Thoughts on Modern Torture?

The new controversial film, “Zero Dark Thirty” tells the complicated tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the years following 9/11. Arguably, the film suggests that coercive interrogation techniques were instrumental in the discovery of bin Laden, and consequently, suggests that torture is effective.  In Torture and Democracy, Darius Rejali, one of the world’s leading experts on torture, tackles the controversial question of whether torture really works. Check out what the expert has to say on modern torture:

Torture cannot be scientific. It is unlikely interrogators can torture in a restrained manner. Technology does not help them in this respect. Torture has strong corrosive effects on professional skills and institutions. Clean, selective, professional torture is an illusion. This is true regardless of whether one uses torture to intimidate, interrogate, or extract false confessions.

For harvesting information, torture is the clumsiest method available to organizations, even clumsier in some cases than flipping coins or shooting randomly into crowds. The sources of error are systematic and ineradicable. Innocent and ignorant prisoners generate malicious information, using torturers to settle private scores. Only highly experienced interrogators can spot such deception. Cooperative prisoners are unlikely to remember well and may give false answers with confidence. Neither they nor interrogators easily detect these errors.

In short, organized torture yields poor information, sweeps up many innocents, degrades organizational capabilities, and destroys interrogators. Limited time during battle or emergency intensifies all these problems.

These results do not prove that torture never works to produce accurate information. That would misread the scientific and social scientific evidence, and, at any rate, impossibility arguments are hard to prove. What it does establish are the specific conditions where torture may work better than other ways of gathering intelligence.

Torture would work well when organizations remain coherent and well integrated, have highly professional interrogators available, receive strong public cooperation and intelligence from multiple independent sources, have no time pressures for information, possess enough resources to verify coerced information, and release innocents before they are tortured.

In short, torture for information works best when one would need it least, peacetime, nonemergency conditions. If the suspect really is the right person to interrogate, interrogation is more likely to yield accurate information if the person is an opportunist, not a hardcore believer, as in the notorious Daschner case in Germany in 2002.  Even then, torture has problems that cannot be eliminated, including desensitization, death, unconsciousness, the loss of memory caused by damage, and the production of information that is more reliable the more it pertains to the remote past, not the immediate present.

Whether one can justify torture ethically when there is no emergency or when other methods of gathering intelligence are available, is another matter. My guess is that it would be hard to persuade most people, especially a jury. Daschner could not.

From Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali, 2007.


  1. Consider Dr. Rejali’s book as added to my “Too Read Soonest” list.

  2. Sounds like a terrific read. Torture and it’s widespread use is one of those issues whose existence is too frequently swept under the rug. Too sensitive and uncomfortable a topic for coffee table talk.

  3. Torture and speciilay domestic voilence is something which can not be neglected. These cases are common and nobody pays attention.Very sad and disappointing.