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Why Torture Doesn't Work

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

As a presidential candidate, Trump said he would bring back waterboarding “immediately . . . [and] a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” which he called a “minor form” of interrogation.

Metin Basoglu, head of the Trauma Studies section at the Institute of Psychiatry of King’s College London begs to differ. He is quoted by Science magazine as saying “Our work shows that waterboarding is one of the most traumatic forms of torture.”

Government-sponsored torture would put the United States offside with numerous international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, and several other accords.

But the Hastings Center points out:

“Torture occupies an odd position in that it is universally illegal and widely practiced. Despite many studies showing its inefficacy, more than half of the world’s nations systematically use torture . . . ”

Trump "Loves" Torture

Torture Defined

“Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession . . . when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

— Article 1 of UN Convention Against Torture, signed by the U.S. in 1988

An Ancient Practice

The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used torture; so did the Romans, the Catholic Church, and pretty much most European monarchs and governments up to the 19th century.

During the Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries, new thinking emerged and the idea that torture was barbaric took hold. Laws were passed to make it illegal, but that didn’t stop it.

In more modern times, every despot in the world from Hitler to Saddam Hussein saw the inflicting of pain as a good way of getting information. Sadly, the practice did not stop when Iraq’s dictator swung from the end of a rope in 2006.

Does Torture Work?

Who better to answer that question but the folks who do the torturing, but those engaged in the trade are notoriously reticent about sharing their knowledge. To do so would be to admit to engaging in an activity that could bring prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

The Guardian quotes one of Saddam Hussein’s former torturers. The anonymous man said in 2003: “You can always make someone talk . . . The problem is what they say.”

Human rights lawyer Alexandre Prezanti had dealings with Kang Kek Lew, who was a torturer for Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia in the 1970s. Mr. Prezanti wrote: “Asked whether he believed the information he obtained through torture was accurate, he responded that he did not.”

Go back further in time. Colin Freeman in The Telegraph tells of the Japanese experience in World War II: “In a field manual found in wartime Burma, they said it generated far more time-consuming false leads than useful information.”

Real and False Information Comes From Torture

Torture quite definitely does work if its sole purpose is to punish the subject. Torture can also reveal accurate information. The problem is that this is very likely mixed in with false intelligence and the torturer cannot know which is which.

Tests have shown that extreme stress can cause memory failures or the creation of false memories. The person in physical agony may well blurt out something that never happened.

Many of those who have survived say they have mixed up lies with truth in an attempt to appease the brutes delivering the pain.

Mark Costanzo, Department of Psychology, Claremont McKenna College, writes “We know from the civilian criminal justice system that people cannot easily recognize false confessions. Indeed, researchers have found that when criminal defendants falsely confess, then plead ‘not guilty’ and proceed to trial, they are nonetheless convicted 81 percent of the time.”

So false confessions can send authorities off on wild goose chases, risking the lives of police, soldiers, and innocent citizens.

A Famous Take on Torture

In the third century CE, the Roman jurist Ulpian said of torture that people are “so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it.”

Testimony of Victims

People who work with those who have endured torture hear the same story over and over again: “You’ll say anything, agree to anything, just to make the torture stop.”

Dr. Charmian Goldwyn in the United Kingdom had been treating a patient, a young Tamil man who was forcibly recruited into the Tamil Tigers rebel group. He was captured by Sri Lankan government forces and tortured to reveal other members of the Tigers. Dr. Goldwyn writes:

“They put a hood over his head with eye holes and took him to a room full of young Tamil men. He did not recognize anyone. He was so desperate to have the torture stopped that he pointed out a young man at random. This young man was arrested immediately and taken away. My patient is full of remorse to this day.”

Maher Arar is a Canadian of Syrian birth. In 2002, he was seized by U.S. officials at New York's Kennedy International Airport and whisked off to Syria in secret, where he was held in a tiny cell and repeatedly beaten over 10 months.

An article in the journal Social Issues and Policy Review notes that “To stop the torture, Arar falsely confessed to having received terrorist training in Afghanistan, a country he had never even visited.” Mr. Arar had no connections of any sort to terrorism and now lives in Canada; he has become a human rights activist.

A Better Alternative to Torture

Numerous studies have shown that reliable information can be extracted from suspects through a technique called rapport-building. Instead of beating the crap out of subjects, interrogators build a relationship. This includes “finding common ground with the detainee, demonstrating kindness and respect, and meeting their basic needs for example, food and water.” (Psychology Today, January 2017).

A 2014 study, Interviewing High Value Detainees: Securing Cooperation and Disclosures, found that suspects treated humanely are 14 times more likely to give up reliable and useful information than those who are denied rapport-building techniques.

So the whole business of inflicting physical and psychological pain on subjects is ineffective.

Bonus Factoids

  • The Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims represents member groups that help treat almost 100,000 victims a year in 70 countries.
  • A study published in the Journal of Applied Security Research entitled What People Think about Torture: Torture is Inherently Bad . . . Unless it Can Save Someone I Love, shows that roughly one-third of the American public supports using torture on terrorism suspects.
  • The word torture comes from the Latin tortura, meaning to twist.


  • “Scientists to Trump: Torture Doesn’t Work.” John Bohannon, Science, January 27, 2017.
  • “Torture: The Bioethics Perspective.” Stephen H. Miles, The Hastings Center, undated.
  • “Even Torturers Admit Torture Doesn’t Work.” Letters, The Guardian, January 27, 2017.
  • “Does Torture Work – and is it Worth the Cost? Jason Burke, The Guardian, January 26, 2017.
  • “Does the Use of Torture ever Work?” Colin Freeman, The Telegraph, December 9, 2014.
  • “Does Torture Work?” Raj Persaud, M.D. and Peter Bruggen, M.D., Psychology Today, January 26, 2017.
  • “The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate.” Mark A. Costanzo and Ellen Gerrity, Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2009.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor