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‘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.


  1. Oliver Miles says:

    Discussion of this topic ought to take the legal situation into account. The USA like most of the rest of the world has repeatedly committed itself to the proposition that torture is wrong. One example is the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (no wonder these agreements are forgotten when they have titles like that) which was ratified by the USA in 1994. According to article 2 ” No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Moreover “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.”

    • Thomas Jones says:

      Absolutely, but that didn’t stop the Bush administration and Trump seems not to care about its being either illegal or immoral. As O’Hara writes, ‘I take a moral stand against torture, but here I do not seek to add to the considerable and sophisticated philosophical, ethical and legal literature on torture … The case against torture in this book is made in consequentialist and instrumentalist terms – as these are the terms generally employed by torture’s proponents.’

  2. IPFreely says:

    It’s the sheer arrogance of the man that is so breathtaking. Everybody else has got it wrong, but his sidekicks tell him torture works and he believes that it works so it works and he plans to use it… on whom? He also plans to open those ‘black retention centres’ in which the US held hundreds of suspects without trial before spiriting them off to Guantanamo. “The world is in a mess” was his considered judgement in an interview yesterday, so he’s going to make it a better place to live in by torturing IS captives?
    Some people seem to believe that Trump will calm down and be just like any other President. Well, the time to wake up and work out how to stop is now.

    • michael bosley says:

      Yes, well, Trump’s pathological narcissism is reflected in his pronouncements and only too transparently expresses, not of any external truth, but only his damaged self. And so when he declares:

      “The world is a mess”

      “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer”

      “We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again”

      the infantilism of his desires is only too plain.

      In this context, “facts” about the efficacy of torture, climate change, abortion etc etc are irrelevant. All that counts is the enormity of his emotional loss, and the corresponding strength of his desire to revenge it.

  3. streetsj says:

    I am not advocating it but surely torture works sometimes. And not even torture but the threat of it. I feel certain it would work on me. It may not work on trained soldiers (loosely defined) or fanatics but I’m sure it would be efficacious on most ordinary people. One particular nightmare I have is being tortured when I don’t have the answer to give.

    • David Gordon says:

      Dear Streetsj, no, absolutely no, it does not work. What part of the original post did you fail to read? No, it does not work. Your belief that it might work on you is (a) wrong and (b) irrelevant.

      Also, doubly no, it is illegal, as well as being immoral and a waste of time. You have heard of the Geneva Conventions, and of International Humanitarian Law? If not, why not? (There is an interesting side issue on which nations have failed to sign up to all of the Geneva Conventions and additional protocols….)

      So – tell Trump; don’t do something that is illegal, don’t encourage something that is immoral, and don’t waste anyone’s time.

      • James Harrison says:

        How can you be so sure? Have you ever been tortured? Most people would give in. Must people would say anything to stop the pain. Streetsj has a point and I feel you’re wrong to dismiss there point of view like this.

    • ikallicrates says:

      Torture works only if the victim knows some secret that it would useful for his or her torturers to know. This is seldom if ever the case.

      When a member of a dissident group is captured by authorities, the first thing the remaining members of the group do is change all their plans so that the captured member won’t be able to reveal anything useful to the authorities. This is standard practice for dissidents. The authorities know this is standard practice. The authorities don’t torture captured dissidents in the hope of extracting useful information from them. They torture them as a warning to anyone who sympathises with the dissidents, and is tempted to join them.

  4. Graucho says:

    The first quote that always comes to mind with Mr.T. is “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. Now we have a second one “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

    • suetonius says:

      To give him his due, that one is Isaac Asimov, from the Foundation Trilogy. I assume everyone knows who is responsible for the first quote :-)

  5. FoolCount says:

    This whole argument – whether torture works or not – is utterly ridiculous and completely beside the point. It does not matter if it works or not – it is still illegal. And it is illegal not because of any doubts about its effectiveness, it is illegal because of conviction that it is abhorrent and inhumane. And it will remain abhorrent and inhumane, and should remain illegal, even when all the research and scientists will tell us that it is 100% effective. Those who argue against torture on the basis of its “not working” are only slightly less immoral than the torturers themselves.

    • streetsj says:

      I completely agree. Part of my point arguing that it can be effective is to point out that arguing otherwise is to undermine the reason for proscribing it. Its efficacy is irrelevant.

      • Thomas Jones says:

        And I too agree that its immorality has nothing to do with whether or not it ‘works’. But the absolute moral argument against it has no traction with people who erroneously believe it works and is therefore justified in, for example, the notorious ‘ticking bomb’ scenario: a terrorist knows where a bomb’s about to go off, is it OK to torture him to save the lives of thousands? (It’s noteworthy that this is only ever proposed as a thought experiment; I know of no real examples of it.) For O’Mara’s position, see my comment above. And in fact O’Mara’s case against torture’s efficacy as a means of truth-extraction only strengthens the absolute moral case against it: the reason torture doesn’t work is the same as one of the reasons it’s wrong – because it has ‘disastrous effects on the brains of its victims’.

        Your ‘feeling’ that it would work on you has no more value as an ‘argument’ than Donald Trump’s feeling that it ‘works’. The scientific evidence suggests it doesn’t work as a way of getting people to tell the truth because it so severely disrupts the processes in the brain that are required for someone to tell the truth. I’m glad you can’t imagine that.

        As I also tried to argue in the first place, the fact that it’s useless for intelligence gathering means that can’t be the reason that states perpetrate torture. For what those might be, see O’Mara’s list of other reasons above.

        Incidentally O’Mara also has a grim chapter on torture’s effects on its perpetrators.

    • Joe Morison says:

      I disagree. It would be abhorrent no matter what, but it is only immoral because it doesn’t work – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work sometimes. It is easy to construct a thought experiment in which torture is the right thing to do (unless you believe in a higher power/karmic order which will ensure everything is for the best as long as we just follow the rules), and it is no good Thomas Jones saying he knows of no real examples, nor do I, but there must have been innumerable when the wrong done in abusing someone was vastly outweighed by the good caused if you were to isolate the abuse and the resultant good from the bigger picture.

      Because even if it works sometimes, overall it is profoundly counter-productive; that is what makes it wrong. But, and this is the crucial point, it is not some kind of happy coincidence that it is both abhorrent and ineffective: what makes it abhorrent is precisely what makes it ineffective, they are two sides of the same coin – to permit something that is so hateful must make the world a worse place, even if in the short term it can make bits of it better (that, I think, is what we instinctively feel with such force when we are repulsed by people not feeling it).

      People who thought torture might have worked but argue against it because it doesn’t work are not immoral, they are stupid in the way of someone who seriously contemplated smashing their knee with a hammer to distract themself from the pain of their headache; people who argue for torture on the ground that it works sometimes are stupid in the way someone is who argues that playing Russian Roulette for money is a good career move just because it is sometimes very profitable.

      • Thomas Jones says:

        So we can all agree that we’re against it. But I’m baffled by the insistence, with no supporting evidence, that it ‘must’ ‘work sometimes’.

        • Joe Morison says:

          Because the thought experiments that make torture obviously right (assuming no higher power), are just extreme examples of the sort of things that actually happen. For example, it beggars belief that there have not on many occasions been innocent victims who will die unless their location is revealed by someone who has been caught, a person who has nothing to lose but out of malice or wanting to hurt their captors will only talk under duress. I’m sure the French Resistance saved innocent lives with knowledge acquired through torture – German conscripts were a lot less prone to drawing things out with false stories than jihadis.

          I think that denying the truth that it sometimes works empowers pro-torturers. Pointing to one falsehood, they feel more justified walking away from the whole argument.

        • Gardiner Linda says:

          How about the case of Galileo? Confronted with the threat of torture – he was, as they used to say, ‘shown the instruments’ as a preliminary to their application – he promptly disavowed his scientific discoveries. (See the Brecht play among other sources.) Does that count as ‘working’?

          • Joe Morison says:

            Its effectiveness for ignoble ends seems to me indisputable. Look at Julius Caesar’s strategy in the Gallic Wars, untold terror and torture. Though in the long term that may have been part of the rottenness at the heart of the Empire that led to its decline and fall, in the short term it gave him exactly what he wanted – undisputed control of France

            • Mat Snow says:

              Rome ruled Gaul in its entirety from the end of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars in 51BC to its final fall to the Franks 500 years later. That’s an awful lot of long term.

          • Thomas Jones says:

            Galileo is an excellent example: under the threat of torture he told his interrogators the untruths they wanted to be told. Forgive me for repeating myself: ‘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.’

            • streetsj says:

              Shane O’Mara seems to be the only academic source for “evidence” that torture doesn’t work. It is clearly a very difficult area to study.
              It seems unlikely to me that the use of torture would persist over centuries if it was never efficacious. Clearly it won’t always work and it is unreliable but to claim it never works is stretching it. The point O’Mara seems to be making is once you’ve tortured somebody then it’s not going to work. When torture might seem to work is at the “show him the instruments” stage.

              Anyway here’s a link to an article quoting various sources accepting that it can work

              • David Gordon says:

                Things may persist for millennia despite any evidence for their efficaciousness – religious belief, for example. And, exactly as with religion, the reason for persistence of torture may be the delight in power of the torturer (or the priest) rather than any evidence of utility, leaving aside the immorality.

                In the case of the FT article you quote, I dismiss it because of the author. John Lloyd once wrote an article supporting Gordon Brown over the Laura Spence affair, and one hopelessly wrong article by a hack makes all his or her other articles pretty well worthless.

            • Joe Morison says:

              Thomas, with all due respect (and I do not mean that ironically), I think that is just ridiculous. Are you really suggesting, to take one amongst endless examples, that when the Nazis conquered France their terror tactics and torture were not a key part their success? Some people might have held out under torture, some might have given false information, but so what? The Nazis didn’t care if false information led to innocents being shot, they probably thought that a good thing because it ramped up the terror. But I don’t see how you can think it didn’t often work and thereby greatly help them achieve their aims – in the very long run such inhumanity is a cancer that will destroy the regime that employs it, but in the short term it works. Do you think the USSR could have successfully controlled Hungary after the 56 uprising without all the terror and torture?

              (And as for Galileo, the threat of torture worked. They didn’t want the truth, they wanted a recantation, and they got it.)

              • Thomas Jones says:

                To repeat, for the fifth time… Thank you for making my point, again. To repeat the passage from O’Mara’s book I quoted in the first place, torture ‘works’ if what you want is ‘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.’ We all agree on that.

                But when liberals like John Lloyd, Alan Dershowitz or Michael Ignatieff advocate torture, claiming it ‘works’, they invariably mean that it’s sometimes necessary as a way of making bad people give up information that will save lives. O’Mara’s book is a very powerful neuroscientific argument as to why, in that sense, it doesn’t – and can’t – ‘work’, because of its ‘disastrous effects on the brains of its victims’.

                • Joe Morison says:

                  We agree that torture is effective in the short term if power is the only concern, and that it is a deeply counter-productive tactic in the West’s fight against fanatical terrorism. But why do you insist that in every case it is ineffective in the pursuit of noble ends? When the West captures a prisoner, it has got the time and resources to do the kind of interrogation that works – which seems to involve nothing more than a lot of talking, shared cigarettes, and an interrogator with a razor sharp mind. But, to take the example again, the French Resistance did not have those resources and were unlikely to have prisoners fanatical enough to resist – do you really think they never learnt vital information through torture? And, yes, the West’s recent use of torture against suspected terrorists has made the problem worse; but are you saying that it never produced useful information that saved lives?

                  Torture is immoral, abhorrent, and counter-productive; but none of that means it doesn’t work sometimes.

                • Joe Morison says:

                  And I don’t buy the neuroscientific argument that it can’t work. It sounds right when talking about trying to extract deeply buried information through extensive periods torture; but, to go back to the Resistance, I’d imagine that it was mostly giving a captured soldiers a choice between a bullet in the head now, or something unpleasant and then a bullet. I assume a fair number chose the former and thereby, if not necessarily bad people, people doing bad things were made to give up information that saved lives.

    • decleva says:

      This is the only sane answer. All the rest is wrong. If you accept the discussion, you have already accepted that this issue can be discussed (a honest discussion means that you agree you may be conviced by your opponent’s argumets). We don’t care a damn if it works or not.If you accept torture, you cease to be a human being. It’s a categorical moral imperative

  6. jcarveth says:

    It doesn’t matter if something is illegal. Psychopaths do whatever they want. The Obama administration’s drone bombs murdered children in the Middle East without pause for eight years. Trump harms whenever he wants to as well. So do most parents to their children, and almost everyone because people, for the most part, value behaviors over discussions. When talking stops, death starts. As an aside, I would never need to be tortured. I’d tell all anytime to avoid harm. I’d tell stories, spill secrets, whatever they want to hear, ill say.

  7. xorg says:

    Torture may or may not work in terms of securing for the perpetrator what he or she wants, whether that be information, a recantation, or a regime of terror ‘pour encourager les autres’. But, unless the perpetrator is a psychopath, he or she is affected as much by it as the victim is, just as the honest law enforcement officer is inevitably affected by having to shoot and kill a criminal. Soldiers do not come back from wars unaffected by having had to commit terrible acts of violence. Some are better able to to rationalise and internalise the trauma better than others.
    Torture might gain the perpetrator a short-term tactical advantage, but humanity suffers long term damage.

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