Torture Doesn’t Work

As recounted in Scientific Americanas early as 1631, with the publication of Cautio Criminalis by Jesuit scholar Friedrich Spee, it was discovered that torturing criminal suspects did not work. Spee came to this conclusion in the most salient way possible:

The Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition’s use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits reported. The duke was skeptical. Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn’t believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals…. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.” Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”

Having been put in the shoes of the many innocent people maimed and executed solely on the desperate “confessions” of the tortured, Spee was roused into writing the book that helped put an end to centuries of torture as standard law enforcement practice. Hence why all Western countries — including the U.S. via its Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment” — recognizing torture as having neither a moral nor practical place in their society.

Modern research has continued to bear out this centuries-old conclusion:

A 2014 study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology entitled “The Who, What, and Why of Human Intelligence Gathering” surveyed 152 interrogators and found that “rapport and relationship-building techniques were employed most often and perceived as the most effective regardless of context and intended outcome, particularly in comparison to confrontational techniques.” Another 2014 study in the same journal—“Interviewing High Value Detainees”—sampled 64 practitioners and detainees and found that “detainees were more likely to disclose meaningful information … and earlier in the interview when rapport-building techniques were used.”

Finally, an exhaustive 2014 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzed millions of internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects, concluding that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” It adds that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.”

Note that these conclusions aren’t derived from bleeding heart, Ivory Tower academics, but from the expertise and experiences of the very interrogators tasked with extracting information from criminal and terrorist suspects.

Playing “nice” with suspects (i.e. unproven perpetrators) may not satisfy our Id, but if it works, it works. Plus, there is the question of whether we would want to employ the sort of people who are capable of torturing other human beings day in and day out; chances are such individuals will either be sadistic psychopaths or suffer some extreme psychological problems from their experiences.

There is much more that can be said about such a complex topic, but given that my time is short, I will cede the floor to readers. What are your thoughts?

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