Torture’s dark allure

It gives its practitioners a drug-like rush. But it leaves a legacy of destruction that takes generations to undo.

Topics: Torture, Abu Ghraib

Torture's dark allure

Few things give a rush quite like having unlimited power over another human being. A sure sign the rush is coming is pasty saliva and a strange taste in one’s mouth, according to a French soldier attached to a torture unit in Algeria. That powerful rush can be seen on the faces of some of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, a rush that undoubtedly changed them forever. The history of slavery tells us that one can’t feel such a rush without being corrupted by it. And the history of modern torture tells us that governments can’t license this corruption — even in the cause of spreading democracy — without reducing the quality of their intelligence, compromising their allies and damaging their military and bureaucratic capabilities.

The abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison were originally blamed on a few American soldiers. Various investigations into the exact chain of command are underway, but they already point to policy decisions made at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Indeed, the recently revealed memos written by Justice Department lawyers in August 2002, at the request of the CIA and the White House, concerning treatment of al-Qaida suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by Pentagon lawyers in March 2003 (in which it was argued that the president and those he has empowered to conduct torture of foreign prisoners are immune from prosecution under international law) are evidence that the government was seeking ways to legally circumvent the Geneva Conventions. “The question put to lawyers was how the president and the others could commit war crimes and get away with it” is how Anne Applebaum put it in the Washington Post Wednesday. It turns out that many of the severest interrogation techniques used in Iraq were sanctioned by top military officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the former commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. And this week, we learned that Rumsfeld had ordered a “high-value” detainee in Iraq held in secret, in part to keep him from being seen by the International Red Cross.



I learned how torture fit into modern life while growing up in Iran under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, whose government relied on Savak, a secret intelligence agency formed with the help of the CIA in 1957. Savak arrested and detained indefinitely people suspected of opposing the shah and tortured and executed thousands of political prisoners during his rule.

In the course of 20 years of research on modern torture and the bureaucracies that sponsored and practiced it in Germany, Japan, France and Britain, I have studied the “stealthy” methods, those that leave few visible marks (i.e., blood or scars) on the victim. I noticed that stealthy techniques appeared more often in the wars of democracies than in those of dictatorships. Democratic states that use torture to gain intelligence or as punishment obviously prefer methods — such as electroshock, torture by water and ice, tying victims in agonizing postures, sonic devices and drugs — that cause pain but do not result in lasting injury, so that the torture cannot be verified by journalists, human rights monitors or congressional committees. The advantage of stealth torture is that it reduces adverse publicity and finesses democratic oversight.

After 9/11, the warning signs of what the United States was up to were there, but then the events from Abu Ghraib brought all of it to the surface, revealing that the U.S. military was employing some of these stealthy techniques in Afghanistan and Iraq.

My research shows, however, that torture during interrogations rarely yields better information than traditional human intelligence, partly because no one has figured out a precise, reliable way to break human beings or any adequate method to evaluate whether what prisoners say when they do talk is true. Nor can torture be done in a professional way — anyone who tortures is necessarily corrupted by the experience and is often turned into a sadist. The psychic damage to the soldiers who conducted the torture at Abu Ghraib is likely to be permanent.

What’s more, a democracy that legalizes the use of torture in its desperation to gain information loses something more important — the trust of its people, the foundation of a democracy. In Iraq, the United States was desperate as it sought to find and stop those responsible for the insurgency. When “intelligence” was not forthcoming from prisoners, senior U.S. Army officials decided to turn over interrogation to military intelligence personnel, who were instructed to use aggressive, even brutal techniques. These methods were rationalized as necessary in the overall global war on terrorism, but as my research has shown, institutionalizing torture in such a manner only ends up destroying all the individuals involved — and the military and political goals of the government in whose name torture is carried out.

Aside from its devastating effects and the wasted time and resources, does torture actually work? Organizations can certainly use torture to intimidate prisoners and to produce confessions (many of which turn out to be false). But the real question is whether organizations can apply torture scientifically and professionally to produce true information. Does this method yield better results than others at an army’s disposal? The history of torture demonstrates that it does not — whether it is stealthy or not.

Advocates of torture believe that more physical pain stimulates more compliance, but this view is not based on science; it is medical nonsense. Pain, as noted clinical psychologist Ron Melzack has shown, is far more complex than that. Injury does not always produce pain. In one study, 37 percent of people who arrived at an emergency ward with injuries such as amputated fingers, major skin lacerations and fractured bones did not feel any pain until many minutes, even hours, after the injury. Similarly, soldiers with massive wounds sometimes do not feel their pain for a long time.

In addition, human beings differ widely in their ability to endure extreme pain. Clinical psychologists and some torturers in colonized nations agree that past experiences and cultural beliefs (for example, “suffering is divine”) enable some human beings to endure pain others could not. People also vary in their ability to use psychological states like distraction or anxiety to reduce pain.

Moreover, pain, unlike heat, is not a single sensation but, as Melzack observes, can variously feel like burning, throbbing or cutting. Victims can play these different sensations against each other, using one pain to distract themselves from another, much like a person might bite his hand as someone extracts a thorn.

Last, pain is not constant. As the body is damaged, its ability to sense pain declines. Torturers run out of places where they can apply pain effectively.

Unlike the physics of boiling water, in which one knows how much heat to apply, there is no way to calculate in advance how much torture is needed to obtain compliance from a prisoner. Science and technology can help with the conduct of torture: Modern instruments reduce the hard labor of torture, helping ensure that it is not lethal; and they guarantee that few marks will be left as evidence. But science and technology cannot predict the precise amount or kind of torture that will work with each human being. Opportunistic use of technology does not make torturers scientific any more than wearing a white lab coat makes torturers scientists.

If torture can’t be scientific, can it at least be done professionally? To think that professionalism is a guard against causing excessive pain is an illusion. Instead, torture induces a dynamic that breaks down professionalism. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram has shown that professionalism can serve to excuse ever more violent behavior. The myth of the professional torturer is also shattered in “Violence Workers: Police Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities,” by Martha K. Huggins, Philip G. Zimbardo and Mika Haritos-Fatouros.

As a victim feels less pain, torturers have to push harder, using more severe methods to overtake the victim’s maximal pain threshold. And because victims experience different types of pain, torturers have to use a scattershot approach. No matter how professional torturers may think they are, they have no choice but behaving like sadists. Even though many of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib were using techniques approved by their superiors, it is no surprise that they went far beyond these techniques, trying anything that worked.

Competition among torturers also drives brutality. As one torturer put it, each interrogator “thinks he is going to get the information at any minute and takes good care not to let the bird go to the next chap after he’s softened him up nicely, when of course the other chap would get the honor and glory of it.” Torture, as New York University economist Leonard Wantchekon has said, is a zero-sum game.

What’s more, coercive interrogation undermines other professional policing skills: Why do fingerprinting when you’ve got a bat? Which means investigators rely on even more torture to get information, increasing the degree of brutality.

Finally, competition between intelligence agencies that conduct torture tears bureaucracies apart. Competition between intelligence agencies is a normal phenomenon, and usually a good one, producing multiple sources of information. But when agencies turn to torture, the competition to get first crack at the victim leads to unprofessional behavior and bureaucratic fragmentation. Brazilian police raided each other’s prisons. The Nazi intelligence machine fragmented under the intense competition among the Kripo, Sipo, and regional Gestapos.

Is this way of applying pain more effective than other investigative methods? Torture is definitely inferior. The interrogation manual of Japanese fascists put it this way: “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.” Torture “is only to be used when everything else has failed as it is the most clumsy [method].”

Since the 1970s, a large body of research has shown that unless the public specifically identifies suspects to the police, the chances that a crime will be solved falls to about 10 percent. Only a small percentage of crimes are discovered or solved through surveillance, fingerprinting, DNA sampling and offender profiling.

Police in long-term dictatorships like China and the Soviet Union also know the importance of public cooperation for solving crimes. Where they can’t get public cooperation for certain crimes (such as against state property), they create an alternative human intelligence system — informants. Although such police states use torture for intimidation and false confessions, they also know that good intelligence requires humans willing to trust government enough to work with it.

Even guerrillas know this truth. An internal report from Iraq, quoted by Seymour Hersh in the May 24 New Yorker, states that the insurgents have depended mainly on “painstaking surveillance and reconnaissance” by the Iraqi police force, “which is rife with sympathy for the insurgents” and “pro-insurgent individuals working within the [Coalition Provisional Authority's] so-called Green Zone.” Not surprisingly, the insurgents’ “strategic and operational intelligence has proven to be quite good.”

Torture is a sign that a government either does not enjoy the trust of the people it governs or cannot recruit informers for a surveillance system. In both cases, torture to obtain information is a sign of institutional decay and desperation — as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq clearly demonstrates. And torture accelerates this process, destroying the bonds of loyalty, respect and trust that keep information flowing. As any remaining sources of intelligence dry up, governments have to torture even more.

But perhaps torture for something, anything, is better than sitting on one’s hands. Maybe, somehow, one can retrieve a nugget of true information.

The problem is that “anything” needs to be verified, and as the Vietnam-era CIA Kubark manual explains, “a time-consuming delay results.” In the meantime, the prisoner can think of new, more complex falsehoods. Intelligence gathering is especially vulnerable to this. In police work, the crime is already known; all one wants is the confession. But in intelligence, one must gather information about things that one does not know.

What’s more, even prisoners who tell the truth under torture normally provide less detailed information than that obtainable through noncoercive interrogation. Damaged, sleep-deprived bodies remember information inaccurately, unable to make fine distinctions. Consider the case of a prisoner who wanted to tell the Chilean police an address: “Although I knew the street name, I had no idea of the number. Still furious, they realized that in truth I could not tell them where to go and once more they untied me.”

Sometimes when prisoners provide true information, interrogators refuse to recognize it, since they assume most victims lie. So they continue torturing until they are satisfied. The notion that one will stop when one hears the right information presupposes that one has gathered circumstantial information that allows one to know the truth when one hears it. But that is precisely what does not happen with torture. Torturers spend so much time on torture that they have no time to gather supplementary evidence.

Finally, even when torturers think they know what they are looking for, they sometimes can’t believe true information. One prisoner in Chile broke down several days into torture and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. But the conservative and devout interrogators could not believe they were involved and continued torturing her.

What if time is short, as with a “ticking bomb”? Does torture offer a shortcut? Real torture — not the stuff of television — takes days, if not weeks. Even torturers know this. There are three things that limit torture’s value in this context.

First, there is the medical limit. Physical methods, like psychological methods, take time. In the face of extreme pain, human beings faint and, as one French resistance fighter said, this “gives you a reprieve between blows” and delays interrogation. As the interrogation proceeds, victims become less sensitive to pain. After undergoing four torture sessions, a Norwegian resistance fighter concluded that “pain had reached its limit — when it could hurt no more, what did it matter how it was inflicted?” In addition, as torturers push harder, they sometimes cause inadvertent death. And dead men, like unconscious men, don’t talk.

Second, there is the resource limit. For decades, guerrilla organizations have had “torture contracts” with their members: If you get arrested, keep the interrogators busy for 24 hours and let us change the passwords and locations. Give them false information mixed with half-truths. Make them waste their time and resources, and then after a day say whatever you want, since it will be useless then. Remember that you will become unconscious when the pain is extreme, and consider feigning unconsciousness.

Last, there’s the psychological limit. The CIA Kubark manual notes that coercive investigation requires compiling a psychological profile, which can take days to write. Without a psychological profile, the manual says, torture is a “hit or miss” practice and “a waste of time and energy.” Shot-in-the-dark torturing brings to mind the torturer’s paradox. If he tortures first, he may be unable to get information by gentler means later. But if he tortures at the end, the prisoner may conclude that he is getting desperate and hold out longer.

Hardcore believers, including presumably the common terrorist, don’t break quickly. Torturing them just gives them an excuse to prove that they’re stronger than you. Even the Gestapo discovered that with members of the resistance in World War II: Few resistance fighters gave accurate information.

In fact, as George Browder explains in his powerful book “Hitler’s Enforcers,” “the Gestapo, like police anywhere, could not do its work without public support.” The Gestapo’s enormous success against the resistance, first in Germany and then elsewhere, depended heavily on bureaucratic files, police informants (G-men or V-men) and collaborators in foreign countries. “Increased reliance on interrogation through torture during the war years reflects the declining professionalism of an overextended staff much watered down with neophytes,” Browder writes.

The priority in America’s war on terror should be on developing human intelligence. Working one’s way into a terror cell is not unlike working one’s way into organized crime in the United States. One has to turn potential terrorists into double agents and to win the confidence and cooperation of the communities that shelter them. Technology is no substitute for this. Nor is torture.

Abu Ghraib should teach us what America’s founders would have told us: that we are our own worst enemy. Leaders of dictatorships sign on to the Geneva Conventions only out of prudential fear of what other states might do to their POWs. Leaders of democracies sign on to them because they understand the evil that lurks in the heart of all human beings. Those who choose to abide by the rules do so not simply to restrain others but to restrain themselves.

Unrestrained power leaves behind a legacy of destruction that takes generations to undo. Torture, like incest, is the gift that keeps on giving. Democratic societies that legalized torture or tried to constrain its use have come to two ends. Some, like the Greeks and Romans, created tiered societies where authorities could torture whole classes of people (slaves or lesser citizens) and those who were beyond torture. Others, like the Italian city-states, were unable to prevent the executive branch from torturing more and more citizens and in the end fell to its dictatorial power.

The first result is hardly a model for modern democracies, and the second serves as a warning. In modern times, France routinized torture in Algeria, producing a racist, tiered society and an aggressive military government that almost overthrew French democracy. Proponents of torture would argue that destroying democratic institutions — and the individuals involved — is worth it if torture, as for the French in Algeria, succeeds in defeating terrorism.

Read Part 2: The example of military victory against terrorism by a democracy that used torture

Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, was a 2003 Carnegie scholar. He is the author of "Torture and Democracy," to be published by Princeton University Press in 2005.

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