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Q&A: Practical Torture Goals

I would implore you to do actual research on torture and how torturers behave. A lot of the information you present as fact is dangerously misinformed. Torturers are not ‘professionals’ and does not yield accurate information. You shouldn’t be answering any questions on torture if you haven’t read O’Mara. This isn’t about torture being bad. It’s about torture not working at all. I apologize if I seem harsh, but this needs to be said.

I have read Shane O’Mara’s work. Not all of it, and not recently. I skimmed through years ago. Though, judging by your question, I’m not entirely sure you are familiar with his work.

The irony is, there’s not a lot of difference between O’Mara’s position and ours, when it comes to torture. The biggest discrepancy is perspective. He’s a neurologist who had a focus on the specific effects of stress and pain on the brain. My background is political science, so my interest grew out of examining coercive methods used by nation states. As a result, my specialization is more focused on what it does at a policy level. And we both come to, nearly the same point:

People forget the reality of what torture was used for, and has been used for through the generations, a quite different purpose: To spread fear, extract confessions, all of those kinds of things. But, the royal road to gathering reliable information? No.

Shane O’Mara – “Your Welcome” (Podcast Interview)

This gets into a fundamental misunderstanding about what torture is, and why you use it. Many people who’ve never looked at torture in depth, including the interviewer in that podcast, and the person who sent this ask, believe it’s about extracting information.

No.

The perception of torture as intelligence gathering is pervasive. It’s honestly difficult to point to uses of torture in popular media that get at the real point behind its use. The ur-example of this misconception would have to be 24, and it’s ends-justify-the-means embrace of torture.

The problem is, as the US Military’s Enhanced Interrogation Program learned in Iraq, torturing someone only makes them tell you what they think you want to hear. This was not new information. Nearly every organization in history that’s employed torture has understood this.

Most civilians do not. Many organizations have exploited this fact to further their agendas.

Torture excels at extracting false confessions. To make the suffering stop, you put a narrative in front of someone, and they will crack and sign off on it. This is the true power of torture. It doesn’t tell you what’s real, it coerces the victim to agree with your version of the truth.

Confessions are not reliable, in any sense. Someone may admit they committed an act for any number of reasons unrelated to the truth. Social norms put faith in the idea of a confession as, “the truth,” but that is just words; like everything else, it shouldn’t be taken at face value. As mentioned above, torture exploits this norm, and relies on that general acceptance of confessions to glaze over all the incongruities. Even when those confessions are patently absurd or downright impossible, people will still say, “but they confessed.”

I remember an example of this a couple years ago, from another person bringing their favorite academic into a discussion. In that case it was James Wasserman, an author who wrote a history of the Knights Templar. The end of that order came from confessions extracted under torture by one of the Inquisitions. (I don’t remember which one.) Even knowing that the confessions were coerced, Wasserman sees nothing wrong with taking them at face value. (Also the reason he comes to conclusions that radically differ from every rational academic that looks at the subject.)

That said, unlike Wasserman, O’Mara does something interesting. We’ve always known you can’t get good information from torture, and O’Mara decided to take neurology and look at why. The answer has to do with how memories work.

The brain stores memories as chemical chains. Under the best of circumstances, this is not a good, robust, long-term storage system. In some ways it’s surprising it works as well as it does. Stress and trauma both adversely affect your ability to form new memories and retain them. This has nothing to do with torture per se. If you’re put through six kinds of hell, you’re going to forget things.

Again, this isn’t exactly new information. It’s something that most therapists and investigators are well aware of. If you’ve been a victim of violence, even if it wasn’t perpetrated by a human, you may have experienced this. You might not realize it. I’m sitting here, thinking about my first dog attack and realizing, I don’t really remember that day. I remember that it happened, (and I can still find the scars on my left hand), but if I’m being completely honest with myself: a lot of the details are just gone. I do remember the sounds. Unfortunately, and if pressed, I could present a partial chronology of that day, but it would be reconstructed from information I have about when it was, what I was doing, things that happened before and after the attack.

Even without resorting to extreme events like that, your memory of traumatic or highly stressful experiences isn’t going to be completely clear. Ironically, this can also screw you over. If you get stressed out over a test in school, that will impair your ability to study, and even your ability to recover information during the exam.

Within this context, sleep deprivation has a significant effect on your cognitive abilities. This puts a fair amount of stress on your system for no real value. So, pulling an all-nighter before a test is not recommended.

Caffeine, and other stimulants don’t, really, help here. They’ll help you stay awake, they’ll help you feel more alert, but they won’t make up for the lost sleep, so the cognitive impairment will still be there, you’ll just look sober.

So, stating the obvious here but, having bunch of armed men attack and capture you, being dragged off to a dark room somewhere, isolated from any support network, being yelled at, and being threatened… That’s all kinda stressful.

In fact, many interrogators will seek to prolong the stress of capture as long as possible. They’ll use loud music, bright lights, keep the room cold, prevent them from sleeping (with all of the associated sleep deprivation considerations coming into effect) in an attempt to keep their captive off balance, to prevent them from settling into a new norm. While they’re in this state, they’re more susceptible to suggestion.

There is a continuum to all of this. It’s part of why studying for tests in an academic situation is such a good example: In the entirety of your life, it’s a pretty minor stress, but it is stressful, and the details you’re being asked to retrieve are trivial. So that’s some of the first information your brain will dump when things start fraying. When you put someone in real danger, the stress will start dumping much more important things. It’s not like you’ll forget your name, or where you were born, but it could easily dump information an interrogator would be interested in; like the names of people you met at a party last week.

All of this information also applies to witness testimony. Even when the investigators aren’t leaning on you, the stress from the original event can easily play havoc with your memory. This is one of the reasons why investigators need to be careful when they’re interviewing victims, because they can easily corrupt the victim’s memories simply by asking the wrong questions, and getting the victim to reconstruct their memory on the spot, which won’t necessarily match what happened. Of course, an unscrupulous investigator can push a victim to remember things that didn’t happen, simply by asking leading questions. If you’re suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea eyewitness testimony right now, good. You should. As with confessions, as a culture, we put way too much faith in them.

When you put this together, it explains why torture doesn’t yield accurate information. Again, this was known, but the neurology wasn’t. So, in this sense, O’Mara does make an interesting and useful contribution to the lit. He’s connecting stuff we already knew in different fields and saying, “this is how it works together.” He’s also getting into the neurochemistry, which is interesting to a degree, but not particularly accessible. The exact reasons that your brain has issues with sleep deprivation make for a fascinating discussion, but if I start talking about neurotransmitter reuptake again, people are going to glaze over.

You should start to see why torture excels at getting people to confess to things they didn’t do. Even confessing to things that aren’t possible or are patently absurd.

In most cases, someone will do anything they can just to end the suffering. Being tortured sucks, and if you just need to sign on the line to make it stop, a surprising number of people will do so. Even if it’s not the truth. Even if they’re signing their lives away.

On the other end of the spectrum, torture someone for long enough, and the lines between the real world and fantasy start to blur, or come apart entirely. You’ll get confessions about how they summoned up The Devil for an orgy and bake-off, or how they were plotting to mount laser cannons on frogs to assault New York. It sounds bonkers, but the victim may be so broken, they can’t tell the difference anymore.

I’m honestly unsure where this line about, “no professional torturers,” comes from. Especially given O’Mara has talked about the NKVD, CIA, Enhanced Interrogation Program, and many other intelligence agencies. That is to say, groups that do employ professional interrogators. I’ve seen this line come up several times, and the only way I could possibly attribute it to O’Mara is by deliberately misreading his methodology. The idea that no one gets paid to lean on others is patently absurd. Even the Mafia and Cartels have professional torturers. How well they do their job is a different question, but I’ve seen some genuinely disconnected comments about torturers being nothing but unhinged psychopaths, and that’s not supported by any reputable source.

I get the appeal of being able to say that, “a rational person couldn’t do this,” because it makes the world feel safer, but the truth is, there are people out there who come across as normal and are paid to do horrific things to other human beings.

The other side of this is that some of the EIP interrogators did end up with PTSD. It takes a pretty specific mindset to be able to do this to someone without suffering psychological harm in the process. That said, it’s not that different from other careers where you deal with horrific experiences on a regular basis, such as EMS, LEOs or soldiers.

The horrible thing about the real world is, torture works. It doesn’t gather usable intelligence, and if you thought that was the point, you fell for the big lie. Torture is about making someone confess to things they never did. It’s about making them agree with your version of the world, irrespective of the truth. It’s about scaring people. Convincing them to never oppose your organization. It does all of those things, and if you’re stepping back and saying, “no, it can’t possibly be that bad,” it worked on you.

Torture is scary; it shows how horrible the world, and the people in it, can be. There’s no shame in looking away and saying, “I can’t deal with this.” I don’t blame you. But there’s no virtue in lying to yourself and saying, “no, it doesn’t do anything. It can’t. I need the people who do this to be cartoonish super-villains.” I don’t blame you for the instinct, that’s better world, but not the one we live in.

-Starke

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