Trump is Wrong: Torture Doesn’t Work

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Sorta transcript:

President Donald Trump — I still get chills when I say it out loud — has announced his desire to remove the ban on CIA “black site” prisons where suspected terrorists can be tortured. Trump has stated that he wants to bring back waterboarding and worse forms of torture because, and I quote, “torture works” and “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”

This isn’t an uncommon belief about torture. British comedian Lee Hurst Tweeted, apparently in response to the news, “Your baby is tied to a timebomb.

You have the terrorist. He tells you you have 1 hour.

Do you #torture him to find your baby or let it die?”

On a side note, if you’ve never heard of Lee Hurst that’s fine. I only know he’s a comedian because his website uses comic sans. But I’m using his Tweet as an example because it’s getting a fair bit of attention, at least on my timeline, and because Hurst clearly thinks along the same lines as Trump due to the assumptions in his Tweet.

The primary assumption is, as Trump states, “torture works.” Thanks to TV and movies, the general public still has an outdated idea that if you beat the ever loving shit out of someone, that person will tell you what you want to know. In Hurst’s case, the terrorist will at some point tell you where he has inexplicably tied your baby to a time bomb.

But research shows that that’s just not the case — torture does not result in accurate information. In fact, the science clearly shows that even coercive interrogation techniques much less brutal than torture result in a stunning uptick in false confessions and bad information. Those false confessions and information lead to wasted time, energy, and sometimes lives, in cases where you may be sending soldiers into dangerous situations for no actual good reason.

As a bonus, torture doesn’t just create psychological distress for the victim. The perpetrators of torture are also harmed. People who are ordered to commit atrocities may feel their actions are justified in the moment, but once they’re removed from that environment they’ll feel the actual weight of what they did, and it’s not a pretty picture.

So thus far in Hurst’s situation, we’ve tortured a suspect, probably got false information, and psychologically damaged ourselves.

But what about Trump’s follow-up statement: “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway”? Well, how do we know? How do we know the guy we’ve just tortured is even the right person? How do we know he isn’t just a mentally ill person claiming to have tied your baby to a time bomb? Because seriously, who ties a baby to a time bomb in the first place?

The American public was told that the people being held in Guantanamo Bay were the absolute worst terrorists we could detain. But of the 700 men held there, 400 were cleared for release, mostly due to just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of the prisoners there have been tortured.

Or what about in the aftermath of September 11, when more than 5,000 people were detained for suspected ties to terrorism? Of those 5,000, three were charged. One was convicted. That’s about 5,000 innocent people who may have been subjected to torture if Donald Trump and Lee Hurst had their way.

So if a terrorist claims to have tied your baby to a timebomb, don’t “#torture” him. Start by asking yourself, “Wait…do I even have a baby?” And then remind yourself that ignorant men will use any ridiculous hypothetical to convince you to throw science and your humanity in the garbage. Don’t fall for it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. Hypothetical situations can be set up to make anything sound reasonable. The most common lately is to ask if one would torture a suspected terrorist to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Saying yes does not sound unreasonable giving the imaginary situation. So for those who like such comically simplistic justifications, just ask if they would go to prison for 40 yrs to prevent a nuclear holocaust. I think most people would also say yes, now you switched from a choice of only torture to one of self sacrifice as well. Now everyone is happy. Torture can and should be illegal, but if you are really are sure it works, and you have the right person, and you are sure you can prevent a nuclear holocaust, then go ahead. You can be the happiest person in prison having saved millions, but if you are wrong, justice is served. Then when someone begins to think unrealistic hypotheticals can be useful, ask then how many live kittens would they eat to save their baby from werewolves.

    1. The self-sacrifice point is a brilliant angle I hadn’t heard before. But what’s always bugged me about those hypotheticals is that they are always asking the wrong question. They always end with “would you torture?” Put in a stressful enough situation, I don’t doubt in the least that most people *would* torture. Some of them quite gleefully.

      But you might as well offer the same hypothetical and ask at the end “would you kick the bastard’s teeth in?” Because that’s, in essence, what the hypothetical is asking. Note that the hypothetical completely avoids any serious consideration of whether what you do is the lest bit effective. Indeed, it’s precisely crafted that way.

      The hypothetical is putting you in a situation where you are almost totally powerless, and asking you whether you would do something completely *regardless* of its efficacy. One could easily imagine people placed in any situation where they feel helpless and powerless being willing to take any action, no matter how absurd and tenuous its potential efficacy might be, rather than doing *nothing*. This is the whole point behind the “logic” of “there are no atheists in foxholes” and the like; if your baby is tied to a bomb with only an hour left to be saved, an atheist might even attempt prayer. Which has only slightly less chance of being effective than torture.

      It’s also worth noting that this kind of hypothetical is always carefully crafted to make any action you take – regardless of how ill-informed, ineffective, or violent – seem at least somewhat justified. You’ll never see one of these torture-hypotheticals asking you to consider torture to defend political or economic interests, even though that’s what torture is usually used for in practice. It’s a lot easier to manipulate people into doing horrible things to save a baby than to protect the supply of oil.

      Ultimately, such hypotheticals are little more than masturbatory fantasies for “justifiable” violence.

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