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Does Torture Work?
Ron Hassner's Anatomy of Torture has a complicated answer.
I pitched a review of Ron Hassner’s Anatomy of Torture to I don’t know how many outlets. There wasn’t been much interest, and I’m not sure why.
Maybe torture just isn’t a sexy topic right at the moment, since American rendition and interrogation hasn’t been in the news. It seems like an important issue to me, still, though, since the United States has neither effectively investigated past use of torture, nor made any strong promises not to torture again. Pop culture narratives like Daredevil, The Batman and just about any cop show continue to present torture as a useful, efficient means of extracting information.
Neither the public nor the authorities have repudiated torture. It seems likely, therefore, that we’re going to ramp up torture again at some point, unless there’s a radical change in ideology or understanding.
The Inquisition Made Torture Work
Hassner is trying to provide that understanding. His book sets out to answer the question, “Does torture work?” That’s important, because much of the torture debate centers on efficacy, and particularly on the ticking time bomb scenario. If torture can provide instant, actionable intelligence that can save innocent lives with absolutely certainty, many people argue that the moral thing is to torture. If torture doesn’t work, on the other hand, then torturing people for information is just sadism. And sadism that’s likely to lead to faulty intelligence at that.
Figuring out whether torture works is extremely difficult, because most countries and institutions that engage in torture do everything they can to cover it up. Records of torture make the torturers look bad at best, and might be used to prosecute them at worst. As a result, most records of US torture in Iraq are classified and unavailable to scholars. So are records of French torture in Algiers.
Hassner though ingeniously managed to find one institution which was not embarrassed about torture and kept meticulous records: the Spanish Inquisition.
Today we tend to think of the Inquisition as barbarous and irrational. The church supposedly didn’t care about guilt or innocence. It was simply determined to extract confessions of impure or immoral thoughts.
But per Hassner’s research, this understanding of the Inquisition is false. In point of fact, the Inquisition was very concerned with turning up evidence not of beliefs, but of heretical practices specifically. They didn’t care if you thought Jesus wasn’t the son of God, as long as you kept it to yourself. They only cared if you kept the wrong Sabbath, or kept kosher, or were observing Jewish or Muslim holidays.
The Inquisition used numerous methods to try to establish whether people had performed these heresies. They interviewed neighbors and acquaintances. They planted informers in cells. They subjected suspects to long, nonviolent sessions of questioning. And, finally, and occasionally, they tortured people on the rack and by waterboarding.
These torture sessions were not used as a last resort to extract information. Nor were they used to extract information quickly. Instead, they were used as one technique among many. Torture was seen as a potentially, occasionally useful way to corroborate other information.
The inquisitors were aware that many people would say anything under torture in order to make the pain stop. So they deliberately refused to tell the victims what information was being sought. They would gather information from other informants, and then ask the victims to confess, without any further guidance. Then they would check that confession against their other information to determine whether it was credible or not. If the evidence was against the torture victim, they would execute them. But there were many cases where the evidence was weak, the victim did not confess, and the Inquisition set them free.
In this limited sense, torture was effective. It was not a magic pain wand for making truth appear in a puff of smoke. But the Inquisition was able to use torture as one technique among many to slowly find information.
The limits of torture
The emphasis here is on “slowly.” The Inquisition was not under the clock; they saw themselves working on the scale of eternal damnation, and they took their time. Torture, they discovered, often worked better after someone had been in prison for a long period and had had a chance to worry about and anticipate the coming pain. Prisoners might be locked away for months or years between torture sessions while the Inquisition interviewed other witnesses, or gathered other information, or simply waited them out.
Hassner’s conclusion is that we should oppose torture on principle, as a wrong in itself, rather than on the basis of efficacy. Torture does work, sometimes and in some situations, and he worries that perhaps we will develop more effective torture methods over time. Better to simply state that torture is always wrong, even if it provides useful intelligence.
I’m not so sure, though. It’s true that the Inquisition at times found information through torture. But the contrast between their methods and contemporary US fantasies of ticking time bomb torture couldn’t be much more stark.
The Inquisition was engaged in long term investigations with no time horizon, with each step from arrest to torture to trial to execution regulated by official bureaucratic institutions and procedures. US torture, to the extent we have information about it, was chaotic, ad hoc, administered on the spot, and intended to elicit immediate results in crisis settings. The line between punishment and information extraction was frequently blurred; torturers would demand particular information from victims, contaminating any confession.
The American way of torture, then, was more brutal, more senseless, more chaotic, and less effective than the practices of the Inquisition. Most tellingly, the ticking time bomb scenario that has served as the moral justification for US torture is, based on the best evidence available, completely, ludicrously impractical. To the extent torture works, it doesn’t work like that.
I think that utilitarian point is important and shouldn’t be set aside lightly. Among other things, if state actors think they can use torture to prevent a terrorist attack which will kill civilians and make them look like incompetent leaders, they are probably going to embrace torture. Politicians are notably impervious to arguments from first principles.
Use every argument
In any case, if you think that torture is wrong (which it is!) you should use all the arguments available to delegitimize it. Anti-death penalty activists think that it’s immoral for the state to murder anyone. And they’re right! But that doesn’t stop them from pointing out that innocent people are often put to death, or from pointing out the racism inherent in the process. The death penalty is wrong in itself. And one sign that it is wrong is that it inevitably doesn’t work to advance justice.
Similarly, we can argue that torture is wrong in itself while also arguing that the best evidence we have suggests that torture cannot do what its proponents want it to. If you give torturers infinite resources and unlimited time, you can turn your state apparatus into a monster of cruelty and thereby extract some information that you could probably have found through other means. But if you want to quickly prevent violent attacks, or efficiently elicit information you could never have gotten through any other way—the Spanish Inquisition says that’s not going to work. And the Inquisitors were better at torture than we are likely to get, or than we should want to be.
First published last year at my Patreon.