Torture is utterly worthless for interrogation. This fact is now established beyond doubt, thanks to extensive scholarly investigation and specific investigations conducted by the Senate and independent groups.
And yet, vastly too many people, from the average citizen up to top political elites, still believe otherwise. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson recently argued that torture should again become American policy.
Sadly, yet another work on the pointlessness of torture is rather timely. This time it's Shane O'Mara, a Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Dublin College. His book is called Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation.
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I have previously recounted Professor Darius Rejali's argument against the utility of torture. He builds a comprehensive case, from simple mechanical problems with inflicting pain on someone to how it corrodes the professionalism of organizations that practice it. O'Mara, by contrast, restricts himself to the effects of torture on the nervous system, which are explored in extreme detail.
He does this through an exploration of the notorious Torture Memos, written by Bush administration lawyer John Yoo. The memos provide a view of the Bush administration's original pro-torture case, as well as a reasonable approximation of the lay arguments in favor of torture. In O'Mara's work, each memo section dealing with a particular torture technique is compared to a thorough investigation of the corresponding studies.
In each case, the memos are found to be utterly disconnected from the relevant scientific literature. The psychiatric and medical evidence is very complex, but it basically boils down to same basic problem with using torture for interrogation, just manifested in different ways. Interrogation is the act of trying to induce a captive to recite the contents of his memory, but torture deeply damages the memory functions of the brain.
Memory is complicated and delicate, prone to faults and breakdown. Eyewitness reports are unreliable and easy to influence. More surprising, it is extremely easy to induce false confessions — and not only through torture. Simply hurting someone until they agree to to sign a confession they know to be false generally works well (as the Chicago police department could tell you). But it's trivially easy to get people in laboratory experiments to actually believe they have committed crimes they did not do in reality, with well-placed suggestions and social pressure.
Extreme stress, such as that brought on by severe pain or drowning panic (eg., from waterboarding) directly damages an already shaky and unreliable memory system. Many experiments have demonstrated that "extreme behavioral stressors caused grave memory deficits: in particular, impairment in visuospatial capacity and recall of previously learned information," writes O'Mara. Extreme heat or cold similarly disrupt brain function — and can even result in permanent brain damage.
Sleep deprivation can be even worse for memory function. Extreme lack of sleep — the memos state that prisoners can be kept awake for up to 180 hours — induces a state akin to a major psychiatric disorder. Victims become profoundly disorientated and incoherent, and often hallucinate vividly. That it might be problematic for an interrogation method to induce an inability to distinguish between reality and imagination seems not to have occurred to anyone: "The vast empirical literature showing these deleterious effects is uncited in toto in the Torture Memos."
Worse still, there in an additive effect when such techniques are combined — sleep deprivation plus hypothermia is worse for brain function than either one in isolation, and so on. This, naturally, was the default approach to CIA interrogation in the Bush years.
Torturing for information is like trying to build a sand castle with a firehose, and it is patently obvious that Yoo (and by extension, the rest of the Bush torturers) did not do the slightest scholarly investigation of it. However, Yoo adopts a confident, expert tone, often stating categorically what the medical literature does and does not show (constantly getting it wrong), and citing all manner of empirical data — just none that are remotely relevant. It shows every possible sign of an amoral legal hack backfilling to justify a preconceived decision, and papering over his utter medical ignorance with bluster and citation of half-understood or straight-up fabricated evidence.
It's a sad irony that a great deal of this evidence on torture comes from experiments on U.S. soldiers being trained to survive enemy capture — but there is virtually no science on actual interrogation practices. Indeed, ordinary police are given a mere handful of hours in interrogation instruction, while the CIA actively threw out the government's best interrogators. Of all the trillions spent on the war on terror, it's beyond disgraceful that none of it managed to finance a couple studies on quality interrogation.
At any rate, as O'Mara notes, the pro-torture case, from Yoo on down, rests entirely on folk wisdom — probably instilled by one of a hundred action movies or TV shows, where the tough hero saves the world from a nuclear explosion by a quick and easy application of brutal violence. Such portrayals are as immoral as they are unrealistic.
That brings me back to Trump. In his justification for bringing torture back, he inadvertently let slip one of the real lizard-brain motivators behind torture: a desire for retribution. "If it doesn't work, they deserve it anyway, for what they're doing," he recently said at a rally. This attitude is not just monstrous (recall that a great many people tortured by the U.S. were entirely innocent) but dangerous. It places the desire for vengeance against suspected terrorists above the need for quality interrogation and intelligence work. It's stupid, childish, and bone-deep Republican orthodoxy.
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