Torture was central to both the witch scares and the Inquisition

A nugget of awesome from AJ Milne in a Pharyngula thread discussing Sam Harris’ justification of torture in hypothetical scenarios:

Re torture and memory, see also this, on the findings of one neuroscientist on what that kind of stress does to the brain.

As a layman in this field, I have to say I find this not at all surprising, given what we think we know of the general fragility of memory.

Note also that we know painfully well from the historical record just what bizarre fictions can be concocted into convictions when you mix the heavy hand of torture into the judicial process. Remember: torture was central to both the witch scares and the Inquisition, and that under such duress, people confessed at length and in great detail to the fantastic and impossible, often also indicting others, in a spreading, spiraling cascade of fantasies. Remember also that terror regimes the world over use it delightedly to terrify and suppress dissidents within their populations.

Keep that last bunch in mind, especially. Because they point to the truth of this thing.

That hard truth being: torture is, as many, many competent professionals are telling you, close to useless for getting timely and precise intel. Rather: its only particularly reliable value as a tool of statecraft is as a method of terror and suppression. And those who use it frequently know this perfectly well. Their intention isn’t to get their victims to confess a truth and save the city from some mythical suitcase bomb: their intention is to get their victims to confess anything they can use to justify further and spreading punishment and suppression. And they can do this only in an environment in which there are people naive enough to believe the absurd perjuries concocted under such conditions.

Don’t be one of those people.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, skepticism

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10 replies

  1. That comment reminds me of a head-bangingly bad comment thread on The Friendly Atheist post on Sam Harris.
    I can’t find a way to link the actual comment, but it starts with this response by Blacksheep to another commenter:

    You cannot simply reject it “on all grounds.” If you were the parent in the linked story “The beating” and chose not to use torture to save your child you would be partly responsible for his death. Life is not as simple as you would like it to be. 

    I honestly can’t fathom the mindset of a person who would honestly think something like that. Even if torture wasn’t all but proven to be completely ineffective, why would anyone–Sam Harris, Blacksheep, and the people who agree–think that it would be the best use of resources? PZ pointed out in his post what I thought was immediately obvious from the scenario: searching for the car would be faster and more effective than trying to beat a confession out of an unwilling person.
    It seems to me that people who see scenarios like “The Beating” and think it’s a fair justification for torture are just looking to rationalize turning off their brain and indulging in violent revenge fantasies. Maybe that’s too broad a brush, but isn’t the “it is to save the baaaby!” part of the scenario used explicitly to arouse our sympathies for the parents and dehumanize the torturee (after all, don’t our societies call people who hurt children “monsters”?), thereby making it “ok” to commit acts of violence against them that we would normally call criminal?
    The more I think about this, the angrier I get at the blatant manipulation behind using hypothetical situations like “The Beating”.

  2. The hypothetical situations always seem to involve a family member, rather than the governments (or criminal syndicates) who are most likely to actually use torture in an attempt to bypass moral thought and go straight for the emotions. Would I blame the family of a murder victim who called for torture or the death penalty? No, I wouldn’t. But it’s not their decision and nor should it be. It’s a form of terrorism and no more legitimate because a democratically elected government uses it.

  3. Life is not as simple as you would like it to be.
    I hear projection.

  4. Later in that thread someone argued that everybody arguing against torture was effectively showing terrorists that they were cowardy cowardy custard pushovers, and that it was all their fault that the West was going to fall to the Islamists.
    AJ Milne (glad to see his website URL resolves to more than just an SQL error now) has a great (long) response to that as well:

    This implication that it somehow takes ‘courage’ to torture people or to countenance doing so, this is, of course, a) quite disgustingly self-serving, and b) quite (darkly) hilariously wrong.
    It doesn’t take courage to torture. It takes, as any number of governments can tell you, a chain of command.
    (A bureaucracy, of course, can be useful, too. But then, that generally goes with the chain of command.)
    Even at the bottom-most rung–in the actual torture chamber, where bones are broken and the prisoner is screaming and sobbing and bleeding, they don’t need anyone special to do the job, really. They just need to socialize them right, beforehand. Torturers are whoever you can get to do the job, and you always find someone. They don’t have different brains than yours or mine; they’re not psychopaths, exactly, or they don’t start that way. They’re just people suitably enmeshed with the social and organizational structure, and convinced this is the way forward, this is the job they’ve been given to do, and that people above them have made the decision anyway, and thus their own conscience is subsumed and suppressed within the larger whole. If they manage to begin to see the subjects of their ministrations as less than human, of course, they will last longer on the job, but this isn’t necessary for them to get going. They just have to follow orders.
    In short, it doesn’t take heroes. It takes company men.
    And, of course, it takes bureaucrats, but then, that’s much the same thing. In the middle, it just takes a sense that you’re part of a larger machine, that this isn’t your affair, that the decision is made, and what can you do? You’re part of the larger system, you’re owned by the system, and you put your objections aside and get on with pushing the paper that moves prisoner X to cell Y. What happens in cell Y will be made properly aseptic with distancing language. These are ‘enhanced interrogations’. ‘Interrogation’ is a pretty bloodless word, and so is ‘enhanced’; the specific use of electrical cords in the chamber and the nauseating terror that comes with a sensation of drowing and the stark, black, hopeless depression that’s to be induced by any means necessary–isolation, being held incommunicado and being assured no one on the outside even knows you’re gone, sensory deprivation and so on–as part of the overall manipulation are unlikely to be described in any great detail on the transfer.
    At the top, of course, it just takes a few demagogues who realize nursing a public anxiety along and finding a scapegoat and vilifying them sufficiently is frequently a pretty good ticket to sustained power. I might almost credit this level of the hierarchy, perhaps, with a certain limited courage–as there may be involved somewhere the courage of a gambler blowing on the dice and hoping–the courage, in this case, that they have played their political calculus correctly and the mob will bay for blood on cue as opposed to running them out of town on the rail…
    But really, in our context, with the modern science of PR, even this would be romanticising it unrealistically, and being far too kind. For here and now they know too well by the time they give the order that they’re going to get away with it because their focus groups have told them so; all that is necessary therefore to proceed is some patient rationalizing and a sufficient cynicism for at once playing the public like a fiddle and, of course, at the end of the day, accepting that someone somewhere else no one you know much likes anyway and whom you’ve already convinced yourself as part and parcel of believing your own propaganda are universally Satan incarnate anyway are going to be generally beaten and terrorized.
    So courage? Hardly. Mind, nor would I credit anyone opposing so much with ‘courage’, exactly, either, not in our context…
    Unless, of course, they’re directly part of that chain of command, and in doing so they do disobey that fateful order. That would take nerve. But, regrettably, as noted, that’s a fairly rare a sort of nerve. Putting it more kindly for those enmeshed in these miseries, I guess you could venture that maybe the bureaucracies and chains of command have developed their techniques too well. They know how to get it done, apparently.

    • Milne’s last paragraph contrasted to the accusation of “cowardice” if one refuses to torture “the enemy” reminds me of so much of the pushback to social justice activism, where those who are pointing out that the status quo is unjust and oppressive are labelled “thin-skinned whiners playing victim” for taking the known unpopular stance that many things ought to change, while those who trenchantly attempt to shout them down are “courageously” insisting on “just telling it how it is” and standing up for the status quo against the exploitative nanny-state NWO scam that is “political correctness”.

  5. Social psychology provides a lot of useful references on torture – or at least the whole “how the hell does it happen” bit.
    First, look up the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority. Those demonstrated (in their first iteration, and in each subsequent iteration before ethics committees world wide basically ruled them out completely) that finding torturers is easy. All you need is someone in authority telling people they have permission or that it’s required, and ordinary humans will administer a lethal shock to another ordinary human (particularly if they can’t see the person they’re administering the shock to). The hard ones to find are the people who will say “no” to the direct order – the rebels and the heroes are in very short supply indeed, even in an experimental context where the only thing one risks by not performing the action is the short-term disapproval of the person in the lab coat in the room with you.
    (Worth noting: Milgram designed those experiments because he was trying to get to the bottom of the “why” of the Holocaust.)
    Next, to see part of why the Milgram experiments were so successful, have a look at the experiments of Asch in 1955 and 1956, investigating conformity. In these experiments, he brought single subjects into a room which contained a number of their peers (confederates in the study) and got each member of the group to stated which of a group of three lines matched a sample line on a different card. The confederates would generally give a consistent, incorrect answer. The subject, when finally chosen, would tend to agree with this answer (at least 36% of the time, with percentages increasing as the number of confederates increased, and decreasing if there was a single, incorrect, dissenting answer). If enough people say black is white, it can be very hard to go against the flow.
    Essentially, the core point here is that humans are social animals, not moral or ethical ones. We’d like to think of ourselves as moral or ethical, but when the chips are down, most of us go with our social programming, following along where the people in charge lead, and where our peers point.

    • Speaking of Milgram, last year was the 50th anniversary of the famous experiments, and there were two fascinating programs on Radio National a few months ago about the ethical problems of Milgram’s work based on Gina Perry’s book Behind the Shock Machine. The Life Matters program page only has an audio download, but the All In The Mind panel program page has a transcript as well.

      Lynne Malcolm: Author Gina Perry. In the process of writing her book on the Milgram Experiments she tracked down some of the original participants to find out how they were affected nearly 50 years on. She found that people’s versions about what happened in the lab were very different from what Milgram had written in his book Obedience to Authority in 1974. The most striking thing she found was that people could recall in vivid detail what happened and how they were affected emotionally.
      Their views about themselves had been profoundly shaped by their experience.
      Gina Perry also found that the Milgram experiments had been re-enacted in 1973 at La Trobe University in Victoria more than 10 years after the experiments were done at Yale. Two of the participants at La Trobe were in the audience and I spoke to them afterwards.

  6. It’s interesting that we are debating the idea that it takes a ‘special’, ‘courageous’ type of person to torture v. people will do so when under the right types of authority/bureaucracy, given that: 1) we clearly have a whole bunch of people who think torture is necessary and are calling those who don’t ‘cowards’, so they presumably are not ‘cowards’ and so would torture people if necessary (bureacracy doesn’t even come it to here – this is literally people ‘volunteering’ of a sort), and 2) people commit violence on others ALL THE TIME. And in a nice reverse, we often say that if you torture women and/or children in your personal life that you are a ‘coward’ for ‘picking on someone smaller’. So, this then raises interesting questions about how people who believe in torture conceptualise violence in other contexts, like the home. It feeds back into the narrative that violence is necessary for social order and those that can’t ‘handle’ this are too weak to rule. And, the sad thing is that we don’t need special psychological conditions to create this; torture is just an extension of the everyday violence in our culture.

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