Colosseum Syndrome

In the forenoon men are thrown to lions and bears; at noon, to the spectators.  They order those who have made a kill to be thrown to others who will kill them, the victor is kept for fresh slaughter.  The conclusion of every fight is death; no quarter is given….  Then comes the intermission: ‘Let’s have a little throat-cutting; we must have some action.

— Roman philosopher Seneca (ca. 4 B.C.-65 AD)

Human beings, to the extent that they still can defiantly assert their “humanity,” resent being treated as objects—objects to be “employed,” worked with maximal “efficiency,” and then discarded.  The “un-employed” person is deprived of whatever dignity and status are conferred by the responsibilities of a job title.  Yet ironically, a job, with all the daily frustrations it entails, can itself be degrading and humiliating—indeed, a mild form of “torture.”

Torture has its gradations: from the most extreme forms (waterboarding) to more subtle displays (such as passive-aggressive obstructionism in relationships).  In its most heinous forms, torture consists of confining a helpless victim, who is subjected to physical pain and torment, emotional abuse, and various other degrading humiliations.  Prohibited by both international and domestic laws, the torture of suspected “terrorists” is nonetheless now widely condoned by most American citizens (or so it seems).  A kind of  “torture-of-the-week” riveted the audience of the popular TV series “24.”  Why, so many critics have asked, do Americans today tolerate (or even approve) of the illegal torture so routinely administered by their own government?

Of course, Americans have long been desensitized to violence.  Everyday life is in itself brutalizing to humane sensibility.  The average U.S. employee is stripped of her dignity on an almost-daily basis: penalties for lateness, nit-picking “performance reviews,” reprimands and unfair demands, chronic worry about job security, mandatory overtime and so on.  Without strong union representation (increasingly rare in the retrograde U.S. workplace), the individual often feels trapped and demoralized—with few (if any) options for escape.

Under such degrading conditions, human beings strive to preserve and protect a vestige of dignity, self-respect and autonomous action.  What do such frustrated, beleaguered Americans feel?  Quite often: resentment, even rage–and a desire for vengeance.  But who to blame?  Why not suspicious “foreigners,” such as job-stealing immigrants or “subversive” Muslims?  (Of course, such scapegoating is nothing new.   In the aftermath of defeat in World War I, with its devastating reparations, economically strained Germans blamed the minority Jewish population—not the Kaiser or Krupp Armaments.)

Those mistreated may seek to deny their helplessness and humiliation through an “identification-with-the-aggressor.”  Why not stockpile assault weapons, and at least enjoy the Rambo-esque fantasy of exacting retribution?  From the demeaning feeling of being a “loser”–in a winner-take-all economic system– one may vicariously feel a satisfying surge of “power-over” those who can conveniently be scapegoated.  At the same time, aggressive rage is vented and displaced onto those who can be blamed for threatening one’s “way-of-life.”

Let us not forget the grinning, even exultant faces of the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.