Interrogation is probably the scenario that comes to most Western
people’s minds when torture is mentioned. The belief that torture can be used
during interrogation is heavily ingrained in Western pop culture whether the
story believes it ‘works’ or not.
I’m going to go over some of the most common misconceptions
about what bringing torture to the interrogation table does and does not do.
Tell the Truth
‘Care must be
exercised when making use of rebukes, invectives or torture as it will result
in his telling falsehoods and making a fool of you.’ Japanese Kempeitai
manual found in Burman 1943
‘The use of force
often has the consequence that the person being interrogated under duress
confesses falsely because he is afraid and as a consequence agrees to
everything the interrogator wishes.’ Indonesian interrogation manual, East
‘Intense pain is quite
likely to produce false confessions concocted as a means of escaping from
distress.’ CIA Kubark
Counterintelligence Manual 1963
I can’t prove conclusively that in the history of the world
torture has never ever once produced accurate information. Overwhelmingly often it
does not. There are several reasons why.
Torture produces a
lot of lies. Both people with
information and people without
information have a good reason to lie under torture. And they both do. The
person with information does not want
to give it up. The person without
information needs to say something to make the torture stop.
Humans are bad at
telling when someone is lying. When tested even people who think they’re
good at spotting lies can’t do it consistently.It can be almost impossible
to tell who is hiding something and who genuinely doesn’t know what’s going on.
A person under torture might have already
told the truth and started lying when the interrogator didn’t believe them.
Which is exactly what happened to Shelia Cassidy when she was tortured in Chile
in the 70s.
Pain and stress
destroy the human memory. Experiments with willing volunteers have
repeatedly shown that stress, pain and lack of sleep make it difficult for
people to remember. A 2004 paper using US military survival school as the ‘high
stress situation’ which simulated capture and interment as a POW (C A Morgan et
al, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 27, 265-279) found that between
51-68% of soldiers identified the wrong person as their interrogator.
Interrogations had lasted four hours with the interrogator shouting at and manhandling
the volunteers. The low stress group identified the wrong person 12-38% of the
Torture results in
loss of public trust. Most police and intelligence investigations live or
die on public support. People coming forward voluntarily with accurate
information. People reporting on suspects. In the long term torture actively
recruits for the opposing ‘side’. According to the IRA this is exactly what
happened in Northern Ireland when the British used torture. It also happened in
Aden and to a lesser extent Cyprus.
Torture in short produces more lies than truth and in such a
mixture that it can be hard to tell which is which. Because of the pain it
causes torture can make it impossible for victims who want to tell the truth to actually do so accurately. And because of
the effect it has on communities it often makes it harder to gather accurate
information through more reliable sources.
Accuracy in torture is so poor it is ‘in some cases less accurate than flipping a coin’. (No that isn’t
exaggeration, that’s a quote from D Rejali who literally wrote the book)
The Ticking Bomb
The famous ‘ticking-bomb’ scenario is a fictional situation
(it literally came from a novel, written by a suspected torturer) where a
disaster (such as a bomb attack) is known to be approaching and in order to
save innocent lives the characters need more intel fast.
So they start debating whether to use torture.
Depending on the story and the characters they sometimes do
torture. Usually if they do it gives them information they then use to save
There’s another problem, aside from the total lack of accuracy
for information that comes from torture. Torture takes as long or longer than other
According to the CIA’s own records detainees were put through
several days of sleep deprivation
before interrogation. The Senate Torture Report (testimony from Ali Soufan)
estimated that their torture techniques took 30days.
According to British records and accounts from the IRA
during the Troubles a single torture session by ‘walling’ (sleep deprivation, white
noise and stress positions combined) could last between nine and forty three
I’ve selected the following quotes to give an idea of the
time frame for short tortures used in
interrogation. Both are from Northern Ireland by Irish men detained by the
British. Emphasis is mine.
‘One powerfully built
RUC detective would keep me pinned in a position while the other one would hold
my elbow then press back on my wrist. And that could last for an hour or
possibly two hours. And it’s excruciatingly painful, to the extent that I
remember after three or four days I
would simply go unconscious-’ Tommy McKearney
‘When I was taken away
from Girdwood to be interned, I thought
I had been there for about eight days, but it was only three. I later realised I was only being allowed to sleep for
ten minutes at a time.’ Joe Docherty
takes time. And that time is measured in days not minutes.
‘NO useful information so far….He did vomit a
couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10
hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing.’ Senate Torture
Report, from quoted emails SSCI 2014, 41-42
For me this is one of the most noticeable differences
between torture in pop culture and torture in reality. Torture in films and
books is always sanitised.
I don’t mean that it isn’t gory or isn’t gory ‘enough’.
Blood seems to be a cinematic staple and seeing the hero beaten and bloodied in
a dingy lit room has become standard in a certain sort of action story.
What I’m talking about are the body fluids and products
we’re trained to think are less acceptable. Vomit. Urine. Mucus. Faeces.
I can think of several movies where a ‘good-guy’ gets beaten
to a bloody pulp on screen. I can’t think of any where they piss themselves. But
losing control of bladder and bowel function seem to be pretty common in real
life. A lot of the eyewitness accounts I’ve read about systematic torture
mention the smell of urine and shit.
Vomiting is something I don’t see mentioned as often in
survivor accounts but I think it’s very likely to occur frequently because a
lot of common methods of torture produce nausea.
‘It may be only later,
outside of that specific environment, that the torturer may question his or her
behaviour, and begin to experience psychological damage resulting from
involvement in torture and trauma. In these cases, the resulting psychological
symptoms are very similar to those of victims, including anxiety, intrusive
traumatic memories and impaired cognitive and social functioning.’ Psychologists
Mark Costanzo and Ellen Gerrity.
‘Those techniques [CIA
‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques] are so harsh it’s emotionally distressing
to the people who are administering them.’ Dr James Mitchell, psychologist
involved in the CIA’s EIT program.
‘We are where we are-
and we’re left popping our Prozac and taking our pills at night.’ Anonymous
torturer quoted in Cruel Britannia
There’s a growing body of evidence that torture has a negative psychological effect on the
The evidence is for the most part anecdotal, based on
patterns emerging across interviews. Torturers, funnily enough, don’t show up
in droves for psychological studies. But there is a pattern. One of substance
abuse, addiction, PTSD and suicide.
The cause of these symptoms in torturers is the same thing
that causes trauma in people who witness horrific things. It is well known that
seeing violent attacks on others can
cause trauma in witnesses.
Humans are empathic creatures.
There is a measurable, automatic response in the
brain to seeing others in pain. We can not control it and we can not
stop it. Even when we are told that the
other person is anaesthetized our brains still respond to their perceived
This, combined with the destruction of normal social
interaction and dehumanisation, appears in a very real sense to harm torturers.
If you’re planning to use torture as part of an
interrogation scene it’s worth noting that some torturers dobelieve torture is a
useful way to get information, despite
the evidence. Some of them cling to the idea that they had to torture, that what they did was useful and saved lives. Some
of them seem to overplay the value of torture in order to justify their own
actions and jobs.
None of that makes them immune to the effect of torturing
another human being.
‘Torture and Democracy’, Princeton, D Rejali (Only order
this if you’ll be at home to pick it up, at over 850 pages it’s a monster)
‘Accuracy of eyewitness memory for person encountered during
exposure to highly intense stress’, The International Journal of Law and
Psychiatry C A Morgan, G Hazlett, A Doran, S Garrett, G Hoyt, P Thomas, M
Baranoksi, S M Southwick, 2004 (This team have actually done a series on high
stress situations and the effects on memory. Charles Morgan is the first author
on this set of papers.)
‘Audacity to Believe’ Cleveland, S Cassidy
‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of
Interrogation.’ Harvard University Press, S O’Mara (Highly recommended, reasonably accessible for a layman)
‘Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture.’ Portobello
Books, I Cobain (Very good history, although the author doesn’t seem to understand many of the techniques he writes about)
‘What are you feeling? Using Functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging to Assess the Modulation of Sensory and Affective Responses during
Empathy for Pain’, PLoS ONE, C Lamm, H C Nusbaum, A N Meltzoff, J Decety 2007
(The experiments in this paper include brain scans of people seeing photos of a
needle and a hand in various different positions, some of which would be
painful. There wasn’t much change in brain response if the volunteers were told
the hand couldn’t feel pain.)]
-The football team block off all the roads isolating you from the outside for months. You do not know how long the game has lasted for, and you have not seen an outsider in years. Even now you can hear eldritch chants from your window. It is 0-0.
-There are no shops anymore, except those decorated with strange hieroglyphic signs reading ‘Poundland’. You go outside. There are seventeen £1 shops and one 99p store on your street alone. Each night they get closer. You fear for your life. You fear for your soul. You fear they will come and take you away, and sell you for one pound. This would not surprise you at all. At this point, nothing can surprise you. “£1 please.”
-There are more pigeons than people. Your family are pigeons. You are a pigeon. You open your mouth to speak but only muffled coos come out. You scream. More pigeons come flying out from your broken beak, until they outnumber mankind altogether.
-It is bin day. It has always been bin day for as long as you can remember. When was it not bin day? It is bin day. It has always been bin day.
-The sky is grey and cloud-infested. You have never seen sunlight in your short, pitiful life. You may die without ever seeing light. Part of you thinks this might be a blessing. You fear what you do not know. You fear everything.
-Every building on your street is boarded up, something akin to a plague house from the 1600s. You hear moans coming from inside and walk quickly away, cursing David Cameron’s NHS cuts that mean you are forced to revert to the Old Ways. Or perhaps the Old Ways never truly went away. You go home and your grandmother who is 192 and lived through the War has a cold. It is time. You reach for the boards and a hammer.
-Wild plastic bags roam the streets, claiming children as their own and carrying them away to strange places. When they come home, they have a sheen to their skin. They are never the same afterwards.
-The Council announce they are cutting lifespan to 60, and then you will be sold off to organ harvesters. This is a just cause. You will make a difference. Your life will have had meaning.
-You are surrounded by hundreds of identical children in varying uniforms. You do not think you have ever seen these children in school. You do not think schools exist, or do not remember schools existing. There are always children surrounding you, and they are always identical. They do not seem to age. Age is a meaningless concept.
-You get the bus into town, thanking the bus driver when you get off. You always remember to thank the bus driver. It is dangerous not to. You still bear the scars from last time you forgot. At night they throb and keep you awake, reminding you how lucky you were to come away from that alive.
-The football team hover in a strange ephemeral netherworld, a purgatory between promotion and relegation, looping between the two with Ourobourosian paradoxity.
-The football ground is built on a swamp. It has claimed 17 lives today alone. Brackish water fills your lungs when you set foot inside. Make that 18 then.
-It is Christmas. Your neighbours houses are brightly lit enough to be seen from space. One of them sets up a vast inflatable Santa. You can hear the Santa laughing when you pass by, and remember that Santa is an anagram of Satan.
-There is a busker in town. Nobody has given him any money. His case is full of disused currencies. He has been playing for a long time.
-A fair occupies the local park 13 months of every year. People who go in are not normally seen again. You think you might direct your relatives there in order to get rid of them.