'For Months and Months and Months They Were Just Beating Me'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Theo Padnos, an American journalist, was kidnapped in Syria and held for almost two years by the al-Nusra Front. Last year he wrote hauntingly about his captivity, describing continuous beatings and torture with cattle prods and other instruments.

But his account left, I thought, something of a mystery: Why did his captors torture him? Were they acting just out of sadism? They didn’t seem to want anything in particular—they weren’t trying to force him to covert to their apocalyptic version of Islam, nor were they constantly demanding information or false confessions from him.

I had the chance to interview Theo yesterday at the Washington Ideas Forum (my colleague Kathy wrote about that discussion here), and I asked him about this mystery. His explanation of the motives for the torture was far more chilling—more devastating, really—than I imagined.

We have been trying for some time to understand the ideology fueling ISIS and al-Nusra, and the tradecraft used to instill it.  Torture, as Theo explained it, is a key to both. He said that, at first, he was baffled by the violence. “For months and months and months they were just beating me, and I would come back to my cell afterward and I would think, ‘What the hell? What was that about?’”

Theo eventually realized that the effects of the torture on him were irrelevant to his captors. It was the effect on the torturers that interested them—including on the many children that they brought down to the basement where he was being held.  Here is how he explained it, speaking in the same gentle tone he used at all times, even when describing horrors:

It’s an initiation ceremony that deepens the commitment of, especially, the children. Always the children were involved. And it’s frightening for the children to participate in this, and it alters the psychology of the children. They bring them down into the basement, and they supply the kids with the torture instruments, and they say, ‘Have at him.’ And they kids are like, ‘I don’t want to.’ But they do, eventually. And that alters them. Over time it alters them.”

Later, when I mentioned that it seemed he was saying the torture was intended to “desensitize” the children, he corrected me.  The point wasn’t to make the children numb to the violence, he said. It was to make them feel inspired by it:

Desensitization is not the right word. I think you can say it’s a heightened experience—it’s a spiritual experience for them to participate in these rituals that extract them from normal, everyday life.  When you are causing another human being to suffer.

They say—they would tell me—you know, we are in the torture room, and there’d be someone hanging from the ceiling, screaming. He’s screaming at the top of his lungs.  They would tell me, ‘This is our music.’  They feel that it brings them closer to God, to punish the enemies of God, of which I was one.

At that point, Theo turned from me to the audience and added: “By the way, all of you people, if you’re Americans, are as well.”