‘. . . it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.’
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592): On the Lame (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)
The spectre of torture as effective and desirable is back in the news again. I feel it worthwhile again to republish a pair of blog posts from two years ago, the first today, the second tomorrow. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is.
Amnesty International Survey Findings
On the 13th May the BBC News website posted a disturbing report of Amnesty International findings. They stated:
Nearly 30% of people in the UK believe torture can be justified, according to a survey by Amnesty International.
Amnesty said it had not expected the “alarming” result:”
. . . . At 29%, the belief that torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public was more prevalent in the UK than in Russia, Brazil or Argentina.
The survey involved 21,000 people in 21 countries as part of a global “Stop Torture” campaign. The UK results were based on a survey of 1,000 people aged over 18.
It is bad enough that on the basis of that statistic alone we come out worse than countries we label as less scrupulous than we are about human rights. Other figures give no comfort to those who would like to feel we are none the less well ahead of the field, surveying the torture scene from a secure and elevated position on firmly moral high ground. The report goes on:
. . . while the majority of those surveyed (56%) strongly disagreed that torture could be justified to protect the public, 44% ruled out prohibiting torture altogether.
The research suggested that 79 countries have carried out torture so far this year, with 27 different methods reported. The techniques range from electric shocks, beatings, rape, mock executions and stress positions to sleep deprivation.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said the findings suggested that:
People have bought into the idea that their personal safety can be enhanced in some way through the use of torture. That is simply untrue.
There is a wealth of evidence to support her contention here, evidence which, it would seem, has fallen well below too many people’s radar.
The Main Moral Objection
Before I tackle that aspect of the matter, I need first to mention the ends-means problem.
Regardless of whether torture is or is not effective at enhancing our safety, there is a moral argument for saying that to defend a liberal democracy by the use of torture and any other degrading and dehumanising treatment of the supposed ‘enemy,’ is to betray the very foundations and core values of our society.
We can take the point even further and apply it to any society. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is very clear that the sense that our values, no matter what they are, are so important that any means of propagating and defending them are by definition justified, has killed more people than any other human tendency. Do we really want to join that infamous band of proponents of this view? Do we want to sit enthroned beside Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their zealous followers in that hall of infamy? I for one absolutely do not.
The Efficacy of Torture
Even if I did though, I would do well to look at the evidence for the efficacy of torture.
Before I plunge into an exploration of Rejali’s position, I need to fess up to the fact that I bought his book six years ago when I retired and have not had the stomach to read all its nearly 600 pages. I have dipped into it enough to know how thorough and rigorous it is. I simply cannot dwell on such harrowing details as he adduces for any length of time without a truly compelling reason. I had the same problem reading Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao – I stopped reading about halfway through.
Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of World War II and had nightmares in childhood to match, perhaps because I was twice admitted for surgery before I started school, perhaps because my parents were grieving for my recently dead sister, perhaps because I’ve read a lot about these issues over my life time, I feel that I now understand enough about physical and emotional pain as well as powerlessness in a frightening situation, without having to read anything that does not credibly promise to tell me something on this subject that I did not already know.
What I have done though, because I did not know the answer to this question, was read Rejali’s Chapter 21 which is titled ‘Does Torture Work?’
At the beginning of this chapter he asks eight key questions of which four concern us here (page 447):
- Can interrogators separate deceptive from accurate information when it is given to them?
- How accurately do cooperative prisoners remember information after torture?
- Does this investigative method yield better results than others normally at an army’s disposal?
- If not, does this investigative method yield better results under conditions of constrained time?
A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?
I already had a sense where this might be going from recently reading Adrian Raine’s excellent book – The Anatomy of Violence – where he writes about whether we can tell when children are lying (page 171):
. . . . Can’t we tell if a four-year-old is lying? Actually, we cannot. Accuracy levels are at 40 percent at this age, 47 percent at age five, and 43 percent at age six. Parents, you think you know what your kids get up to, but actually you don’t even have a clue with your own toddler.’
I was already wondering what hope a torturer might have with someone he barely knows.
Rejali begins his examination of this by looking first at the supposedly best trained and most effective interrogators – the police. Many police throughout the world are trained using a manual originally formulated by Inbau and Reid in the early forties: it has been updated regularly since. The evidence he quotes is not encouraging (Torture & Democracy – page 464):
‘. . . . police investigators and others with the relevant on-the-job experience perform only slightly better than chance, if at all.’
Aldert Vrij has attempted to tease out the reality of this more closely. He moved from the laboratory to the front-line.
Police detecting abilities improved (an accuracy rate of about 65% to detect truths and lies), but remained “far from perfect, and errors in truth-lie detection were frequently made.”
He couldn’t use a control group in this instance because the material was too sensitive. However, one comparative finding is disturbing (page 464-65):
. . . those police who follow the Inbau and Reid method were actually worse at detecting deception. “The more police followed their advice, the worse they were in their ability to distinguish between truth and lies.”
The evidence suggests (page 465) that ‘torturers have far less training or experience in interrogation than police . . . so the prospect that they will be better at spotting deception is not good.’ For obvious reasons publically available, controlled, fine-grained studies of torturers are hard to come by. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Rejali’s supposition is correct. In fact, they do not even seem reliably to know when they are being told the truth after someone has broken under torture, as Sheila Cassidy attests after electrotorture in Chile (ibid):
After several days, she broke down and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. The devout interrogators could not believe her and continued torturing her for days afterward.
This is reminiscent of the last torture session in the film The Railwayman where we see the incredulity of the torturer confronted with a truth that has been extorted which does not fit his world view.
If this were the only complication torture had to cope with there might be some hope of resurrecting its reputation with a sceptic whose objections are pragmatic rather than principled. There are however other equally discrediting ones to consider in the next post.