A Painful Reminder for Donald Trump of Why Torture is Pointless

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Comment piece in the 4 February 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  This article begins ,”PRESIDENT Donald Trump says his nation should ‘fight fire with fire’ by using torture on terror suspects, insisting it works.”  The article ends, “The lesson for Trump is simple:  fighting fire with fire burns down the neighborhood.”

The purpose of torture, is similar to the purpose of much of science, to get reliable, replicable and verifiable information.  Professional interrogators say torture is the worst possible method for this.  Torture fails utterly as a means of getting at the truth, even more so compared with non-coercive investigative methods.  To be sure, torture gets the victim to respond, but why should the response be related to the truth?  In fact, the victim might not have the desired information, but if tortured enough, there will be a response.

Neuroscience agrees with the professional interrogators.  Imposing extremes of pain, anxiety, hunger, sleep deprivation and the threat of drowning does not enhance interrogation.  It degrades it.  This should not be surprising.  Behind the wheel of a car, even mild states of sleep deprivation are as risky as being drunk.  Reactions are slowed, judgement is impaired, and recollection is damaged.  The torturer hopes that enough residual function is unaffected so that intelligence can be gathered. However, the result is that people say whatever is needed to make the torture stop.

The article asks, what’s the alternative?  It is to talk because humans like to talk.  It is estimated that 40% of what we say to other people consists of self-disclosure.  Brain imaging shows that during self-disclosure, the brain’s reward system is activated.  We like talking about ourselves.

The legendary German interrogator Hanns-Joachim Scarf debriefed more than 500 allied airmen during the second world war.  He never used coercion, but cross-checked information carefully.  He never asked a direct question and never indicated any interest in any answer he received.  He was adept at taking the pilots’ perspective and actively listening.  The article notes, “these skills can be learned and are not so different from the skills of a highly trained doctor.

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