Torture has always had its place as a two-faced mythical creature in American society. On one hand, we abhor it, calling out nations for humanitarian crimes when they use it, particularly against our own prisoners of war. On the other hand, we embrace it, wrapping torture ever so neatly with euphemisms to ease our acceptance of it in the name of national security.
Shortly after 9/11, then Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with “Meet the Press,” supported advanced interrogation techniques (another euphemism for torture) by saying:
We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.1
The problem with advocating for torture — aside from obvious ethical concerns — is that advocates typically assume that torture works. Advocates of torture assume that this method of obtaining information from suspects and informants has a neuroscientific basis. Therefore, we as citizens often only see torture discussed as a moral and political concept rather than a scientific concept,2 despite that there is little evidence to support its use. What if it turned out that torture does not work? Why would we need to argue the ethics of it, if we had no practical use for it?
To take a walk on the dark side, we ought to better understand torture and the neuroscientific basis — or lack thereof — for its use.
The objective of torture is to extract information. The method is extreme stressors that induce fear, anxiety, and pain. The implicit assumption is that the method does not corrupt the fidelity of the objective.
That assumption, however, is likely wrong. We know that chronic stressors like sleep, social, and sensory deprivation; caloric restriction; and predatory threats result in hypofunction of the prefrontal cortex, hippocampal atrophy, and hypertrophy of the amygdala (which controls our fear and anxiety responses).2 These neurologic changes result in impairment of executive functions, explicit memory, and fear and anxiety processing while promoting increases in cortisol and catecholamine excretion. The elevation of these hormones in the blood further contributes to the deterioration of cognitive function, thereby creating a feedback loop that promotes and exacerbates the brain’s negative responses to stressors.2 In one study,3 elite combat soldiers underwent neuropsychological testing before and after 48 hours of sleep deprivation, heat, dehydration, and caloric deprivation. These stressors were shown to cause marked decreases in reaction time, vigilance, learning, memory, reasoning, and mood states.2,3 It is hard to imagine that, with such a cognitive impact, the reliability of the information extracted from these individuals would remain intact.
Consider the numerous suspects of the 9/11 attacks. Despite some of the now illegal and unethical interrogation techniques used in the military tribunals conducted at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, only 8 convictions out of hundreds of suspects were secured using these questionable methods of interrogation. In contrast, all 108 related cases that were prosecuted in civilian courts have resulted in convictions.4 As civilians, we ought to question how it is that civilian courts are doing a better job of extracting useful information from potential suspects and informants.
Torture in our society has become a utilitarian ideal — although we can agree that torture is repugnant, many people also feel that it has its place as a means to achieve national security. Yet, the overwhelming evidence suggests that torture as a means of extracting information is lousy at best: often, the intelligence gathered through torture comes out distorted or wrong. In fact, experiential evidence dating back to Napoleon suggests that torture is a useless tool for extracting information.2
Recognizing this, the Obama administration signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law in 2016. Although the Act made it more difficult to close down Guantanamo Bay, it imposed strict restrictions on cruel interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.5 This seemed to be a bipartisan step in preserving our moral integrity.
During the February 7, 2016, Republican debate in New Hampshire, moderator David Muir referenced previous comments that then candidate Donald Trump had made in 2015, claiming that “[torture] works… And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”6 When asked if he would bring back waterboarding, Trump responded, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”7
There isn’t a whole hell of a lot worse than waterboarding, a process in which an individual is tied to a table in the Trendelenburg position while a cloth is held over the person’s face and water is poured in a controlled manner to fill the airways. Essentially, waterboarding involves drowning an individual repeatedly to extract information. We know enough about drowning and its physiologic effects to understand that waterboarding has no positive impact on any cognitive processes. These repeated, near-death drownings cause severe panic, dyspnea, hypercapnia, and hypoxia,2 states that feed into a person’s neuropsychological response, but at a more extreme level. Predictably, the end result of waterboarding is severe cognitive deficits and dysfunction across all domains of memory, processing, executive function, reaction time, mood, and perception.2 From a neuroscientific basis, torture is analogous to dropping a password-protected USB drive into a blender to hack into its contents.
The ethical question, then, is not whether it is morally acceptable to use torture as a means of extracting information from suspects, but rather, is the jumbled up and often useless information gathered by torture worth the cost to our humanity? Proponents of torture might reason that there is a paucity of evidence because of the lack of randomized controlled trials to argue against its use. Yet we do not need randomized controlled studies to know that a healthy diet and exercise is better than sedentary lifestyle filled with fast food.
Torture continues to exist in modern day discussions because we assume that torture holds some value to society. In that sense, maybe torture tells us more about the people advocating for it than it helps in acquiring intelligence. Perhaps the proponents of torture use information gathering only as a pretext to hide the dark side of the inhumanity that thirsts for violent and cruel retribution.
- The White House. The Vice President Appears on Meet the Press with Tim Russert [transcript]. NBC Television. September 16, 2001. Accessed February 13, 2018.
- O’Mara S. The captive brain: torture and the neuroscience of humane interrogation [published online January 3, 2018]. QJM. doi:10.1093/qjmed/hcx252
- Lieberman HR, Bathalon GP, Falco CM, Kramer FM, Morgan CA III, Niro P. Severe decrements in cognition function and mood induced by sleep loss, heat, dehydration, and undernutrition during simulated combat. Biol Psychiatry. 2005;57(4):422-429.
- Haberman C. No, Mr. Trump, Torture Doesn’t Work. The New York Times. December 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/13/opinion/trump-torture-guantanamo.html. Accessed February 13, 2018.
- Stone R. Has Obama banned torture? Yes and no. Aljazeera America. December 1, 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/12/has-obama-banned-torture-yes-and-no.html. Accessed February 13, 2018.
- Teague Beckwith R. Read the Full Transcript of the Eighth Republican Debate in New Hampshire. Time. February 6, 2016. http://time.com/4210921/republican-debate-transcript-new-hampshire-eighth/. Accessed February 13, 2018.
- Johnson J. Donald Trump on waterboarding: ‘If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.’ The Washington Post. November 23, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/23/donald-trump-on-waterboarding-if-it-doesnt-work-they-deserve-it-anyway. Accessed February 13, 2018.