I’ve long suspected that torture, as a method of securing sensitive information, was faulty because of a fairly common assumption of torture opponents, i.e. individuals undergoing torture will simply say anything that they believe their tormentors want to hear. I’ve also felt, though, that this was only the tip of the iceberg as far as the reasons for torture’s inefficiency are concerned. Shane O’Mara’s Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation provides a compellingly thorough (but also concise and readable) inventory of these reasons, while circumventing the expected appeals to morality in favor of a much less philosophical and more scientific approach. Namely, O’Mara shines a blaring klieg light on the human nervous system’s reactions to unrelieved stress, and particularly how they make key cognitive processes of the brain extremely erratic, if not completely unreliable. For anyone who wants anything from a torture victim other than to merely watch the victim suffer, the implications of communication breakdown during abnormal secretion of stress hormones should be obvious: in such situations, reasoning ability and speech patterns can approach the meaningless babble of the heavily intoxicated, a class of people who you would hardly consider trustworthy sources of military intelligence.
While O’Mara’s book will not provide the answers for those who want all torture to end, regardless of its intentions, he never claims to cast his net so wide that he can argue against torture’s use as a simple instiller of terror or as a means of vicious retribution. Very early on he states that his primary aim is to “[take] the theories and arguments employed by the [Senate] Torture Memos at their word,” i.e. “that the techniques described were demonstrably empirically necessary to ensure that prisoners revealed the content of their long-term memory systems”, and to then demonstrate how such techniques fail on all accounts. In other words, the author is not going after those justifications for torture that have been historically used, but those which have attempted to give it legitimacy in modern times and to endear it to the civilian population of the United States - a country still projecting an image of itself as the world’s leading democracy.
Make no mistake, O’Mara is aiming squarely at an American audience, particularly when making regular references to fictional “enhanced interrogators” such as Jack Bauer as having a firm hold on the public imagination (and as being influential on policy decisions themselves). The heroism of the hard-nosed, stop-at-nothing torturer is just part and parcel of a larger and more disturbing trend, and though the author doesn’t spend as much time on this particular phenomenon, the social media culture of the day seems to have enabled an almost casual recognition of torture as an appropriate punishment for the most trivial of offenses (particularly where pop celebrities are concerned). O’Mara doesn’t waste any time confronting the cultures of desensitization and / or electronic infantilism that make torture into a source of amusement and gratification for its detached spectators. He does, however, repeatedly show how certain fictional tropes - particularly the “ticking time bomb” scenario in which characters like Bauer use torture as a fast-track device towards solving time sensitive crises - have hardly any precedent in reality. O’Mara reminds us of the Senate Torture Report’s findings that some of the most preferred methods of “white torture,” e.g. sleep deprivation, take up to thirty days to take effect, if in fact they do so without altering the very architecture of the brain from which secrets are to be retrieved.
With unsparing analytical precision, O’Mara steadily goes to work on numerous other assumptions the military intelligence and policy-making communities have made about torture’s efficacy, and in the process repeatedly holds up the Torture Memos disclosed in 2009 as a kind of gold standard for organizational illogic and counter-productivity. By the time he finishes, we’re left wondering why anyone - particularly those who claim authority in the realm of psychological manipulation - could think that the techniques he surveys would produce meaningful and actionable information. Consider: having noted that tortuous sleep deprivation produces “impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed alcohol intoxication,” audible and visible hallucinations, and outright amnesiac states, why would anyone think this coercive method capable of eliciting anything but incoherent confabulations? On this score, O’Mara scoffs at the insistence, relayed in the Torture Memos, that sleep deprivation will allow compliance with interrogators’ attempts at forcing memory recall, even as that documentation boasts that sleep deprivation “[reduces] the individual’s ability to think on his feet.”
Time and time again, O’Mara insists that torture advocates cannot defend themselves by claiming there is some shortage of available literature about the effects of stressors on the brain. The literature dealing specifically with torture is slimmer, for the obvious reason that not many test subjects are willing to sign on for experiments that involve excruciating pain (O’Mara does tip his hat to a group of Swiss volunteers who bravely consented to have their teeth electrically stimulated while brain scans were performed). However, there is more than enough study done on the connection between elevated stress levels and neurology to allow us to draw easy conclusions about torture itself. Once the smoke clears from all of this reading, readers can be forgiven for questioning whether methods used for “enhanced interrogation” have anything to do with eliciting “useful information” at all, or if these techniques exist to have a deterrent effect. One gets the creeping feeling that, just as post-9/11 institutional invasions of privacy amounted to an ineffectual “security theater” that merely gave a superficial impression of getting the job done, official disclosures of torture techniques have a similar theatrical effect aimed more at dissuading potential dissent than at conferring any kind of tactical advantage on the global battlefield.
One of this book’s most compelling portions shows how torture not only breaks the minds of those who must submit to it, but also the minds of those who are given the orders to routinely administer excruciating physical pain and psychic torment (often knowing full well when it is achieving nothing). It’s no small feat for any book to instill pity in me for torturers, but O’Mara convincingly argues that “enhanced interrogators” themselves are victims of the procedures that they are ordered to carry out. He never denies that sadistic / psychopathic personality types exist who thrive on cruelty (indeed, he notes the Senate Torture Report’s confession that the CIA “deployed officers who had documented personal problems of a serious nature…including histories of violence and abusive treatment of others”). Nor does he believe that feelings of altruism will always override an eagerness to please authority, a point that he makes clear by invoking the results of the famous Milgram Experiments.
Nevertheless, whatever the original disposition of the torturers is towards their work, O’Mara paints a picture of interrogators who are as subject to permanent psychic trauma as their own victims. Post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide are both listed as common fates for torturers once they are removed from the line of duty: so common, in fact, that former interrogator Damien Corsetti “claims that virtually every interrogator who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is suffering from some form of PTSD, and is doing so mostly in silence.” The unprecedented suicide rate of U.S. military personnel, which is one legacy of these conflicts, becomes less of a mystery when we consider that the legitimization of torture was a defining feature of these conflicts. The pages of O’Mara’s book are aglow with indignation at the desk-bound soul destroyers who, with their comfortable distance from the interrogator’s work, can call the decision to torture a “no brainer” and can honestly be puzzled by the ways in which inflicting cruelty on the defenseless causes uniformed soldiers to reject deeply ingrained assumptions about acceptable conventions of war. Perhaps the rubber-stamping brigade will at some point take notice of the sinking morale of their troops and do something about it, and yet past developments in military technology make me pessimistic about the cure that will be prescribed: just as the military has succeeded in spreading drone warfare as a less traumatic, de-personalized alternative to traditional combat - the architects of “enhanced interrogation” may find new methods to carry out torture that “virtualize” the experience somehow.
To his credit, though, O’Mara refuses to go out on such a grim note, holding onto a flickering hope that policymakers will begin to consider the eye-opening experimental findings that validate his thesis. At least one paper published in advance of Why Torture Doesn’t Work shows that he is not a lone voice in the wilderness, and also suggests that the concluding prescription of O’Mara’s book (i.e. “Why Torture - Why Not Just Talk?”) is as experimentally validated as any of the other claims he makes earlier. The study in question finds police interrogators repeatedly and almost unanimously determining “enhanced” techniques to be useless in their line of work, e.g. “all participants […] who responded to the question about what techniques they believed were least effective at eliciting reliable information cited techniques from the competition / confrontation domain.”[i] Other interview subjects confess that “the need for social interaction is so strong that con artists have been playing on it for ages, and a skilled interrogator can just go in there and draw that out.”[ii]
Why Torture Doesn’t Work is a ground breaking, if long overdue book that is unyielding in its attack on pointless cruelty dressed up as tried-and-true police / military strategy. The fact that it has a high “page turner” value makes it even more unique; making the discussion of humans’ uniquely vile institutions more fascinating and less stomach-churning that it should be. Should the “civilized” world ever return to a state in which it truly believes its own platitudes about using scientifically efficient methods to achieve its ends, O’Mara’s book should receive full credit for helping to debunk the junk science of enhanced interrogation techniques.
[i] Russano, Melissa; Narchet, Fadia & Kleinman, Steven. “Analysts, Interpreters, and Intelligence Interrogations: Perceptions and Insights.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 28 No. 6 (Nov/Dec2014), p829-846.