‘I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence,’ the president of the United States said on ABC News last night, ‘and I asked them the question: “Does it work? Does torture work?” And the answer was: “Yes, absolutely.” … Do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.’
In Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, argues that ‘torture is as ineffective as it is abhorrent.’ It’s a counter-productive way of getting information out of people because ‘the imposition of severe and sustained stressors greatly impairs the capacity of the brain to appropriately regulate the expression of thoughts, emotions and behaviours.’ Torture has ‘disastrous effects on the brains of its victims’.
If you want someone to tell you something useful, don’t wreck their memory. But given his disregard for facts, that may not be what Trump meant when he said he ‘feels it works’. O’Mara writes:
The usual purpose of torture by state actors has not been the extraction of intentionally withheld information in the long-term memory systems of the noncompliant and unwilling. Instead, its purposes have been manifold: the extraction of confessions under duress, the subsequent validation of a suborned legal process by the predeterminedly guilty (‘they confessed!’), the spreading of terror, the acquisition and maintenance of power, the denial of epistemic beliefs.
For those purposes, which we have every reason to fear are Trump’s purposes, it works just fine. Victims of torture will tell you something, and probably something you want to hear, but there is no reason to think the information will be reliable, or what used to be called true.