An unextraordinary claim: Torture doesn’t work

Torture is in the news again, sadly, as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan made a public declaration that Canada will never use torture or be party to [it], a day after his meeting with US Defence Secretary James Mattis. That sounds decent, but there’s a lot of grey space around his words that needs to be addressed, especially in light of Sajjan’s own questionable history with torture. But I want to put all that aside for the moment, and focus on a more fundamental question that alarmingly still seems to be controversial in the public mind: does torture work?

No. No, it doesn’t.

That may seem to be an extraordinary claim, but I intend to back it up.

Content warning: Graphic images, videos, and descriptions of common torture methods – including waterboarding, food deprivation, and sleep deprivation – and their physical and psychological effects.

The historical evidence

You won’t have to search far to find someone claiming that they saw torture “work”. What you will always find is that these claims are usually extremely suspicious.

In the article on this site linked to above, two examples are given. The one given the most space is former French general Paul Aussaresses.

Paul Aussaresses, by any sane assessment, was a murderous thug. After distinguished service in World War ⅠⅠ, he really made his name in the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962). He did that by recreating an intelligence unit that had existed during WWⅠⅠ but been disbanded, and putting it into service against the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) resistance group. The most charitable reading of Aussaresses’s record has it that his intelligence operation was responsible for some very important victories for the French during the war, most notably the Battle of Philippeville (now known as Skikda) on .

An honest reading of Aussaresses’s record, however, tells a very different story.

[Photo of French army soldiers torturing Algerian during Algerian War.]

French army soldiers torturing an Algerian during the Algerian War.

It is true that, very shortly after being formed, Aussaresses’s intelligence unit did learn about the large-scale attack planned on Philippeville before it happened. We don’t know if they found out about it via torture, but it is telling to note 1) before the Battle of Philippeville, the French army had the support of a sizable chunk of the Muslim population, who were very much embedded with FLN supporters, and who could easily have picked up information about a major assault and passed it on; and 2) that the torture program Aussaresses is (in)famous for didn’t actually exist until he started working for General Jacques Massu in . Whether his forewarning of the attack came from torture or not, what is not in doubt is that Aussaresses simply… let it happen… so that he could strike a very visible blow against the FLN and no doubt bolster his military reputation. Which it did, but arguably at the expense of costing France the war – the Muslim supporters left to be collateral damage in the battle Aussaresses let happen all turned against France because of it. In fact, Aussaresses may have had to turn to his famously brutal interrogation methods precisely because he had pissed away all local support that he could have tapped into for intel.

Aussaresses is held up as a credible witness for the efficacy of torture because:

  1. he did a lot of it;
  2. he got useful information out of it;
  3. he got promoted a lot; and
  4. he was unrepentant.

To these arguments, I would answer:

  1. Perhaps, but he also did a lot simply brutal and unnecessary killing, too. He murdered several people without even knowing whether they were actually FLN supporters, faked suicides to cover up murders, and even gunned down innocent women and children being used as human shields without any real need to. Perhaps the reason he conducted so much torture had less to do with its efficacy and more to do with the fact that the man was a brutal, sadistic murderer.

  2. There is not one lick of actual evidence – besides the claim of an admitted murderer, which was being used to justify his crimes – that any of his torturing ever produced any real intelligence. The one intelligence coup that he was famous for, and that made his career, happened years before he really took off as a torture czar, and it happened when he had widespread civilian support that more readily explains how he got his intel than torture stories do.

  3. He did get promoted a lot… but not actually from any successes that might have come from torture. His early promotions came from distinguished service as a paratrooper, and his later promotions came after he stopped being a field officer and started serving as a military attaché to the diplomatic core. He gained fame by touring around as an expert on counter-insurgency intelligence – basically going around preaching that it was okay to terrorize and murder a population to crush a popular rebellion – but his teachings were mostly rejected. His final promotion to general was just a formality given when he retired.

  4. He was unrepentant because he was a sadistic asshole, not because torture works.

So Paul Aussaresses is a pretty terrible example to use in support of the efficacy of terrorism. There is no actual evidence that it ever worked for him aside from his claim… which was made specifically as a defence for his brutality, possibly even against criminal charges. Oh, and France lost the war – ironically not because of any military factors, but rather largely because of the kinds of atrocities Aussaresses was responsible for. So… yeah, not a good argument for efficacy there.

Next up we have an actual torture victim who believes torture works. “Andy McNab” is a former Special Air Service (SAS) sergeant and novelist. I am not certain whether McNab actually gave up any useful intelligence during torture, or whether he even had any to give. But what I do know is that even if torture did “work” on him, that doesn’t imply torture works. The plural of anecdote is not data. There are certainly other factors that might explain why he finds the idea of torture appealing, not least being that he is a self-described psychopath.

The crux of McNab’s argument is that if he thought it could prevent an atrocity, he would consider it a moral responsibility to interrogate, to physically torture. I suppose that “logic” might make sense for someone with the IQ of your average Daily Mail reader, but let’s unpack that.

First off, and most importantly, McNab isn’t actually offering any evidence that it actually works. He’s not even saying it worked on him. At most, he merely indicates that he believes it works. Oh, well, if testimonial evidence is evidence enough to prove something, I guess that means homeopathy works, too [/sarcasm]. What McNab is really saying is: “I have faith that this works, and if it actually did work, we would have a moral responsibility to use it.” Let’s just ignore the expertise of the self-aggrandizing psychopathic liar on the issue of “moral responsibility”, and note that McNab really isn’t saying anything of substance. You could make exactly the same statement for homeopathy, or prayer: “If it actually did work, we should use it.”

[Photo of John McCcain.]

John McCcain

There was another torture victim mentioned: US Senator John McCain. McCain was shot down over North Vietnam, and ended up a prisoner of war for over five years until his release. During that time he was repeatedly tortured, which left him with lasting physical disabilities. In his case, torture actually “worked” – he acquiesced to his torturers’ demands – but McCain’s torturers weren’t actually trying to extract information from him. In fact, what they wanted him to do was make a public statement: a fake, propaganda “confession”. They tortured him to get it, and they got it. In fact, they tortured many American POWs to get fake confessions, and they got them… in pretty much every case.

But, hang on… the claim that torture “works” is not that torture can make its victims say pretty much anything, including false confessions. It’s exactly the opposite, in fact! It’s torture’s detractors who point out that torture produces spurious nonsense. In other words, McCain’s evidence is not that “torture works” in the sense that it can be used to extract useful information… McCain’s evidence is actually that torture doesn’t work, unless your intent is to extract bullshit information.

Oddly, “Andy McNab”’s position on torture is taken seriously in the post, but McCain’s is dismissed… apparently because McCain happened to mention God one time, in a soundbite. Of course, if one ignores that strawman and looks at the real reason McCain objects to torture, it’s simply because: It. Does. Not. Work.

So we’re not really looking good on the “evidence that torture works” front there, are we? We have one murderous bastard who was probably just trying to justify his crimes, and one self-aggrandizing psychopath with a questionable relationship to the truth who just has faith that torture works.

Also mentioned are the ever-odious Dick Cheney and a group of boldly anonymous self-described former senior officers of the Central Intelligence Agency, all doggedly asserting torture works, none providing anything even remotely related to evidence. These are the same people that asserted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, so… judge their awareness of reality accordingly.

What about contrary evidence? Is there any historical evidence that torture doesn’t work? Holy crap, is there ever.

First, bear in mind that torture used to be standard operating procedure for extracting confessions. Why did they stop? Were they swayed by Humanist arguments? Of course not! They stopped precisely because they realized it didn’t work. That was explicitly the reason given in pretty much every jurisdiction that stopped using torture, for why they stopped using it.

Okay, but maybe those are all cases of using torture in civil law… what about in the extreme situations, like in war? Well, torture did continue to be used on prisoners of war right up to modern times. Was that because it worked?

As a matter of fact, no. Here’s a quote:

[“The Emperor Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries” by Jacques Louis David]

Emperor Napoleon Ⅰ of France

The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.

That was Napoleon Bonaparte… and Napoleon was no sweetheart. Napoleon’s body count makes Paul Aussaresses look positively cuddly, even before Napoleon became Emperor of France. And Napoleon lived in days when torture was commonplace. He was man who would do anything to win, even sending sick and wounded back into battle on crutches. So whatever his opposition to torture was, it wasn’t squeamishness. It just didn’t work. And unlike Aussaresses, Napoleon wasn’t facing any charges or condemnation for what he may have done; Napoleon answered to fucking nobody.

And of course, just about every contemporary expert on interrogation methods will tell you the same.

But let’s not even trust opinions, because really that’s just a matter of comparing the experts I choose with the “experts” proponents choose. Let’s look at actual historical results.

[Photo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shortly after his capture.]

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

For several years during the “War on Terror”, the CIA made a number of claims about their secret torture program. For example, they claimed that torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – believed to be the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks – produced significant information. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was:

  • waterboarded 183 times;
  • beaten repeatedly;
  • deprived of sleep for over a week;
  • “rectally hydrated” multiple times; and
  • forced to endure his 6 and 8 year old children being abused, too (they were denied food and sleep, and had ants put on them).

But as a result, of that torture:

  • He confessed to masterminding 9/11.
  • He confessed to murdering journalist Daniel Pearl.
  • He gave up information leading to the arrest of Riduan Isamuddin.
  • He helped lead the US to Osama bin Laden.
  • He gave up information that helped foil an attack on US Bank Tower in Los Angeles.

So, the torture was worth it, right?

Well, no.

Because it turns out that the CIA lied about every single one of those claims.

In the first two cases, he did confess to those crimes… months after the torturing stopped. And in both of those cases, he had been captured with material evidence connecting him to the crimes (such as evidence that he had paid for the flight lessons for the 9/11 “pilots”, and the veins on his hand being identical to the veins on the hand of the man who beheaded Pearl (plus someone else actually telling the US that he did it)). In the second two cases, the people who actually tracked those two down explicitly denied that any intel from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed helped, and in the case of bin Laden, even said that the intel they got from him led them on wild goose chases. And finally… well, that attack was foiled before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was even arrested.

In fact, it turns out that they didn’t get one single piece of useful information out of torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed… or his children. Indeed, he brags that he gave them false information. All of the useful information they got out of him came after the torture sessions ended, after he was allowed to talk to the Red Cross and get a lawyer (or before the torture, thanks to the physical evidence on hand when he was captured).

And it wasn’t just him! John McCain, not believing the CIA’s lies about the efficacy of their torture program, spearheaded an effort to get information about it released. The CIA’s numerous lies were exposed, the torture program was shown to be significantly larger that claimed – including torturing dozens of people who were later proven innocent – and throughout it all it didn’t generate one single piece of useful intelligence that wasn’t obtained otherwise (for example, by other types of interrogation, or by material evidence). In fact, in at least one case there was a subject who quote-unquote sang like a Tweetie bird before torture… but then clammed up during torture and never cooperated again.

McCain has since been defending the CIA report, and trying to get the interrogation manuals rewritten to include actual science (some which I’ll be discussing shortly). If you think he can just be ignored because one time he mentioned God, I don’t know how to help you.

Now, I could play the same game, and trot out the extensive list of interrogators and intelligence experts who have studied, witnessed, or conducted torture, and all assert that it doesn’t work. I could also point out that all of the most famous and most successful interrogators in modern history didn’t use torture – we’ll actually be talking about Hanns Scharff later. But that would just be pitting one set of “experts” against another, and probably won’t really get us anywhere. So instead I’ll peel back the layers and get down to the heart of the issue, which is this:

Despite the complete lack of evidence in supoort of the efficacy of torture, and the damning evidence of things like the CIA torture report, some people still believe torture is effective. Let’s look at why that is.

Folk psychology

People who believe that torture works base that belief on folk wisdom about human psychology. There are two forms of this.

The first is what I’ll call the “economic theory of torture”. It has to do with the belief that torture subjects are rational actors doing cost/benefit analyses. People who buy into this theory believe that any human who has information that they do not want to divulge is simply being stubborn, or recalcitrant (the latter being the word you actually see used in more scholarly-sounding attempts to justify torture, along with the fabulously benign “uncooperative”). More precisely, the assumption is that the subject is being rationally stubborn. The subject has put a “cost” on divulging the information, and will not give it up for less than that cost.

For example, consider your bank account PIN number; you probably wouldn’t want to give that away normally, and will even resist some amount of pressure to do so. But if you know you only have $15,000 in your bank account, while you might not divulge the PIN for $10,000… you might do it for $20,000. Even more likely, you would for $1,000,000.

In an actual torture scenario, the subject may put a very high “cost” on giving up key information: doing so will get their comrades arrested, foil plots, and may ultimately undermine the cause the subject has possibly risked their lives to fight for. Those are very high costs, and the subject really doesn’t want to pay them. The costs are so high that there’s not likely to be anything reasonable that you can offer the subject that is worth more to them than the costs of giving up their information. You won’t usually hear the economic theory of torture spelled out so explicitly, but if you listen carefully you’ll hear its “logic” underlying the scenarios and reasoning offered up by many torture proponents.

So the only way to get that information out of them, is to find something so costly to the subject, that it overflows the balance of keeping the information, and keeping the information is worth less to them than whatever else you’re offering. And the easiest way to do that, in the shortest amount of time, is to apply stress. Lots of stress. Extreme stress. Enough stress that the cost benefit of having it stopped outweighs the heavy cost loss of giving up your information.

Thus, torture.

The economic theory of torture is the theory most often used in public discussions, when proponents want to put a fuzzy face on torture. The second theory is usually the one they actually hold to.

The second model is what I’ll call the “dam theory of torture”. In this model, you picture the contents of a person’s mind – all their knowledge, memories, opinions, and so on – as a massive lake. Between that lake and the outside world is a dam. The dam acts as a filter, selecting which parts of our “mind content” to release – via our words and actions – and which parts to keep secret, to keep to ourselves. The dam is normally controlled by our intellect – by our conscious mind – which selects what we want to share with the world, perhaps based on what would be most beneficial to us to share.

The goal in this model is simply to break the dam. You simply inflict enough stress or pain that the conscious control of the dam and its filters breaks down, and the contents of the mind just start pouring out.

This is different from the economic theory, which posits that the release of information is a rationally made choice by the subject (albeit one coerced by pain). In this model, the release of information is completely uncontrolled. They’re not “choosing” to tell you their secrets… it’s just all pouring out because they don’t have enough cognitive control to stop it any more. Thus you may get some garbage and some babbling, but you’ll also get the information you want.

Both of these models are just plain wrong, as I’ll show when I get to the actual science. But for now, I’m going to pretend they’re valid… and show you why they’re ridiculous on their own terms. In other words, for both models, I’m going to do a reductio ad absurdum.

[Infographic debunking folk psychology models of torture.]

Infographic debunking folk psychology models of torture

Let’s start with the economic theory. This theory relies on the idea of the subject being a rational animal doing cost/benefit analyses during the torture regarding just how much pain/stress they can take compared to the cost of divulging the key information. Okay, but if that’s true, then the subject must also be doing cost/benefit analyses about alternatives . This is not an either-or prospect after all – the only choices are not simply “take more pain” or “give up the info”. There is at least one other option open to the torture subject. They could lie. They could deliberately give false information.

Of course, there’s the question of whether their torturer believes the false information. If they do, great! (For the victim.) If not… the torture continues.

But those two results are also possible if you give true information! If the torture believes you, great! If not… the torture continues, even though you’ve already given up the information.

Let’s simplify. The torture subject has two competing goals:

  1. get the torture to stop; and
  2. keep the key information safe.

Remember in the latter case, there is a high cost to giving up the key information: comrades could be arrested, plans could be foiled, and the entire struggle – which the torture victim has probably risked their life for, or at the very least, accepted the possibility of torture – could be defeated.

Let’s label option 1 with “T” if the torture stops, and “t” if it doesn’t. Similarly with option 2, “I” if the subject keeps the key information safe, “i” if they reveal it. The subject’s ideal goal is therefore “TI” – the torture stops and the information is safe. The torturer wants “?i” – they want the true information revealed, and let’s assume they don’t really care whether the torture continues or not.

The torture subject has (at least) three options open to them:

  1. say nothing;
  2. reveal the key information; or
  3. reveal false information.

The possible results of those three options are:

  1. Say nothing:
    1. The information is not revealed… but the torture continues.
  2. Reveal the key information.
    1. The torturer believes the information.
      • The information is revealed… but the torture stops.
    2. The torturer does not believe the information.
      • The information is revealed… but the torture continues.
  3. Reveal false information.
    1. The torturer believes the information.
      • The information is not revealed… and the torture stops.
    2. The torturer does not believe the information.
      • The information is not revealed… and the torture continues.

Put in symbolic form, the results for the torture subject are:

  1. Say nothing:
    1. tI
  2. Reveal the key information.
    1. Ti
    2. ti
  3. Reveal false information.
    1. TI
    2. tI

Let’s consider the cost of the four possible outcomes to the torture subject. Obviously “TI” (torture stops and you don’t give up the info) is ideal, and “ti” (torture continues even though you’ve already given up the info) is the worst case… but how to “Ti” and “iT” compare? Well, realistically speaking, if someone holding key information is being tortured for it… they probably knew that was a possibility, and took the risk anyway. Torture rarely happens completely unexpectedly. That implies the subject holds the cost of revealing the information so high, they accepted the risk of torture. Thus, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that the subject considers “tI” to be a better outcome than “Ti”.

So the rank in order of descending preference is:

  1. TI
  2. tI
  3. Ti
  4. ti

So let’s say the torture subject has a good sense that the torturer will believe what they say. In that case, the best outcome for the subject is to lie. Then they get the desired “TI” outcome.

Now let’s assume that the subject strongly suspects the torture won’t believe what they say. In that case, the best outcome for the subject is to either say nothing, or attempt to lie anyway. In either case, the outcome will be “tI”. After all, if they tell the truth, they’re probably not going to believed, so they’re going to be tortured anyway… which is the absolute worst outcome: “ti”.

But what if the subject really can’t tell whether they’ll be believed or not? Well, in that case, their best strategy is still to lie! The worst case is “tI” – same as if they say nothing – but the best case is the ideal “TI”. If they told the truth, the best case they could hope for is “Ti”… and of course, there is a risk of the absolute worst case “ti”. But even if they get that “Ti” (torture stops, info revealed)… that’s almost certainly still not as good as “tI” (torture continues, no info revealed). So in every case, if the torture subject really is a rational actor, their best option is always to lie.

Now, you can argue that maybe the subject underestimated the cost of actually being tortured. Perhaps. But even so, every time they lie, the torturer will have to stop the torture to check the lie. Because if they don’t, that will be signalling to the subject that even if they tell the truth, the torture will continue… at which point the torture becomes completely pointless. So even if the lie doesn’t work, at least it will stop the torture for a while.

So you see, if the economic theory of torture actually is legit… torture doesn’t work. The torture subject has no economic motivation to tell the truth in any circumstance.

On to the dam theory.

Well the dam theory pretty much spells out its own failing. You’re breaking down the subject’s conscious, cognitive filter, and getting the raw sewage in their minds just gushing out. The “logic” of the dam theory is that this means the desired information will be part of what gushes out. And it just might! But if you consider the contents of the average human mind… how much of what’s in your mind right now is actually information that might be useful to someone else, and how much is just random imagination, dream images, memories of films you saw or books you read, fantasies, and so on?

Even if you want to argue that the desired information will be among the first stuff to gush out because it is fresh on the subject’s mind – and being “fresh” means it is closer to the dam’s filter – I have to point out that reasoning is flawed. Because, almost certainly, what is fresher on the subject’s mind than the key information is the lies they were fabricating to hide the key information. And not only that, what will also be fresh is anything discussed during the actual interrogation… so if the torturer repeatedly asks “did you hide the bomb in the palace storerooms?”, that idea – the idea of hiding the bomb in the storerooms – will be fresher than whatever the truth might be… say, that the bomb is actually hidden in the gardens. The subject won’t be lying … they’ll just be mindlessly dumping the information with no regard for whether it’s truth or lie, so even they won’t know that “the bomb is in the storerooms” is a lie.

So if the dam theory is correct, what you’re actually getting is not “truth”… you’re just getting whatever mental detritus happened to be flotsam at the time the dam broke, which will probably mostly be whatever was discussed during the interrogation before the breaking happened, which – if the torture was actually “necessary” – would have been all lies. Plus whatever random gibberish happened to be “hot” in the subject’s neural network. But since the subject themselves won’t know they’re lies anymore… how will the torturer? The torture might strike gold and get useful information… but more likely they’ll end up wasting significant time and resources chasing down false leads.

So if the dam theory of torture is legit… torture doesn’t work.

So even when taking these folk psychology theories on their own merit, they don’t hold up. But of course, as I’m about to show, they don’t hold up anyway; not in the face of actual science.

Real psychology and neuroscience

At the bottom of all pro-torture arguments is the idea that the desired information is a) in the subject’s mind, and b) accessible to the subject… because if either of those things aren’t true, the torture is simply pointless. Most people understand that the first point is obvious: there’s no point in torturing an innocent victim, or even torturing a terrorist who doesn’t happen to know what another cell is up to. But the second point often gets glossed over. People just assume that if the subject knows the information, then it “must” be accessible to their mind. That’s just how the mind works, right? If you know something, you know it.

[Photo of Shane O’Mara]

Shane O’Mara

Enter Shane O’Mara, from Trinity College Dublin. O’Mara’s research interests include how brain systems are affected by stress, anxiety, depression and motivation. You can’t actually do experiments on torture, for a number of reasons – true torture victims don’t consent to their torture, as experimental subjects would have to, and they can be subjected to conditions that are extremely dangerous to their health, or even permanently damaging (as in the case of John McCain). But we can look at how the brain reacts to torture-like stresses, and use that to hypothesize on what might actually happen in real torture scenarios.

O’Mara wasn’t the first scientist – or even the first neuro scientist – to indirectly study the efficacy of torture. Scientists have known since the dawn of science that torture doesn’t work. O’Mara has done his own research, of course, but that’s not what really makes his expertise invaluable. What O’Mara really did was collect the extensive evidence and put it all together, in one place. (In fact, I borrowed the term “folk psychology” from O’Mara.) And the evidence is astonishingly bad for proponents of torture.

Everyone “knows” that torture victims will say anything to make the torture stop. But “everyone” is actually wrong. They’re not wrong about the effect; a victim will say anything to make the torture stop. What they’re wrong about is the assumption that the torture victim is choosing to say “anything”. The assumption is that, during torture, the victim is still cognitively functional, and consciously making choices about what to say. That flawed assumption is why they think torture “works” – they figure if enough pressure is applied, the victim will finally consciously choose to say “the truth”. But that’s not what actually happens.

Let’s talk physiology. The recollection of memory is a brain process involving the activation of a number of areas. In particular, it involves the activation of the prefrontal cortex – the seat of “intention”, where you choose which memories to access and how to interpret/present them – and the hippocampus – which may be the “gateway” to stored memories (we don’t know exactly where memories are stored in the brain yet). So if you actually want your interrogation subject to recall information for you… ya kinda want those things to be working, y’know.

Guess what happens during torture. Well, the increased stress causes releases of cortisol. Which… you can probably see where this is going… inhibits memory recall.

Oh, but that’s not all. Because it turns out, cortisol doesn’t just impair recall… it actually damages the hippocampus. In other words, torturing a subject doesn’t just make it harder to recall information during the torture… it may prevent them from recalling it even after the torture stops! Further torture will not only fail to produce better recall, it will only make the situation worse. Even if you then switch to effective interrogation techniques (which I’ll get to), the damage has been done.

Still on board the torture train? Well, stay in your seats, because we have a few more stops yet.

Let’s consider the actual mechanisms of torture. Sleep deprivation is a common technique – though many people don’t think it’s actually torture. We’ll start there anyway.

Would anybody be surprised to hear that sleep deprivation impairs cognitive functioning? Probably not. I wouldn’t even expect anyone to be surprised to learn that sleep deprivation impairs memory recall specifically. But what may surprise you is just how little sleep deprivation is necessary to trigger memory errors. A 2016 study found that after only one night without sleep – just without sleep, no torture involved – people were 4.5× more likely to admit to pressing a button that supposedly screwed up an experiment. None of them actually pressed it, of course.

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just impair memory recall and create false memories, it can actually lead to seizures and psychoses. Some of the torture victims described in the CIA report actually started having hallucinations. If you’re actually serious about getting useful intelligence out of someone, pushing them to the point they’re having hallucinations seems a tad counterproductive.

That’s sleep deprivation, and many argue that isn’t even torture. So let’s look at something that is: waterboarding.

It should be noted that while the US government under George W. Bush tried to redefine waterboarding as “not actually torture”, waterboarding is actually one of the most severe forms of torture. But let’s set aside the issue of how much trauma it causes the victim, because we don’t really care about those filthy, barbaric, inhuman terrorist scum, right? No, let’s stay focused on the neurophysical effects of waterboarding.

Waterboarding triggers the mammalian diving reflex, a set of physiological responses designed to help us survive longer when immersed in water. Blood is shifted away from most parts of the body, and concentrated in the heart and brain. That’s good, isn’t it? We want the brain to be very active, right? Yes… but the problem is which parts of the brain become more active. The parts that become more active are the parts necessary for survival, like the amygdala, which triggers the panic response. The parts that we want to become more active – the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus – don’t get much love.

But it gets worse. Because the reason the diving reflex is triggered is because the mouth and nasal cavity are filled up with water – the victim is “drowning”, in a very real sense. And because of that, that means they’re not getting oxygen. You end up with hypoxia. And guess what hypoxia does to cognition? You probably guessed it: it severely impairs cognition.

The sensation of “drowning” also has other effects that inhibit cognition, such as triggering panic due to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the body (hypercapnia). Once the subject starts panicking, the amygdala takes over, and your chances of getting successful memory recall drop.

Now, I suspect that some of you are pooh-poohing all this neurological evidence with the “logic” that these studies were all done on “ordinary people”… not hardened terrorists who have military training – possibly including training to resist torture – and have steeled themselves in preparation for their interrogation. And now I suspect that now that you’ve seen me mention that objection, you know I’m about to sink it. Good guess.

[Photo of Malcolm W. Nance.]

Malcolm W. Nance

See the video linked to above? That was from a BBC documentary, and one of the consultants was a guy named Malcolm Nance. Former Senior Chief Petty Officer Nance was a US counter-terrorism and intelligence operative for 33 years, and an expert on al-Qaida and the Islamic State. He got noticed when he wrote about waterboarding, calling it torture… period at a time when the US administration was trying to put a pretty face on the practice. That demonstration above was meant to be a demonstration of how waterboarding was actually done, as close to reality as possible.

Anyway, the US Navy SERE program – “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” – for which Nance was an instructor, used to subject its operatives to waterboarding as part of their training to resist torture. Most of them “broke”, but what is disturbing is most didn’t remember “breaking”. The guy in the video linked to above who admitted to being born a bunny rabbit? He didn’t remember doing it afterwards. And to be clear, just to stave off torture proponents saying the fact that most US Navy soldiers “broke” when waterboarded is evidence that torture works… no: they “broke” in the sense that they admitted to whatever the interrogator was trying to force them to admit to. They didn’t give up the nuclear plans; they admitted to being born bunny rabbits. In fact, many of them actually had difficulty remembering their own personal information under torture! That’s hardly evidence of torture “working”.

And it’s not just waterboarding. A 2006 study took a group of special operations soldiers and subjected them to sleep deprivation and other stresses associated with torture, then checked their cognitive functioning. If you’re still surprised to learn that recall was significantly impaired, I don’t know how to reach you at this point.

So what we have so far is a complete lack of any kind of historical evidence that torture works, and a pile of science explaining why it can’t. As yet, no evidence whatsoever that torture works. But it turns out… that may not even matter! Behold the ticking time bomb scenario.

The ticking time-bomb scenario

Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs—in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity—it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.

While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles—millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.

[Photo of Sam Harris.]

Sam Harris

The quote above is from none other than Sam Harris. In that quote, Harris not only does a decent job of explaining what the ticking time-bomb scenario is, he also gloriously illustrates why it is complete bullshit. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

You’ve all heard some form of the ticking time-bomb scenario. You’ve not only heard it in arguments about torture, you’ve seen it in action on TV and in film. Its form is simple: You have someone in custody who has information that could prevent some kind of atrocity but refuses to cooperate, and you have only a short time to get that information out of them. Would you torture? Many people say yes.

But what have they really said yes to? Let’s test that by tweaking the scenario a bit.

A known terrorist has planted a bomb in a nearby city, and though he was the only one who knew where the bomb is, you have sadly killed him during your botched torture attempt. You have a thousand square kilometres of city to search, and you’ve already exhausted everywhere you think the terrorist had been to, so you are now completely out of leads. That’s when a famous psychic calls you up and tells you that for a thousand dollars, they will give you the precise location of the bomb. Do you pay the thousand dollars?

I’m really curious to hear what so-called skeptics say to that scenario. Because the obvious objection to it is that psychic powers are complete bullshit, and you’re more likely than not to get a false lead. But… that’s also true for torture. And surely the moral and psychological cost of torture is way higher than a measly thousand bucks. If you’d be willing to torture a human being in this scenario for almost-certainly useless information… why wouldn’t you be willing to pay a pithy grand?

Ah, but we already know the answer to that, don’t we? This really isn’t about effectively extracting information. This simply about recognizing that the scenario is a deliberately-crafted impossible-to-win scenario, and thus using it to satisfy primal urges of violent revenge. You don’t want to torture the terrorist because you think it will actually save the city… you want to torture the fucker because they’re a terrorist, and they deserve it. And hey, there is a non-zero, albeit laughably small, chance that it could actually work in the tiny amount of time allotted… and probably a slightly better chance than if you trusted a psychic.

Let’s test that assertion by modifying the scenario again:

A known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs – in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity – it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable.

However, it is very unlikely to work. The terrorist has been trained to resist torture, and while it may be possible to “break” him, you don’t really have enough time. You do, however, have one trump card.

It turns out the terrorist is a dedicated father of a lovely four year-old daughter. From your observations of the terrorist, you have determined that he would do anything for his little girl – even to the point of risking his own life and cause. Of course he managed to get the daughter away from the range of the blast beforehand… but you have nevertheless managed to find and capture the girl. Given the terrorist’s affection for his daughter, it seems highly likely that while he may not break under torture… he will almost certainly give up his information to prevent his daughter’s torture.

So: Will you torture an innocent four year-old child?

Now I’ve cut right to the heart of the matter by making the scenario no longer about vengeance, but about actual efficacy. Torturing the child won’t satisfy your baser needs for violent retribution (unless you’re really sick)… but it will work (according to the scenario). If you’re not just torturing for satisfaction and vengeance, then if you would torture the terrorist for a possible, though not probable, victory, you should be positively gleeful about torturing the child for an almost certain victory. So how do you feel about the scenario?

According to Harris, torturing the terrorist is not only justified, but – and I quote – ethically necessary. (Intriguingly, this is pretty much the same thing Andy McNab said. What is it with these bloodthirsty motherfuckers saying doing horrible things is not only ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary.) If you are an ethical person, you have to torture the terrorist if there is a chance it will lead to saving the city full of people. What about in the “torture the child” scenario? By Harris’s logic… wouldn’t he come to the same conclusion? That, in order to be a good person, he must torture that child?

I could go on! I saw an interesting suggestion the other day about making the scenario about self-sacrifice, rather than bloodthirsty vengeance. So would you be willing to sacrifice something to stop the bomb? Would you accept spending the rest of your life in prison for torturing the suspect? Would you let your young child be tortured if that would certainly coerce the terrorist into confessing? Would it feel as good as beating the shit out of the terrorist?

I honestly can’t figure why people take Sam Harris seriously. After the piles of neuroscience evidence that torture doesn’t work, how can any self-respecting neuroscientist continue to advocate for it? Or does he advocate for it? With Sam Harris, who can say? One minute he does, one minute he doesn’t. “We should torture, but I don’t say we should torture and people who say I say we should torture just don’t understand me, but we should totally torture and I’m a hero for saying so. But I don’t actually say so.” Witness the dance I call the Harris hokey-pokey.

You see, Harris even recognizes that the ticking time-bomb scenario is complete bullshit. He says as much in the intro to his article where he promotes torture but says he’s not a torture promoter: if you add enough shit to a hypothetical, eventually just about anyone would say just about anything. You know what, in a scenario where I would be guaranteed a billion dollars, an end to poverty worldwide, and world peace… yeah, sure, in that scenario, I’d drink horse piss. Whatever.

But that doesn’t prove anything… which makes it all the more laughable when Harris claims no one has pointed out a flaw in my argument. Ha, ha, ha. Yeah, right here, Harris. Hand up and waving. And I ain’t even half-way done, but I don’t want to waste anymore space in this article on you.

The ticking time-bomb scenario is the only “justification” most people will use for torture. It’s the only one Harris uses. But all the ticking time-bomb scenario illustrates is that when people are pressed enough… they will get vicious and brutal. Stop the presses, has someone told science about that?[/sarcasm] It doesn’t prove torture works – in fact, it doesn’t address the issue at all; efficacy is almost completely irrelevant in the scenario! And it certainly doesn’t prove torture is “ethically justified”, never mind “ethically necessary”.

So where we’re at right now is this:

  • there is not a shred of evidence – and I’m not even talking about scientific evidence here, just evidence at all – that torture actually works… unless you’re counting vague, unconfirmed anecdotes by some shady characters with motivations to “fudge” the facts as “evidence”;
  • people who actually know about torture, and about effective interrogation, all say torture is worse than useless;
  • while torture as done in practice can’t be directly studied, we have mountains of scientific evidence regarding the effects of torture-like stress on the mind… and it almost uniformly shows that torture cannot be expected to produce useful information;
  • to make matters worse, torture doesn’t just damage the victim’s cognitive capacity during the torture, it has long-term effects that ruin a subject’s ability to give good information even when actually effective interrogation tactics are used later; and
  • most arguments for torture are either based on flawed folk psychology – which falls apart in the face of modern psychology and neuroscience – or brain-dead appeals to emotion, not reason.

So here is my “extraordinary” claim yet again: Torture doesn’t work.

Now, thus far I’ve made several references to actually effective interrogation tactics. Let’s actually talk about them.

Effective interrogation

[Photo of Obergefreiter Hanns-Joachim Scharff.]

Obergefreiter Hanns-Joachim Scharff

One of the most famous interrogators of all time was Obergefreiter Hanns Scharff (1907–1992) of the Luftwaffe. Scharff more or less fell into his role as an interrogator, tumbling through the confusion of military bureaucracy due to the fact that he could speak English, and pretty much learned his trade on the job. But he was good. He was damned good. He was so good that after the war he was granted US citizenship to teach his techniques.

Much of Scharff’s techniques probably won’t sound very surprising to modern readers, because they have become standard operating procedure most everywhere. You’ve heard of the “good cop, bad cop” ploy? That’s was Scharff. He was the good cop.

Scharff abhorred torture. Instead, he would try to build a rapport with his subjects. His technique was brilliant in his simplicity.

He would start with simple biographical questions to learn about the subject – their name, rank, unit, age, place of birth, and so on. If the subject didn’t cooperate at this early stage, Scharff would warn them, apologetically, that subjects that didn’t give up this basic information would be presumed to be spies, and transferred to the Gestapo… a frightening prospect. Scharff would play up the menace, telling them that he didn’t want that to happen – he wanted to help them, so if they just gave up this harmless information, he would be able to protect them.

Today we recognize what Scharff was doing as the “foot-in-the-door” technique. If you get a subject to agree to a small request now… they will be more likely to agree to a large request later.

Scharff was also using a technique known as “ingratiation”. In this technique, you convince the subject that you’re doing a favour for them… they will be more likely to respond to a request to a counter-favour later.

Scharff used both of these effects masterfully. Once the prisoner started giving up “harmless” information, they got in the habit, and were primed to give up more information. Scharff capitalized on this, and magnified the effect by using operant conditioning. Cooperation was rewarded with luxuries like nature walks, social visits with German fighter pilots, trips to a swimming pool… even going so far as to let one captured pilot test-fly a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane!

But the real genius behind Scharff’s technique was in presenting the illusion to the subject that they weren’t even being interrogated. He accomplished this trick two different ways.

The easiest trick – the one used with more cooperative subjects – was simply to… relax with them. Scharff would just… chat with them, or go on friendly strolls. He wouldn’t interrogate them… not in the traditional sense. He’d just chat with them about their mates back in their unit, tell jokes, swap stories… you know, normal, friendly stuff. Thing is, humans are naturally inclined to talk themselves up, so in the process of these friendly chats, the prisoners would frequently give up key intelligence while boasting about their exploits. They wouldn’t even realize they were doing it. And of course, they were giving up plenty of other bits of information that Scharff was quietly filing away. The crazy part? They were giving up this information without even being asked for it! They were volunteering key information… not even realizing that’s what they were doing! That’s how powerful Scharff’s rapport technique is.

The other trick was reserved for less cooperative prisoners. The Luftwaffe collected extensive information on enemy pilots, and of course, Scharff’s own interrogations always started with getting basic biographical information that he could corroborate with Luftwaffe records. So what Scharff would do is sit down with subject, and ask them questions he already knew they answers to. He would tell the prisoner that he already knew they answers, and he would even tell the prisoner what the answer was to prove it. But he would tell the prisoner that his superiors insisted the prisoner must give the answer… even if Scharff already knew it. Once again, this is the foot-in-the-door technique, but much more powerful. Because after asking dozens of questions he already knew the answer to, once he got them parroting answers they thought he didn’t need, he would start throwing in questions he didn’t know the answer to. The prisoners would just assume that he knew the answer to them, too… and give up new information! And once again, they would get in the habit of doing that – just always assuming Scharff already knew everything – and keep letting more and more information slip.

The stories of Scharff’s methods would be impossible to believe if they were in a film. For example, Scharff, while inspecting the flight uniforms of American pilots, realized that there were hidden markings which identified the fighter or bomber unit. He could then go to Luftwaffe files, American newspaper clippings, and so on, to learn more about the unit’s commanding officers, team members, even sometimes learning about the pilot’s wives. Then he could go into an interrogation and “reveal” that he knew pretty much everything about their unit, even telling convincing stories of things that had supposedly happened in the unit or at their base. The prisoners would become convinced that Scharff already had complete insider knowledge, and freely give up new information thinking Scharff already had it.

Another example of the kind of tricks Scharff used:

German commanders at one point wanted to know why some American pilots used tracer rounds with a distinctive white flash while others were red. Scharff suggested to a pilot that it appeared American industry must have run out of the chemicals necessary for the red tracer bullets.

No, the pilot responded, refuting any suggestion of a shortage. The white tracers simply signaled that planes were running out of ammo, … a piece of information that would prove very helpful to German fighter pilots.

You see what happened there? The pilot thought he was giving Scharff a message that the American military wasn’t facing shortages in order to rebut the suggestion that they were weakening… and Scharff walked away the victor again. The pilot probably never knew what he’d given up, because it was Scharff’s policy never to let on when he’d learned something new – he simply passed over it and moved on in the conversation, as if nothing had happened.

Interestingly, Scharff’s technique is often compared to building a mosaic – I’m not sure if Scharff himself used this analogy, but Scharff himself became a mosaic artist of some renown after the war, even getting five of his mosaics in the Cinderella Castle in Disney World. In the analogy, he imagined filling in a large picture piecemeal, as prisoners gave him small tiles in the mosaic. Over time, the picture would become clearer and clearer.

It probably impossible to quantify Scharff’s actual effectiveness. He wrote that out of 500 prisoners, he only failed get useful information out of 20. But he was widely recognized as not only the best interrogator in the Luftwaffe, but possibly the best interrogator in all of Europe at the time. (Interestingly, despite this, he was apparently under investigation at some point, either for being too good at getting intel from prisoners, or simply for being too nice.)

[Photo of Pär-Anders Granhag.]

Pär-Anders Granhag

Pär-Anders Granhag of the University of Gothenburg tried an experiment to test the Scharff method’s effectiveness. Subjects were prepped to play the role of people holding important information, while being connected to others of their cause and at the same time fearing consequences if they didn’t cooperate – in short, circumstances similar to what an actual interrogation suspect would be facing. Subjects were told to strike a balance between revealing nothing and revealing “too much”, to get the best consequences. Interrogators using the Scharff technique were not only significantly better at getting more, and more precise, information… their subjects actually thought they’d given up less information!

[Photo of Laurence J. Alison.]

Laurence J. Alison

There is field evidence that it works, too. British authorities record all of their interrogations, and in 2012, Laurence Alison of the University of Liverpool convinced them to share 418 terrorism investigation interrogation videos. His team studied the videos, looking at both the behaviour of the interrogators and the suspects. He found that interrogators that had better rapport got more information.

In fact, what Alison found was that while big gestures helped – like giving suspects the freedom to pray when they wanted to – even tiny things mattered. An investigator merely being sarcastic could shut a suspect up. Showing empathy and being non-judgmental worked, as did treating them humanely. Alison himself says: The more you reinforce their right to silence, the more likely they are to talk to you.

But Scharff used two techniques. One was rapport-building, which, as explained above, has been shown to be remarkably effective. The second was indirect interrogation: Scharff rarely asked direct questions, and instead simply let conversation flow, only occasionally interjecting comments that would prompt the subject to give up information naturally, of their own accord. Scharff’s rapport-building technique has been turned into a method that can be taught, and that has been shown to be very effective. What about his technique of indirectness?

[Photo of Ronald Fisher.]

Ronald Fisher

The technique of interviewing indirectly has been formalized as “cognitive interrogation”, and developed by Ronald Fisher of Florida International University. Like Scharff’s technique, you don’t simply ask questions. Instead, what you do is ask the subject to close their eyes and recall some event, in detail. It turns out that doing that triggers better recall. In one study with seasoned law enforcement instructors showed that cognitive methods produce 80% more information than direct questions.

But that’s not all. The real power of the cognitive method is that it is extremely good at sussing out true information from lies.

The trick is that the cognitive burden of fabricating details is harder when lying than when telling the truth. Not only that, liars show certain patterns in the flow of the information they give: people telling the truth will, each time they repeat a story, add a few extra details they just recalled, while liars tend to simply repeat the original fabrication without adding details. You can also use tricks to make the liars even more obvious, like asking subjects to tell the story in reverse chronological order.

[Photo of Charles A. Morgan ⅠⅠⅠ.]

Charles A. Morgan ⅠⅠⅠ

Charles A. Morgan ⅠⅠⅠ tested this idea by setting up a simulated bioterrorism incident, then having experienced investigators apply the cognitive interrogation method. Most of the subjects had just gone to a coffee shop, sat for half an hour, then left. The rest (a small amount, to simulate the low number of actual terrorist sympathizers) had met with a (fake) terrorist in the coffee shop, and discussed culturing a (fake) biological agent. (All subjects were experienced with biological cultures.) A week later, they were interviewed by the investigators, who attempted to determine whether they had actually met with the “terrorist”. Everyone got exactly the same interview, using cognitive interrogation methods (for example, asking them to remember what happened in the coffee shop in reverse order).

The interviewers… didn’t do so well when asked to use their professional judgment to determine who was being honest, and who wasn’t. Out of 64 subjects, they decided 47 were honest, and 17 were not. But of the 47 they thought were honest, 8 were actually not, and of the 17 they thought were dishonest, 13 had actually been truthful. Overall, their accuracy was 54%.

Oh, it gets worse. They also had 5 professionals watch the videos of the interviews after the fact, and give their professional judgment on the whether the subject was honest or not. Out of 62 subjects (2 videos had technical glitches), they decided 33 were honest and 29 were deceptive. Of the 33 they thought were honest, 7 were not; of the 29 they thought were dishonest, they were wrong with 24. Their overall accuracy was 46%.

But by using statistical methods to quantify the cognitive burden on subjects – in this case, simply counting the number of words they used, the number of unique words, and so on – the experimenters correctly classified 51 of the 52 honest people, and 3 of the 12 dishonest ones, for an overall accuracy of 84%. They were not as good as the experienced professionals at detecting liars (only 27% compared to 33% for the interviewers and 42% for the reviewers)… but they were brilliant at detecting honesty, at a rate of 98% (compared to 75% and 52%). That alone implies these techniques could significantly trim down the pool of suspects – quickly letting innocents go – but the paper notes that by tweaking cutoff values for honest people and liars, you might be able to get even better results at detecting liars specifically.

The scientific evidence against torture was technically always there, but it’s only in the last decade or so that it has been collected and studied with a specific focus on the efficacy of various interrogation techniques. At this point, it’s pretty safe to call it a closed issue, scientifically, that torture simply doesn’t work, and that alternative techniques – like rapport building – are much more effective.

Now, because I know there will be people who want to argue this by pointing to some case or another where torture actually did work, let me clarify that when I say “torture doesn’t work”, that doesn’t mean you will never get good information out of torturing someone. Just like the psychic can occasionally get a “hit”, or the dowser can once in a while actually stumble on what they’re looking for, or someone using homeopathy will actually get better, the reality is that sometimes a person being tortured just might actually give up some useful information. I don’t claim that can never happen. I just assert that the evidence shows that you cannot expect it to happen. Just as with psychics, dowsing, and homeopathy, when you’re doing something that produces random junk, there is a non-zero probability that what comes out might actually be what’s desired. The problem with that is:

  • you can’t expect it to work – if it does, it’s simply a fluke; and
  • you won’t be able to tell when it is working – unless you have some external way to confirm the information (which is likely to be expensive and time consuming to do for a flood of false information), you will not be able to tell which bit of information is the needle you’re looking for in the haystack of lies and gibberish the victim is throwing out.

In other words, if you torture enough, it will probably “work” eventually… but it would be just about as effective to use a psychic or a Ouija board. So if you want to use the logic that torture might work eventually by sheer random chance to claim that that means “torture works”, then you must also agree that psychic powers, dowsing, and homeopathy “work”.

There’s one more thing I’d like to bring up before closing the section on science. Thus far I’ve focused on the effect of torture on the victims. But torture also has a severe impact on the torturers. Most people simply can’t handle dishing out the level of cruelty required to torture to other human beings for extended periods of time. They break themselves, and – just like their victims – bear the psychological scars for the rest of their lives. Of course, there are those who don’t break – the psychopaths, who actually enjoy being torturers… but using those people as interrogators just creates its own set of problems.

The ethical issue

I must admit that I feel a little ridiculous, having to actually spend time in 2017, in a supposedly civilized society, explaining why we shouldn’t torture. That should be as obvious as that we shouldn’t have slavery.

But as I’ve pointed out above, there are actually still people who think that torture is ethically acceptable. If they were just the usual regressive assholes like Dick Cheney, it wouldn’t be all that concerning; one rather expects those kinds of people to have horrifying beliefs. But astonishingly, there are people who are very popular among so-called progressives that argue for torture.

Take the case of Sam Harris, and ignore the depressing spectacle of a neuroscientist thinking that torture might actually be useful, never mind ethical. Harris objects to being called “pro-torture”, and in his defence he isn’t exactly enthusiastic about it. He doesn’t argue that torture should be standard procedure, just that it should be used in extreme situations. But of course, there’s more to it than that.

Harris believes he’s solved ethics, to the point that he doesn’t even want to discuss the issue anymore, because he already knows the answer, and anyone who disagrees is just being “emotional”. Uh-huh. He uses the ticking time-bomb scenario, and argues that if you can’t rule out using torture in the most ridiculous, hypothetical situations, that means you don’t have an argument against it. Frankly that’s as stupid as saying that if you can’t rule out setting someone on fire in an absurd, unrealistic scenario I dream up where doing so might be welcomed by the victim and maybe even save the world, that means you don’t have an argument against setting people on fire. By his warped logic, we don’t actually have categorical arguments against rape or slavery.

Well, I do have a categorical argument against torture, but this post isn’t the place for that. For now, I think it is enough to point out that if your ethical framework starts throwing up horrifying results in hypothetical situations, the problem may not be that your critics are just too emotional to accept that your framework is absolutely perfect and that those results are completely reasonable… it may just be a sign that your framework is fucking broken.

[Ascending and Descending, by M. C. Escher.]

Ascending and Descending, by M. C. Escher

Seriously, if your ethical theory leads to you a conclusion that torturing someone is not only ethically acceptable, but that it’s ethically necessary (emphasis mine), that’s like getting a divide-by-zero singularity produced by a physics theory. Reason is screaming at you that something is wrong here. That is not the point where you disdain anyone who points out that you have a problem as hysterically irrational; it is the point where you say, “shit, maybe there’s something squirrely with my theory”. If your moral landscape includes torture, then your moral landscape is an Escher drawing; interesting to study, but clearly not realistic.

I shouldn’t have had to write a post explaining why torture doesn’t work. Any decent human being should find the effort amusingly irrelevant, because they wouldn’t endorse torture in any case. But the plain fact is that there are people – some of them so out of touch with reality that they think they they’re actually experts on ethics – who believe that torture is an acceptable practice, ethically. It is for those sick people that I wrote this post, in the hopes that even if their ethics are all out of whack, at least they might have enough sense to recognize what side the science is on. We can only hope.

Canada and torture

Now we come to the point of this post. Part of the reason I wrote it is because there are still atheists who believe torture is ethical (even ethically necessary in certain situations). But the main reason now was the right time for this post is that torture is making a comeback.

When Obama took power in the US, he put a stop to George W. Bush’s torture program, and commissioned research into actually effective interrogation techniques. I’ve actually cited some of that research in this post (though most of the science was done long before). But now Trump is in power, and he wants to bring torture back… to beat the savages. Oh, America, when will finally learn what irony is?

While we should certainly be concerned about what Trump will do – because of its almost guaranteed international repercussions – we should also be concerned about torture from a more domestic perspective.

But Canada has no official policy that recommends torture, and there hasn’t been any officially sanctioned torturing done by Canadians in modern history, you say? Technically true, but only technically. The Harper government left a long string of horrible things in their wake, but one of the more horrible is their torture policy. Even as the global security network was condemning them for it, the Harper government issued directives that security agencies could not only use information gleaned from torture, they had to give information to other nations’ intelligence agencies even when they knew it would likely lead to torture. No Canadian intelligence officials actually tortured anybody, but many simply pretended not to know when allies were torturing a suspect.

And we now know they went even beyond that. Canadian law enforcement agencies, pressed to “discover” terrorist plots, literally invented evidence of terrorism against at least four innocent Canadians, then had them tortured in Syria. Canadian officials even gave the torturers questions to ask.

Which brings us back to Harjit Sajjan.

[Photo of Harjit Sajjan.]

Harjit Sajjan

Our Minister of National Defence was an Army Reservist, deployed to Bosnia once and Afghanistan three times. It’s his Afghanistan deployments that are concerning.

Travel back with me to 2006, shortly after the Harper Conservatives took power for the first time. Almost immediately reports surfaced of some shady dealings in Afghanistan. Whistleblower Richard Corvin revealed that Canadians were handing over captives to the Afghan National Directorate of Security, whom they knew were torturing and murdering. Questions started being raised, and the Harper government was facing contempt of Parliament over its refusal to cooperate with the investigation. Ultimately Harper prorogued Parliament in 2009 to stymie the investigation, and then when they won a majority in 2011, the whole affair was buried.

Until now. Sajjan being appointed Minister of National Defence raised the old questions again. Sajjan made a name for himself in Afghanistan because his fluency in Punjabi allowed him to talk to Urdu-speaking locals. He claims that he was just a Reservist, and not an intelligence agent, and thus that he had no idea of the shady goings-on. On the other hand, Brigadier General David Fraser called Sajjan the the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre, and Canadian translator Ahmadshah Malgarai testified that there was nobody in a Canadian military uniform in Afghanistan who didn’t know what was going on. These are not merely questions of reputation. If these things actually happened, they would be war crimes.

Sajjan recently shut down efforts to stage an inquiry on the matter.

Also fanning the flames is a newly-released report of Canadian soldiers in Kandahar who were actually engaged in abuse themselves.

This is not about throwing shade on Sajjan. This is about getting answers about just how involved Canada was in torture.

But even more important than the past is the future. Right now there is a shift underway globally. Multiple countries are taking hard looks at their bloody pasts, and finally facing up to them. In Argentina late last year, the former air force chief Omar Graffigna was sentenced for the 1978 kidnapping and torture of two left-wing activists during Argentina’s “dirty war”. A few months later, Bolivia’s legislature voted to create a truth commission to investigate torture and other crimes committed by authoritarian regimes from 1964 to 1982. And it’s not just South America. At the same time, Tunisia is holding a commission to investigate torture and other human rights violations during the reign of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali , from 1955 until his regime’s collapse during the Arab Spring in 2011.

Canada needs to face its past record of torture too, but more important is the future. The government recently announced plans to finally ratify the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). OPCAT was adopted in , and came into force in , but while Canada promised to ratify it twice – once in 2006 and once in 2009 – it never has. It’s about time.

Right now there is also a call to change the Harper-era torture policy, and replace it with one that rejects the use of torture categorically – not even allowing the use of information gleaned from torture. I would like to call on Canadian atheists, secularists, humanists, and freethinkers to support this. It’s not enough to say we won’t torture. History shows that we can still support torture, and profit from it, even when not directly carrying it out ourselves. We need to make a stand that is clear and unequivocal: that we will not support torture in any way, not even indirectly.

I knew that if I made this call on its own, I would certainly face resistance from those who would argue that we should be willing to stomach extreme measures if they will increase our security – that is, the ticking time-bomb enthusiasts. That’s why I spent a whole article spelling out, in excruciating detail, that torture… does… not… work. Even if your ethics are so warped that you can accept it, the science is in, and torture is out.

Torture is unethical. It is based on pseudoscience and folk psychology, and is highly unlikely to produce good information. It destroys the victim, impairing your chances of getting useful information out of them even after the torture stops. It harms the torturer – unless the torturer is a psychopath, which is a problem in and of itself – and if your intelligence agents are highly-trained and experienced professionals, that is a very damaging loss to your intelligence-gathering capabilities. And condoning torture gives a green light for others to do it, increasing the chances of one of your own people getting tortured at some point. Torture. Doesn’t. Work.

So let’s make a stand. For ethics. For science. For humanism. Send a message to your MP asking them to support an end to Canada’s policy of quietly abetting and profiting from torture. Ask them to support a policy that not only prohibits any Canadian or Canadian agency from torturing, but that also prohibits them from using information they suspect was discovered by means of torture.

Let’s make a stand, and end this barbaric, unethical practice.

11 thoughts on “An unextraordinary claim: Torture doesn’t work

  1. There is always the lingering hope that new technological advances in torture will increase the effectiveness of torture so that torture will work.

  2. Your lengthy article misses one crucial problem:

    The fifth column of torturers who have come to realize that the people they are being asked to torture are nothing more than a bunch of war orphans and childless war widows who actually derive ecstatic pleasure from the pain of torture as it relieves their anguish in comparison. Cf. the numerous former Guantanamo Bay torturers who have whistleblown and performed other acts of sabotage and subterfuge.

  3. not even allowing the use of information gleaned from torture!

    We are talking about war zones are we not.

    Not torturing captives, or anyone else, is to be condoned.

    Not using information already obtained is a little ridiculous unless there was outright suspicion of its falsity. A soldier would have to make a calculated guess.

    • How would that be any different from our current policy?

      Right now, the problem with torture in Canada is not that we *do* it. The problem is that we *allow* it. And that we benefit from it.

      And Canadians *do* get tortured because of our intelligence agencies. No, they don’t actually get tortured *by* the Canadian agencies themselves, but rather by the agencies of other countries. Our agencies simply arrange for them to be taken by other agencies, then stand back and wait for the info they wanted to be sent back to them. Sometimes they even give those other agencies questions to put to the Canadians being tortured. That’s not hypothetical. That actually happened.

      So long as Canadian agencies have the freedom to use information gained from torture, there will always be the temptation to set up suspects to be tortured by others. This is not a “ridiculous” claim; they have already demonstrated that tendency. We have to stop it. So long as we allow the use of torture information, there will always be motivation for us to get others to do our torturing for us, possibly in exchange for other favours.

      There’s a longer game being played here, too. When other agencies torture for us – or even just torture for their own benefit, but then decide to share information with us – they’re not just doing out of the sweetness of their little hearts. They’re doing it because they get benefits. For example, we might offer them diplomatic goodies for doing our dirty work for us. But even if we don’t, if they’re going to share intelligence with us it’s because there will be some benefit for them in us having and acting on that information. Take Afghanistan for instance – we accepted torture information from the Afghan authorities… and then put it to use fighting their war for them. Same idea applies, basically, for us accepting the torture information from Syria, or Pakistan – generally speaking, when we go after (for example) Islamist extremists, we’re helping Islamic countries, because the extremists are usually a scourge for them. They’re not giving us the stuff the learned from torturing for the hell of it. It benefits them for us to have that intel.

      So if we put our foot down and say that we simply won’t accept any intelligence we suspect they got from torture, that puts pressure on them to stop torturing. If they do torture and find out something that they want us to know, but we refuse to use that intel, *they* suffer. They want our help, so they’ll have to switch to effective interrogation methods in order to get us to accept their info, and thus benefit them…. which also benefits us! Because it means they will be producing better intel.

      Refusing to accept information gleaned from torture is not an idea people came up with lightly. It is the most effective way to not only ensure torture stops, but that countries that torture are forced to change their ways… which benefits us in the long run.

  4. And Canadians *do* get tortured because of our intelligence agencies. No, they don’t actually get tortured *by* the Canadian agencies themselves, but rather by the agencies of other countries. Our agencies simply arrange for them to be taken by other agencies, then stand back and wait for the info they wanted to be sent back to them. Sometimes they even give those other agencies questions to put to the Canadians being tortured. That’s not hypothetical. That actually happened.”

    I repudiate your implicit insinuation that just because we might send our own citizens to other countries to be tortured so that we may receive information from that torture, it implies that we might also send our citizens to other countries solely so that the torture might provide information to merely those countries, and not to Canada herself, as a mere formality meant only to ingratiate ourselves with those countries.

    Where are you getting this information?

    • I didn’t make that insinuation. It is not only not “implicit” to what I wrote, it doesn’t even make any sense in the context.

      • I say you did. I say you implicitly implied that Canada would send its citizens to other countries to be tortured with no material or informational benefit, but rather solely to ingratiate Canada with those countries.

        • I did not “implicitly imply” that, and no matters now many layers of implication you add, it won’t make your strawman live.

          What I said was that Canada would (and did) send its citizens to other countries to be tortured to benefit *Canada*. I neither said nor implicitly implied by implication that they would do it to give other countries the opportunity to torture Canadians so that those countries can earn brownie points with Canada; let alone *solely* for that purpose. Seriously, if they wanted to give those countries favours, they wouldn’t need to send *torture victims* over to do it. There’s just no reason Canada would send anyone – citizens or otherwise – to be tortured just for the benefit of other countries, and not Canada. That’s patently ridiculous. If Canada set someone up to be tortured, it’s obviously because they want “material or informational benefit”. Obviously obviously.

          I also said other countries might torture – either their own citizens or Canadians – then trade the information they obtain from that back to Canada in exchange for favours. But I never said nor even came close to implying that Canada would *ask* them to do that. Seriously, the idea that Canada would trade torture victims for favours is fucking ridiculous. It literally makes no sense.

          Seriously, what kind of fucked up headspace do you live in that you think, “hey, Syria, we’re sending you this dude to torture that we don’t really want any info from; we just want to give you the opportunity to earn brownie points with us if he does happen to give up anything useful, so have fun torturing him” makes any kind of sense. If they’re setting someone up to be tortured, it’s because they want info from him but don’t want to get their hands dirty doing it… not because they want to give other countries opportunities to ingratiate themselves. Getting brownie points might be the motivation for the other countries, but it’s ridiculous to think *giving* them brownie points would be the motivation for Canada. That’s just stupid.

  5. Your misreading of my clear enough statement is telling.

    I said you are implying implicitly that Canada would send Canadians over to other countries to be tortured so that *Canada* could *receive* brownie points **from** those other countries.

    Not whatever you read with your I-see-what-I-want-to-see glasses on.

    This in addition to your insistance on focusing on torture, insignificant in comparison to the vastly more grave threat to our nation emanating out of the fifth column of reformed former torturers and the subversive tactics they promulgate.

    One has to wonder if you are not a reformed former torturer yourself.

    If a reformed former torturer were about to engage in an act of violent sabotage in Canada, would you support torturing that torturer? I know I would, if it meant saving Canadian lives.

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