The Scientific Indian


You may have seen the WIRED interview with Psychologist Philip Zimbardo and the mind-numbing pictures of torture linked there. A recent New Scientist interview of Darius Rejali( more, his book) is a necessary read on how torture deeply breaks both the sufferer and the torturer. Part of the NS interview:

Why is torture so hard to control?

Usually the top authorises it and the bottom delivers. Then it’s a slippery slope as torturers quickly become less responsive to centralised authority. One reason is competition between interrogators. When policemen track down information, they cooperate. In torture it’s different. The guy who breaks the prisoner gets the reward. If you were the guy softening him up, would you hand him over for the next guy to get all the glory? Torturers adopt new techniques and become more vicious in the hope they can break their prisoner.

Torturers also suffer traumatic stress themselves. It screws everybody up and it takes a long time to undo that damage. I fear the US is well on that path.

Is there such a thing as a science of torture?

If there were, then torture should be producing accurate information regularly. Each interrogator would know exactly how much pain to apply to get a person to break. But pain cannot be measured in the way people think. Typically interrogators know two things about pain. The first is that people have different sensitivities to different kinds of pain, and it is unpredictable which kind they are more sensitive to. The second is that over time a person becomes desensitised to pain. Sooner or later they don’t feel anything. So torturers take a scatter-shot approach, try a wide variety of techniques, then ratchet it up as fast and early as they can, hoping to overtake the pain threshold of their victim. You wouldn’t have to do that if there were a science of torture.

How often do interrogators obtain useful information or truthful confessions using torture?

The few statistical studies on this suggest the return is incredibly poor. There are several reasons. How do you know you have the right person? And even if you do, how do you know they’re telling the truth? Third, torture can damage the brain, and anything that affects the brain’s capacity to withhold information also affects its capacity to retrieve it.

If it doesn’t work, why does it persist?

Myths and rumours. There is a perception that democracy makes us weak and only “real men” know how to do this stuff. People think torture worked for the Gestapo, for example. It didn’t. What made the Gestapo so scarily efficient was its dependence on public cooperation. Informers betrayed the resistance repeatedly in Europe, and everyone knew this, but it was more convenient to say the Gestapo got the truth by beating it out of us. Public cooperation is the best way to gather information. After the failed bomb attacks in London in 2005, the British police found every one of the gang within a week. One was caught after his parents turned him in. They would not have done that if they’d thought he’d be tortured.

War, as P J O’Rourke says in one of his books, is a powerful arseholes magnet. So is torture. While democracy cannot keep arseholes from being made, it can certainly keep unnecessary wars and torture from happening – provided people inform themselves truthfully and bring the perpetrators to justice.


  1. #1 Left_Wing_Fox
    February 28, 2008

    T’d note also that Torture persists also because it can have fringe benefits to the regimes using them. A fearful and compliant populace unwilling to speak out for fear of being disappeared and tortures, plus the propaganda of the forced confessions make the nation look stronger in dealing with enemies than it actually is.

  2. #2 the real cmf
    March 5, 2008

    “why does it exist”? I will take a “stab” at it…the world is constantly enthralled with the degradation of men–specifically men–and war porn sells votes in capitalist societies that use violence against men( and blame men for it) as as a tool of social control.
    So these male rape/torture victims are the ones that we can see–the ones we had ‘access’ to, and that only through good reporting, and better sources.
    Yet you can see these scenes every day, here in America, within the largest prison population in the world. men left without opportunity, or men having had that opportunity unjustly robbed from them, become brutish. Women condone this brutishness with a general attitude of ” glad it ain’t me,” and society at large overlooks it as well.
    This leaves men at the hands of the state, and the forces of oppression as a lifestyle, not as isolated incidents like Abu Ghraib, and worse, reaffirms that men are expendable in western society.

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