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A U.S. Army reservist poses with the corpse of a man tortured to death in Abu Ghraib
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The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.
Napoleon Bonaparte[1]

Torture is the act of deliberately causing physical or mental anguish, pain, and/or harm, sometimes in order to achieve a specific result, such as obtaining information ("enhanced interrogation" for the politically correct), or sometimes as revenge or to satisfy the sadistic nature of the torturer. During the Inquisition, torture was specifically and formally approved by Pope Innocent IV with his 1252 law, the papal bull Ad Extirpanda.[2]

In spite of a long history of the use of torture by governments, religions, and individuals, research has shown that information obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable, particularly for three reasons:[3][4]

  1. Under torture, a person may say whatever the torturer wants to hear. They may incriminate innocent people or confess to crimes they know nothing about.[5][6][7]
  2. A person under torture has no real interest in helping the torturer, as they are not a willing ally. Assuming they have not been coerced into simply saying whatever the interrogator wants to hear, then their information is likely to be ambiguous, dangerous, or simply wrong.[8]
  3. People undergoing torture aren't exactly in the best state of mind to give accurate information, even if they wanted to in the first place. Neuroscience has shown strong evidence that torture degrades the subject's memory and impairs their ability to think and reason.[9][10]

More problems[edit]

In addition to those three problems of not getting accurate information, torture hurts your overall policy effectiveness in several ways. This is more applicable for governments than for, say, bank robbers, but all the same:

An anti-waterboarding protest in Iceland
  • False information gained from torture will likely harm the nation's overall interests. For instance, Japan tortured an American POW during World War Two after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to find out how many more atom bombs the United States might have. The POW was coerced into claiming there were about 100 such weapons, when the project had in fact been kept secret from the military and the Americans had no more bombs.[11] It's almost certain that this alarming but false information helped convince the Japanese to surrender. The US Senate also found that torture of suspects by the CIA generated significant false data on critical areas of counter-terrorism intelligence and harmed U.S. national security.[8]
  • Torture makes allies and neutral parties less friendly towards your side. The United States' torture program has harmed its image across the Middle East, and has been used by dictators to justify their own crimes.[12] General Paul Eaton, who was responsible for training Iraqi soldiers, said that the U.S.'s "national interests in the future — and I'm talking about generations to come — have been undermined by the awareness, by the clear truth, ground truth that the United States is going to torture people."[13]
U.S. soldiers torture a Viet Cong prisoner with stress positions during the Vietnam War
  • Torture makes other avenues of negotiation/information-gathering ineffective. Even if contacts are otherwise inclined to help the information-seekers, the possibility of being tortured as well for information makes them clam up and feign ignorance. After all, any organization brutal enough to torture people for information can't exactly be trusted to keep promises or play fairly. If Gestapo agents were offering 100,000 marks for primo information on the underground communist party, what makes you think they wouldn't just torture you for the information when you come forward to collect the reward?
  • If torture comes to light, it can be used by your adversary as proof of how brutal and inhumane you are, which will decrease your popular support and make whatever cause the victim fought for stronger. The world saw this effect in action during the War on Terror.[14]
  • If a combatant thinks they will be tortured if you capture them, they will fight harder and be less likely to surrender or cooperate.
  • Government-sanctioned torture creates a breeding ground for further atrocities. As dodgy as capital punishment is, most countries go out of their way to make the process as transparent as possible. However, to avoid the previous problems, most torture is done (even in the most brutal of regimes) with a heavy dose of secrecy. This cocktail of opaqueness and necessarily-dehumanized torture inevitably leads to further human rights abuses.
  • Torture also creates the problem of needing to do something with the captive once they do give up the information. Even if you otherwise have no interest in whether they live or die, you can't exactly let them go, because they're a witness to what happened and will probably oppose you. You could just imprison them indefinitely, give them a (probably show) trial, and/or execute them — at the cost of hurting your international standing even further.

Current events[edit]

I don't give a rat's ass if it helps! We are AMERICA! WE DO NOT FUCKING TORTURE!!!
Fox News anchor Shepard Smith nicely schooling Trace Gallagher, April 23, 2009[15]

Despite being outlawed by most countries, torture is still practiced by some, particularly dictatorships and other tyrannical or authoritarian governments. The United States has a prohibition against it, but this was all-too-frequently circumvented by outsourcing the dirty work to mercenaries private contractors, ensuring that no one was actually tortured on American soil, and as a last resort, redefining the Geneva ConventionsWikipedia to suit.[16] Ain't obeying the law grand, Republicans? There's increasing evidence that the U.S., in many cases, directly engaged in torture; they just made sure to do it in gray areas, like Guantanamo.[17][18][19]


Prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib

An example of the unreliability of torture can, surprisingly, be gleaned from the Larry Craig affair. Apparently, just the thought of the damage to his reputation and position in society made him plead guilty to a sex-related disorderly conduct charge, even though he has since claimed he was not guilty. Imagine what he would wrongly plead guilty to if torture, rather than shame, were in the offing? And this man was a tough conservative, not a librul weakling.

The military (and formerly, the CIA) claimed that torture is a worthless tactic, as the victim will admit anything to stop the torture. For gathering useful intelligence, gaining trust, bribery, or undercover operations are far more useful tactics, and don't result in the physical or mental destruction of anyone.

Terrorist propaganda tool[edit]

With regard to terrorism, torture can also serve as a catalyst to increase terrorist activity. A terrorist organization needs to play to prejudices or other discontent on the part of its potential recruits. Beating, arresting, and especially torturing or killing people gives terrorists propaganda fuel.[20] Treating them like human beings and entering into legitimate, fair political negotiation (even when abstaining from appeasing them) does not.

Most recently, the 2014 Senate report detailing how the U.S. tortured prisoners during the War on Terror was a propaganda goldmine for overseas terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and DAESH.[21] The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released a joint statement saying: "The FBI, DHS, and [National Counterterrorism Center] assess the most likely impact of the report will be attempts by foreign terrorist organizations [...] and their online supporters to exploit the report's findings by claiming they confirm the U.S. government's perceived hypocrisy and oppression of Muslims."[21] The international intelligence community has also noted that DAESH dresses its Western beheading victims in orange jumpsuits to deliberately evoke similarities to prisoners of Guantanamo Bay.[21]

Tick, tick, bullshit[edit]

Those who advocate the use of torture frequently invoke the "ticking bomb" scenario: the need to extract from someone the location of a bomb, usually specified as nuclear, set to go off at an unknown (to the torturers) location sometime in the immediate future.[22] This is stupid because such a scenario has never happened and will never happen, and torture will be used regardless of whether there's a "ticking bomb" or not.[23][24]

Besides, even if this kind of situation did occur, the person being tortured knows they are in the position of power and needs only to resist for a finite period of time. In this situation, resistance to torture becomes easier, and delaying tactics such as feigning confusion (if it's necessary to feign it), easily produced disinformation, or prolonged silence will achieve the aim of running out the clock. It isn't hard to figure this out. It's already been observed that torture tends to piss the victim off and make them more fanatical and more determined to either resist or mislead their torturers.[25] Your enemy's enemy might be your friend, but your torturer certainly isn't.


Detainees greeted at Guantanamo

It has been admitted that the U.S. military engaged in torture, including waterboarding, at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (in fact, many of the methods later used at Abu Ghraib apparently came from Guantanamo).[26] The detention facility (Camp Delta, formerly Camp X-Ray) is an interesting study into the follies of America's current policies regarding detainees. Despite the inhumane treatment of detainees, clear violations of the Geneva Convention (and the Vienna Convention on Treaties, which allows the camp to exist in the first place), Camp Delta and X-Ray have gathered little workable intelligence. While some high-ranking al-Qaeda members have been captured or killed, the organization (which is, in reality, more a philosophy than an actual organization) still remains active worldwide. The insurgency in Afghanistan is as strong as ever, and al-Qaeda retains significant influence throughout the Middle East and Africa. Camp Delta is still operational to this day, despite Barack Obama's promise to close it.

Karl Rove, also known as "Bush's brain", said he "was proud we used techniques that broke the will of these terrorists."[27] Exactly what Imperial Japan said.

Extraordinary rendition[edit]

Main article: Extraordinary rendition

Extraordinary rendition is when the United States, determined to break someone without dirtying its own hands, sends a suspect to a state that engages in the worst kind of torture. For example, despite all the heated rhetoric that the U.S. promulgates about Syria, some of the people they have captured have been sent there to be tortured.

Ashcroft-Gonzales hospital incident[edit]

When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital (and under sedation), his deputy found that many of the programs of the Bush administration (possibly including torture) were illegal. Then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales went to visit Ashcroft in the hospital to try to get him to sign off on the programs. Ashcroft refused, rightfully understanding that he was in no position to sign off on anything, and told Gonzalez to talk to his deputy, who was the acting Attorney General at the time. Then, after getting out of the hospital, Ashcroft signed off anyway.[28]

World public rejects torture, mostly[edit]

A June 2008 international survey of public attitudes to torture is rather depressing for the reality-based community: only 53% think that "All torture should be prohibited." This contrasts with the UK, where the figure is 82%. Oddly enough, most of the current techniques used by Americans were developed by the British.[29]

The U.S. falls below states like Ukraine, Poland, and Egypt, and 13% think "Torture should generally be allowed."[30]


An historical aside: in ancient Greece and Rome, and possibly elsewhere, the testimony of a slave could only be accepted by an official tribunal or court after the slave had been tortured. Surprisingly, Greece and Rome were considered at the time to be civilized countries. Of course, pretty much all and every society throughout history has considered itself to be the most advanced civilization ever...



  1. Napoleon I of France. Wikiquote.
  2. Ad extirpanda. Revolvy.
  3. The Legal Prohibition Against Torture, Human Rights Watch.
  4. Wanted: Interrogation that works and isn't torture, New Scientist.
  5. Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials. Friedrich Spee. Translated by Marcus Hellyer. Introduction by Marcus Hellyer. The University of Virginia Press.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Forced confession.
  7. I Was Tortured into Giving a False Confession to Chicago Police. By Nicholas Cannariato. Vice.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Page:US Senate Report on CIA Detention Interrogation Program.pdf/9. WikiSource. Quote: "While being subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and afterwards, multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence. Detainees provided fabricated information on critical intelligence issues, including the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities."
  9. The neuroscience of interrogation: Why torture doesn’t work. New Scientist. 11 November 2015.
  10. Science Shows That Torture Doesn't Work and Is Counterproductive. Rupert Stone. Newsweek.
  11. Jerome T. Hagen (1996). War in the Pacific, Chapter 25 "The Lie of Marcus McDilda". Hawaii Pacific University. ISBN 978-0-9653927-0-9.
  12. The Strategic Cost of Torture, Racism, and Bigotry. Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  13. Addressing America’s Trip to the “Dark Side”: The Cost of Torture. Human Rights First.
  14. Blowback: how torture fuels terrorism rather than reduces it. The Intercept.
  15. Fox anchor: "We are America! We do not f---ing torture!" Salon. April 23, 2009.
  16. The U.S. Is Still Violating the Anti-Torture Treaty It Signed 20 Years Ago. The New Republic.
  17. How the CIA tortured its detainees. The Guardian.
  18. U.N. expert says torture persists at Guantanamo Bay; U.S. denies. Reuters.
  19. Ex-Gitmo detainee on torture: "They broke me". CBS News.
  20. Guantanamo Bay: A Terrorist Propaganda Tool. Human Rights First.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Senate Torture Report Is Propaganda Bonanza for Islamic Militants, Feds Say. ABC News.
  22. Tick, Tick, Bull, Shit. Foreign Policy.
  23. The Case for Bringing Back Torture Is a Ticking Time-Bomb. The Atlantic.
  24. Law Professors: Only Jack Bauer Believes In The ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Scenario For Torture. Think Progress.
  25. Statement of National Security, Intelligence, and Interrogation Professionals. Human Rights First.
  26. Torture at Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker.
  27. Rove 'proud' of US waterboarding terror suspects, BBC
  28. What Did Bush Tell Gonzales?, The Atlantic
  29. UK forces taught torture methods The Guardian
  30. Source of poll data