, 2009, President Obama released four top secret memoranda,
written by top White House's lawyers of the second Bush administration, that came
to be known as the torture memos. These documents not only detailed the
'enhanced interrogation' techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) on suspected terrorists detained at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and
other secret detention centers around the world, but justified them as
effective ways of obtaining sensitive information—and approved their use.
memos describe 10 techniques that were employed with at least 14 suspects, and
possibly many, many more: attention grasp, facial hold, facial slap, walling,
wall standing, stress positions, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation, insect
placed in a confinement box, and waterboarding. Related documents disclose the
use of additional methods: one captive was “interrogated for approximately 20
hours a day for seven weeks; given strip searches, sometimes in the presence of
female interrogators; forced to wear women's underwear; forcibly injected with
large quantities of IV fluid and forced to urinate on himself; led around on a
leash; made to bark like a dog; and subjected to cold temperatures;” another
was given a lunch of “hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins,” with the
ingredients being “pureed and rectally infused.”
assumption, based on intuition and folk psychology, is that such methods will
“break” the captives and enhance their ability to recall incriminating facts.
In his book, Shane O'Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at
Trinity College, Dublin, casts a highly critical eye over claims by proponents
of torture that the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques can indeed
effectively elicit sensitive information.
would, of course, be highly unethical to mimic the effects of torture under
experimental conditions in order to investigate how it affects victims, and so
there are precious few studies that explicitly aim to do so. O'Mara scours the
biomedical literature, and describes those human studies that have been
performed, along with a wealth of animal experiments that demonstrate the
neurological and psychological effects of torture.
this research shows that the effects of torture may in fact be exactly the opposite
of what they are intended and claimed to be. It is, for example, well known
that memory is reconstructive, rather than reproductive, in nature; our
recollection of life events fits newly acquired information into a framework of
prior knowledge, expectations, and biases. At best, our memories are not
entirely accurate; in extreme cases, they can be misleading or even totally
than facilitating memory recall, the various 'stressors' experienced under
interrogation—the physiological changes that occur in response to the
uncomfortable positions in which captives are held, the physical pain inflicted
upon them, and the prolonged periods of sleep deprivation to which they are
subjected—not only make our recollections less accurate, but also make us more
susceptible to confabulating entirely false ones.
while torture does make captives more likely to confess, the information
obtained is not likely to be accurate, and could be pure fabrication—a “broken”
captive will almost certainly be extremely confused, to the point where he may
be unable to distinguish fact from fantasy, and could very well tell his
interrogators what they want to hear in the hope that they will stop torturing
morally opposed to torture, O'Mara sets ethics and values aside to focus on the
scientific evidence. He skillfully dissects the claims put forward in the
torture memos, and systematically demolishes them. In so doing, he presents an
air-tight argument against the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, on the
grounds that they simply do not produce the desired effects.
though, governments rarely let scientific evidence stand in the way of their
political aims, and, as O'Mara makes clear, the second Bush administration
endorsed the techniques with little or no concern for their adverse effects,
and despite existing evidence that they do not work as intended. Furthermore,
the torture memos disingenuously claim that they are not only effective, but
also that their use led at least some captives to divulge useful
the US government's decision to use torture is not based on sound reasoning or
scientific evidence, and the torture memos served merely to provide a legal
basis for the use of these abhorrent practices.
such practices continue to be used widely by democracies around the world,
where they have been sanctioned by both government and various members of the
medical profession: last year, while this book was in production, an
independent review revealed that the American Psychological Association—the
largest professional body of psychologists in the US—was complicit in the CIA's
use of these brutal techniques.
devotes the concluding chapters of his book to the psychological factors that
contribute to compliance and obedience, and the detrimental effects that
torture has on those who inflict it —something the torture memos briefly
acknowledge but then gloss over. He goes on to suggest less coercive methods
that may work better to elicit useful information—approaches that use virtual
reality role-playing, for example—but adds that more research will have to be
done to determine whether or not they are indeed effective.
the past few decades, neuroscientists have made enormous advances in
understanding brain and behavior. O'Mara expresses
surprise that they have not brought this new knowledge to bear on these issues,
and his hope that his book will galvanize colleagues in neuroscience,
psychology, and psychiatry to become involved in them.
Why Torture Doesn't
is exceedingly well written and meticulously researched. It is not an
easy book to read—because of its subject matter—but it is a hugely important
because of its subject matter—but it is a hugely