Designing Torture – an essay

20161013_195118Cramped Confinement Box on display in Science Gallery- Constructed to dimensions in the Torture Memos (it is very uncomfortable, even for just a couple of moments)

(An essay written for the current Design and Violence exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin)

When we think of violence, what do we think of? What images do we see, what feelings do we have, what thoughts do we have? Images of blood, broken bones, perhaps the sounds of someone screaming? One person shooting, punching, striking another; flesh giving way, bruising, bleeding? This way of thinking can lead us utterly astray when considering the violence that can be visited upon the defenceless. One widespread form of violence is torture, and when we think of torture, our thinking is coloured by medieval imagery –– bleeding, bruising, beatings, broken bones, and flesh torn and scarred. It’s a common mistake. Alberto Gonzales, the former U. S. Attorney General, said in a 2015 interview: “When I think about torture, it’s broken bones, electric shocks to genitalia. It’s pulling your teeth out with pliers. It’s cutting off a limb. That’s torture. Is waterboarding at the same level? I’d say probably not.” Our thinking about torture is also deeply coloured by movies and television; one person has hidden knowledge, and this can be easily, reliably and veridically extracted through violence.

Governments change behaviour through laws, memos, legal opinions, and other means; many of them are explicitly coercive. Governments have implicit (and occasionally explicit) models of human behaviour change underpinning policy. These models are derived from prior practice, contemporary culture, history and social learning. They are rarely informed by neuroscience or psychology. Lawyers deciding to torture a detainee into revealing information are an example of an empirically or theoretically unsupported lay or folk theory of neuropsychological function in action, implemented under cover of law, and routinised as policy.

Estimates suggest torture occurs in 140 countries worldwide, and that it is significantly under-reported, so it may happen in many more. Democracies, when they torture, prefer ‘white’ torture — a form of violence practiced because it leaves no marks. The long-lasting effects are inflicted on the brains and minds and behaviour of the tortured and, somewhat surprisingly, often on the brains, minds and behaviour of the torturer also. White torture is a coordinated and deliberate assault on the core functioning of our brains and bodies, and all the more powerful and effective because it affects our fundamental metabolic drives. Suffocation, starvation, freezing, repeated episodes of near-drowning, restraint stress through close confinement in small, overheated boxes, social isolation through extended solitary confinement — none of these techniques leave visible surface marks. The tools for white torture are repurposed from other uses: plastic bags for suffocation, cable ties to restrict and restrain limb movement, food and liquid restrictions to induce starvation, trestle tables for waterboarding, small, uncomfortable chairs for sleep deprivation, adult nappies, ample supplies of cold water.

Sadly, many democracies have never entirely given up the practice of torture — even if it is not officially sanctioned, it still happens. Democracies tend to resort to torture during times of great national stress (think France in the late 1950s; the United Kingdom in the early 1970s; the United States in the post 9/11 period). Deciding to employ torture as a human information gathering tool in a democracy usually needs a terrible act to catalyse and legally institutionalise torture. If torture is the attempt to force information from the unwilling, then it is the effort to force information retrieval from the memory systems of the brains of the unwilling. This is the peculiar place, where governmental policy theories have a mediated interface with theories of brain function. It takes willing lawyers and politicians, but it really takes lawyers, because they write policy documents like the Torture Memos, allowing government agents to starve, semi-drown, sleep deprive, freeze, and stress other human beings with the ostensible purpose of eliciting vital information from them. And all under cover of law.

Designing a systematic programme of torture in democracies requires the co-operation and support of a whole group of public policymakers, none of whom will directly administer the behavioural practices they sanction. Democracies then rediscover Napoleon’s great truth: “The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognised that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know” (Bonaparte, 1798). The contemporary historian of torture, Darius Rejali, puts it thus: “There may be secret, thorough reports of torture’s effectiveness, but historians have yet to uncover them for any government. Those who believe in torture’s effectiveness seem to need no proof and prefer to leave no reports” (Torture and Democracy, 2007, p. 522). And we come full circle to relearn the lessons of history and of the behavioural brain sciences: torture as an interrogational theory and practice is a complete and utter failure. And there are better, ethical and humane ways to gather information from other human beings.

Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation (Amazon) or from Harvard University Press.

 Science Gallery

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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