Some thoughts on the origins of the lay psychology of torture, PTSD, communication and memory provoked by ‘America Is Likely to Torture Again’ – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

Face It: America Is Likely to Torture Again – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

[My book Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ (Harvard UP) can be preordered from Amazon (.com) – more details at end of post]


(Above: a demonstration of the ‘water torture‘ in the Museo della Tortura, Siena, Italy; pic by author)

Face It: America Is Likely to Torture Again – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic.

Some quotes:

The question being posed here is as follows: is it ethical to take a blindfolded human being who hasn’t been given any due process, to strap him to a board, to force water into his cavities until it fills his lungs, to induce the physical terror that accompanies drowning, and to leverage that terror in order to coerce him into giving information he may or may not possess. [Emphasis added]

This last point has been discussed in a variety of ways on this blog in the past, but especially in the papers in this post. Here’s a relevant excerpt that takes a purely consequentialist view of torture as a device to force someone to talk:

In a torture situation, the captor and the captive have different motivations. The captor wants the captive to speak and reveal key information from their long-term memory. The captive wants to escape the extreme stress while not revealing key information. In classical conditioning, circumstances signalling escape from stressful or noxious and/or aversive events are known as conditioned safety signals. Here, the detainee’s own words provide the safety signal: ‘while I’m talking, I’m not being waterboarded’. The truth of what the detainee says does not provide the safety signal, just the fact that s/he is talking. In other words, speech acts signal periods of safety. Equally, when the captive is talking, the captor’s objective has been obtained. Finally, and presumably, subjecting a fellow human being to torture is stressful for all but the most psychopathic. In fact, the historical literature is replete with accounts of alcohol or drug abuse by torturers. Thus, the fact that the captive is speaking also provides a safety signal to the captor; making the captive talk, rather than the truth of what the captive is revealing, might mark the end of the torture. As long as the captive is talking, the captor can avoid using torture. (Original here).

This last point isn’t gratuitous: (many) torturers do suffer after the fact, as Ian Cobain documents in his book, Cruel Britannia. One former torturer (p 203) states (in the context of making a case for what he did: ‘We are where we are – and we’re left popping our Prozac and taking our pills at night.Vasili Blokhin provides an extreme example (‘He reportedly sank into alcoholism, went insane, and died February 3, 1955, with the official cause of death listed as “suicide”; wiki). Of course, quantifying the degree of PTSD suffered by torturers is always going to be difficult; in the tortured, there is a decently-sized and growing literature.

It has long seemed to me that the professionals need to table their knowledge here loudly and publicly. The fact that that this knowledge is consequentialist, not a priori deontological, should not put people off. Torture has consequences, but not the ones that viewing television as a source of information will lead you to. Lay intuitions about memory, motivation and stress are (more-or-less) useless as a guide to designing interrogation regimes. The fundamental argument is one that is deeply counterintuitive to anyone who relies just on their own introspection (and its dubious knowledge derived from sources in the media) about how to proceed with interrogation. Torture features in a staggering array of movies and television series. A quick shortlist from some of my recent viewing includes 24, Dexter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and the spin-off Angel), Romanzo Criminale, The Shield, Game of Thrones, Waking the Dead (usually serial killers), Criminal Minds, The Walking Dead (mostly zombies), The Wire, Wire in the Blood (in an especially gruesome episode, involving a Shankill Butcher-style living dismemberment) and many others. There is even a French television ‘documentary’ – “Le Jeu de la Mort” (The Game of Death) which requires contestants to apparently administer 460 volt electric shocks to ‘punish’ contestants who do not correctly answer questions; clips are available on-line. I could go on – but perhaps I watch too much television! But just note when you’re watching television how many series use torture as a lazy plot development device.

I would also contend that leaders who choose to torture, unless they have prior direct personal experience of torture themselves, will only have the vicarious experience of torture in books, movies and television. And here the availability heuristic leads them badly astray, for torture in the media is usually presented as a device to loosen tongues (i.e. to reveal the intentionally-withheld contents of their long-term memory).

Another quote from Friedersdorf:

Throughout history, humans have tortured one another. One of civilization’s tasks is to stop it from happening anymore. Some generations make moral progress on the issue. Ours is presently marked with having lived through a moral regression. It is the responsibility of our elected representatives to reverse this trend, and it is our responsibility to pressure them to live up to their responsibilities.

Please consider purchasing my book: 

‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ which can be preordered from:

Amazon (.com)

Amazon (

Harvard University Press

Torture is banned because it is cruel and inhumane. But as Shane O’Mara writes in this account of the human brain under stress, torture should never be condoned because it does not work the way torturers assume it does.

In countless films and TV shows such as Homeland and 24, torture is portrayed as a harsh necessity. If cruelty can extract secrets that will save lives, so be it. CIA officers and others conducted torture using precisely this justification. But does torture accomplish what its defenders say it does? For ethical reasons, there are no scientific studies of torture. But neuroscientists know a lot about how the brain reacts to fear, extreme heat and cold, starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, and immersion in freezing water, all tools of the torturer’s trade. These stressors create profound problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable—and, for intelligence purposes, even counter-productive. As O’Mara guides us through the neuroscience of suffering, he reveals the brain to be much more complex than the brute calculations of torturers have allowed, and he points the way to a humane approach to interrogation, founded in the science of brain and behavior.

Torture may be effective in forcing confessions, as in Stalin’s Russia. But if we want information that we can depend on to save lives, O’Mara writes, our model should be Napoleon: “It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile.”

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

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