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Why Torture Doesn’t Work

As abhorrent as torture might be, it seldom lacks defenders, who argue that it is necessary to obtain information that can save lives. But there is no evidence that this is true; on the contrary, torture undermines the very goals it is supposed to achieve.

DUBLIN – Interrogation is far too important to be left to amateurs. Obtaining actionable and reliable intelligence can be crucial to activities ranging from everyday law enforcement to preventing acts of terror. That’s why interrogation techniques should be based on brain and behavioral sciences, not on the fevered imaginings of Hollywood producers that are believed by politicians, supported by lawyers, and carried out by amateur torturers.

Torture has been with us for all of human history – even if it has not always been called by that name. Democracies, for example, tend to use torture secretly and prefer techniques that target core psychological, neural, and physiological functions. These methods – near-drowning, suffocation, shackling, or stress positions to inflict physical pain, as well as sensory assaults such as freezing temperatures, loud noises, or bright lights – often leave no physical evidence. But they – together with psychological methods, including enforced nakedness, social isolation, threats using guns, drills, or attack dogs, and fabricated assaults on a victim’s loved ones – can be devastating.

As abhorrent as these methods may be, they seldom lack defenders, who argue that they are needed to obtain information that can save lives. Extreme stress, they argue, causes the subjects to reveal what they know.