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What Is Torture For?

September 22, 2009

SURE IT’S TORTURE, BUT IS IT EFFECTIVE? The headline on this Associated Press article makes no sense. It declares, “CIA interrogations informed by bad science.”

…Shane O’Mara, a professor at Ireland’s Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, wrote that the severe interrogation techniques appear based on “folk psychology” — a layman’s idea of how the brain works as opposed to science-based understanding of memory and cognitive function.

The list of techniques the CIA used included prolonged sleep deprivation — six days in at least one instance — being chained in painful positions, exploiting prisoners’ phobias, and waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning that President Barack Obama has called torture. Three CIA prisoners were waterboarded, two of them extensively. [Associated Press]

Amid the rampant paranoia that obtained among our political decision makers during the Cold War, US methods of psychological torture, such as sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain, were developed as means of mind control.

Alfred W. McCoy writes in his book, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War On Terror:

From it’s founding in 1947, the CIA was disturbed by the Soviet ability to extract public confessions in ways that hinted at secret mind-control methods. … At recent show trials for “many different personalities” … Communist police had shown “consistent success” in extracting “false confessions” making it probable … that “some special psychological technique is being used.” …the Soviets … may have discovered techniques “to induce a somnambulistic trance … in perhaps 90 percent or more of all defendants from whom they might wish to elicit a public confession.” [McCoy, p22]

So the CIA started shelling out dollars for research in behavioral science, and undertook years of experimentation and implementation. This was scientific! Not exactly the “folk psychology,” alluded to in the AP article. But it was research into making subjects suggestible. “The fusion of these two techniques, sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain, creates a synergy of physical and psychological trauma whose sum is a hammer-blow to the fundamentals of personal identity.” [McCoy, p8]

The techniques mentioned in the AP article were not developed for gathering reliable information.

Those methods cause the brain to release stress hormones that, if their release is repeated and prolonged, may result in compromised brain function and even tissue loss, O’Mara wrote.

He warned that this could lead to brain lobe disorders, making the prisoners vulnerable to confabulation — the pathological production of false memories based on suggestions from an interrogator. Those false memories mix with true information in the interrogation, making it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fabricated. [AP]

These methods are effective.

Engaging in this debate, not by arguing whether torture is wrong or right, but by conceding the ethical/moral ground to argue instead about whether or not it is effective, is to move into the abstract, and to ask the wrong question!

It is pure folly to assume the question is, “Is this an effective way of getting true information?” The question here is, “Is this an effective torture?” And the answer to that question depends on what the torturer’s purpose is. Hence the post title.

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