or object to humiliate and degrade the enemy (indeed, as David testifies, and this is quite typical, “actually they could realize that we have very little information”). Second, the Israeli intelligence wished to know precisely with what information he provided his Egyptians interrogators under the unbearable pressure of the violent interrogation as well as their methods of torture and interrogation. Finally, the medical committee of the Israeli Ministry of Defense that had to decide on David’s mental invalidity resulting from his captivity and torture, appeared to consider him as an imposter who had attempted to misuse the system for his selfish use. Under these three kinds of interrogation David Senesh was considered as a means alone. Nobody paid any attention to his welfare, psychical and physical health, emotions, and feelings. From a morally philosophical viewpoint, David was a victim of being treated only as a means. All these interrogators attempted to render him destitute of all his human assets. When human beings are treated as mere objects or means, and whenever the singularity of each of them is denied, they are humiliated and certainly severely traumatized, especially in prison and under torture.

     Subjectively speaking, the more traumatic of the treatments came from the Israeli interrogators, for the trauma in question stems from “friendly fire.” It is extremely difficult to bear hostility from any prison authority, but this is even more intolerable if one experiences this from one’s own country. Thus, as David testifies, “I was so mixed up about what was happening when we returned. I think that the interrogation we went through at the hands of our own army was so emotionally difficult that I think I repressed much of it.” Indeed, Ray Bennett characterizes this as follows: “David—you referred to the process as another interrogation, and you felt the experience of your debriefing/interrogation when you got home to be as traumatic as when you were with the Egyptians.” This is very similar to the case of shell shock (“battle fatigue”) that is now often called a post-traumatic stress disorder: In such cases, the most severe instances are those that are caused by “friendly fire.” The mental disorientation in these cases is very severe. The suffering inflicted by one’s own forces is the strongest trauma, in which the victim becomes deprived of everything he used to have. Not only is his very psychical existence drastically shaken but so is his sense of identity.

     The most traumatic interrogation was that by the Israeli medical authorities:

     The third wave of interrogations was in the hands of the medical experts, usually psychiatrists, to determine the disability for medical compensation for former prisoners of war. And although it looked like a clinical interview, the experience was most confusing because those people do not really serve the patient, the interviewee—they are serving the authorities.

     In this case, the confusion of the interrogatee is extremely harsh. The interrogators attempted to bring about a mental breakdown in order to check to what extent he is psychically suffering. This must be extremely traumatic, because the ex-prisoners of war are in desperate need of the help of these committees:

     Only very recently, say some fifteen years ago, there was starting to emerge some awareness that people can be latently affected by trauma that is maybe reactivated twenty, thirty years later.  And that actually what happened.  The ex-prisoners of war were really in a very poor shape, much worse than the other group, of PTSD and all kinds of injured veterans.  We were in the worst condition.  So they called for those people to get some disability payment from the government.  But once the people went to those committees, they were treated harshly, very harshly.

     On the top of it all: “The way they run the committees is they actually interrogate the people there; they want to bring them to the point that they really lose their minds. They begin to shout and to cry; thus they break down.”

     My conclusion is that the experience of torture is so horrible, greatly beyond the endurance of persons who have never experienced such a trauma, that the denial of such an experience is very common: First of all, the torturers wish to deny their crimes; secondly, the interrogatees will do their best to repress such horrible experiences and to deny them consciously, insofar as such denial is at all possible; and, lastly, the country of these prisoners wishes to deny the horrible experience. One of the ways to do so is to persuade various people that the experience is not that horrible and that the trauma does not last for such a long time. Alas, this is a lie, if not an act of self-deception and, on this basis, it is extremely important that all over the world there are still organizations that have done their best to deal with the details of torture, to document such actions accurately, and to examine what can be done about such experiences to ease the burden suffered by the victims. However, unless full acknowledgement of such experiences has been clearly established, any therapeutic treatment is impossible.

     As we know, the experience of patients, who were treated in a manner regarded as hostile by medical personnel can be most traumatic, as those who were supposed to help the patient and to consider his distress as prior, actually treat him as if they were actually his enemies. Such an experience can lead to a serious mental breakdown in the patient.

     Medical and security authorities should be warned that it is their responsibility to help the returning prisoner of war to regain all the strength that he can muster, in order to regain his mental health, dignity, confidence, and hope;  in short,  the whole process should be experienced as therapeutic and rehabilitating, not as another interrogation (especially a traumatic one). The debriefing should serve first and foremost as a means to help the victim of torture, and not to use him in any other way. Otherwise, these intelligence’s agents act like the enemy itself, if not worse. It is a moral obligation to deal sympathetically with the former prisoner. First and foremost, he is an end in himself and not a means in the hands of the security interests of his country. It is the duty of his country to support him as much as possible. If the security interests and the benefit of the interrogatee’s well-being are incompatible, it is the latter’s well-being that should have the upper hand, for his suffering has been more than enough. He now needs his country for help, not the other way round. David emphasizes the principle that “a person’s life is more important than information.” Nevertheless, he is “afraid that this is not part of the basic training that soldiers have in Israel. Coming from a family with a very heroic figure in the background—I felt even extra burden in that respect.” This clearly demonstrates that the singularity and being an end in itself of any solider are not respected as they should. Ironically enough, the memory of David’s aunt, Anna Senesh, is nationally respected in Israel on the singular basis and sublimity of her personality, not only as a most courageous heroine, but also as a sensitive and most gifted poet. Thus national memory sometimes brings justice to historical heroes, more than any current code of military conduct.

     Torturers use the victim’s mind and body as agents in their acts of torture. The victim systematically feels that his mind and body cooperating with the torturers. Thus, these criminals cause the interrogatee to feel his mind (owing to his imaginations, fears, anxiety, etc.) as the causes of his suffering and distress. For this reason, in the most traumatic cases of “friendly fire,” the cases in which the torturers are the officials of the interrogatee’s own country, render this situation of self-betrayal much more acute and unbearable.

     In order to “justify” torture, it is an alleged excuse of torturers that they desperately need for the hidden information that the interrogatee holds and that cannot be received by other methods of interrogation or intelligence. Under such horrible torture the interrogatee must be in a psychotic state, albeit temporarily. In such a state, there is no way to distinguish between truth and lies. The captive would say whatsoever the torturer wants his to confess. The real reason for committing such a crime against humanity is to terrorize, degrade, and humiliate the interrogatee. Torture is a means of terrorizing, of controlling, of commanding and nothing more. There is absolutely no moral justification for committing this crime. The war against terrorism does not justify committing the most horrible form of terrorizing. In any case of torture the interrogatee serves as a means, as if he were a safe, hiding some information; and to extract this, torture is the means “to break the safe open” (Gilead, 2003 and Gilead, 2005). No moral pretext can justify any act of torture. Thus any torturer should feel guilty because of his crime (Gilead, forthcoming).

     One of the harshest psychical offences and traumata is the feeling that one is treated like a mere object or means. Torture challenges one of the most precious feelings of any human being, i.e., that he is a singular being. Only creatures who should be treated as ends in themselves are singular beings. There is, moreover, a strong connection between singularity and love (Gilead, 2003, pp. 19–41). Nothing can be more remote from acknowledging the singularity of one or loving him than torturing him. The security department of a country or its medical services should not treat her prisoners of war as interrogatees enemies but as children to be loved and cherished. However, such love and attention was not the treatment meted out to David Senesh and many others.

     As for the ambivalence, which we, Israelis, treat our returning prisoners of war, and which David so graphically describes, he is certainly right. We are happy that they are alive and well with us again, but, at least unconsciously, some of us consider them as traitors. Some of us feel that they should fight to death in order to be considered as “real” heroes. Yet, there is another aspect to this ambivalence: We feel guilty that we could not rescue them and save them from their captivity by means of military force. We feel, in fact, that we have abandon them to their fate. The Entebbe Operation explicitly teaches us this lesson, as it serves in Israel as a paradigm of heroism. In this case, the captives were rescued “in the right way,” namely, not through negotiation and exchange of prisoners held by the sides but by force, by a daring and heroic act.

     David mentions an important point concerning the trauma of torture, to be distinguished from post-traumatic stress syndrome:

     When you are captured and you are prisoner and you have been interrogated, I see this as an intimate type of violence, because you are in intimate relationship with the abuser, as opposed to a situation in war that can be very terrible, but more than war you don’t usually see the enemy. […] So I see this as more like family abuse or child abuse situation. Also, because of the regression. They put you in a very regressive situation. […] they are pushing me very hard to see if there is something actually wrong with me. You know, they don’t want to hear about it; they want to see it.  For ex-prisoners of war to be interrogated once again I think is terribly cruel.

     This kind of intimacy is a most important point to be emphasized, as the trauma of torture strongly involves violating the singularity of the victim. Intimacy, love, friendship, and the like are the states in which we can be acquainted with the singularity of the involved persons. To compare this with torture is most intriguing and intricate, owing to violating the singularity under discussion. In pain, one can discover the hidden personality, the most intimate traits, of the victim. Instead of feeling sympathy with him, the torturer denies this singularity completely and treats the interrogatee as a means only, as a mere object. The torturer thus denies any human relationship between himself and the interrogatee; he acknowledges a relationship between a mere object, hiding some vital information or worse, as an object to be humiliated, broken down, or enslaved, not as a person at all. In torture cells, no humanity remains. They are shameful stain on all humanity. Without exception, they should be abolished. Countries or organizations that use such methods should be absolutely excommunicated.

     The “medical” committees, although consisting of psychiatrists and psychologist, do not listen to the patient; they attempt at provoking an acting out, which is in contrast with any medical treatment or assessment. Talking and talking cure are essential for any mental treatment, but, in fact, such committees act contrary to any real psychical treatment or assessment. If they cannot assess the psychical injuries caused to the interrogatee by other, genuinely psychological, means, they should relinquish their inhuman work and let genuine professionals to do the work.

     The psychical trauma of tortured prisoners of war is based upon their self-blame: They feel that in revealing some information to the enemy they betrayed their country. This shows that this sort of trauma, which David compares to child abuse, is so malicious because the torturers make the prisoner’s body and mind to be actually enemies of the interrogatee. Now, we can see that by accusing himself, the victims often act against their own interest. They even wish to commit suicide. No less important is their loss of trust in humanity. If people can treat these peoples in such a hostile and inhumane fashion, the torturers are not human beings. This casts a profound doubt about humanity as a whole, and when the tortured prisoners of war come back to their country and is tormented in a similar fashion by agents of his own country, the loss of trust becomes more powerful.

     The greatest damage resulting from the horrors of torture is that it separates the victim from the rest of humanity. Those who did not experience torture cannot understand those who were the victims of it. It is a sort of excommunication, of isolation, of solitude. This maintains the psychical situation of being a prisoner, isolated from the rest of humanity. Empathy is a way in the attempt of removing such isolation. Kohut expressed wonderful insight about empathy. Astronauts preferred to die by crushing to Earth, the “home” of humanity, instead of getting lost in the inhuman space outside Earth. We need very much the empathy of other human beings. We can consider ourselves as belonging to one comprehensive family—the human family. As my great editor and friend, Bob Ginsberg, told me, it is unfortunate that some members of this family are at war with other members. We should remember this wise and humane lesson—in committing atrocities such as torturing prisoners of war or even terrorists, we are actually shattering the human family and crushing it into pieces. This is the most horrible segregation that we can put between some of us and the rest of humanity. We should bear in mind Spinoza’s insight that “man to man is God” (Ethics 4). In a more update form: “human being is God to human being.” Nothing can be more important to us than other human beings. Torture is very much against this; it is a crime against humanity, and such a crime cannot be forgiven.

     As for the “dilemma of what we call ‘the ticking bomb’,” that David mentions with the acceptance of the other participants in this meeting, I am strongly against this dilemma. There is no such dilemma at all. It is nothing but a deceptive myth. Since torture is not a veridical way of extracting genuine information, for the person under torture will provide any information that his tormentors want him to provide, no one can trust such information. It is useless. Unfortunately, no research exists to support or disprove this, for no university has carried out such research. The only sources, which might justify using torture in those very rare cases of the “tickling bomb,” are the torturers and their supporters, and these are most unreliable sources, no less interested and possibly subject to some hard guilt feeling. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that torture may quite easily cause the victim to be, if only temporarily, under psychosis. In this case, there is no way to distinguish between hallucinations or fantasies and actual reality. The need for information has been always an immoral excuse to support such atrocities. Even if torture happened to be effective in obtaining information, it has no moral ground whatsoever—there in no justification to treat anyone in an inhuman fashion.



Gilead, Amihud. 2003. “Security and Its Fears,” in Singularity and Other

Possibilities: Panenmentalist Novelties (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi—

Value Inquiry Book Series, vol. 139), pp. 97–111.

_____________. 2005. “Torture and Singularity,” Public Affairs Quarterly 19:3,

pp. 163–176.

_____________. Forthcoming. “Why Should Any Torturer Feel Guilty?” A Chapter

In a volume devoted to the Psychology of Guilt in Nova Science Publications.