Popular culture is confused about torture. This has probably always been true, but it’s been especially notable in the last 15 years as “enhanced interrogation” entered the lexicon and torture began to be routinely used as an interrogation technique in film, games and television. Sometimes game developers and writers got it right, but often they got it wrong. Disinformation, popular misconceptions and wishful thinking have all contributed to a profound misunderstanding about the effectiveness, legality and morality of torture as a method of interrogation. This is particularly problematic because the interrogation/interview scene is a mainstay of drama; there are lots of opportunities to get it wrong. As it happens, I might be qualified to provide some clarity. I have an MFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon and worked in the computer game industry for more than seven years as a game designer and writer. Today I work in program development at the Center for Victims of Torture as strategic initiatives officer. I am also a published playwright, with credits in film and television, and I continue to maintain a career in the arts. So I would like to offer my thoughts on the subject of torture from the perspective of a dramatic writer, some considerations for those well-meaning artists out there who might be considering incorporating torture (or even an interrogation scene) into your game, film, stage play, radio play, television show, anime or opera. Let’s start with why you should think carefully before incorporating torture into a narrative:
- Torture can’t prove innocence
- Torture is ineffective
- Torture is not about gathering information
- Torture is illegal
- Torture is counter-productive and antithetical to American values
- Torture diminishes both perpetrator and victim
- What to do if you’re a writer and need a torture scene?
Torture is ineffectiveFirst a caveat. Even if torture was the most effective means of interrogation ever invented, it should still not be used. Ever. It was outlawed for a reason. Nuclear weapons are far more “effective” at destroying military installations than standard artillery, but we don’t use them. We also outlawed mustard gas as well as chemical and biological weapons and the neutron bomb, which could all be considered more effective at killing groups of people than standard military assault rifles, grenades or artillery. Even if torture was super effective at gleaning information, it’s immoral and a crime and should be outlawed. No matter what the scenario. By definition, you can’t use the dark side of the force for good; that’s exactly how you become Darth Vader. That being said, it’s worth noting that torture is actually not effective, except in the same way a broken clock is effective at telling time. In his book Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, brain scientist Shane O’Mara points out the ways in which common torture techniques like waterboarding and sleep deprivation damage cognitive facilities to such an extent that suspects not only make false confessions, but don’t even remember doing it. In a 2015 episode of the BBC documentary Panorama, a volunteer who underwent waterboarding not only confessed to “being born a bunny rabbit,” but had no memory of even doing so. Waterboarding systematically deprives the brain of oxygen through simulated drowning while at the same time causing carbon dioxide build up in the body over time, which leads to fear, panic, and cognitive impairment. Recent research projects on sleep deprivation, many of which have focused on far less dramatic deprivation than that carried out by the CIA, have highlighted the ways in which lack of sleep can impact cognition, inhibit the accuracy of memory, create mood changes, cause hallucinations and lead to false confessions. O’Mara also points out that torture wouldn’t necessarily work faster than traditional interrogation; it’s basically never a better option. So why would we intuitively think that a suspect who is disoriented, exhausted, freaking out, suffering mild hallucinations and rambling incoherently would give actionable intelligence, particularly under a time limit? Why would we assume it’s more effective than building relationships, acquiring social leverage, negotiating and offering trade-offs, or subtle “information elicitation” strategies like the Scharff technique? I’m glad you asked. It’s because…
Torture is not about gathering informationStrictly speaking, torture is not actually an interrogation technique at all. It’s an intimidation and punishment technique during which people can ask questions. Sort of like how a professional baseball game is not a peanut gathering event but a sporting event during which people can get a bag of peanuts. In reality, the primary goal of torture is to shatter individual will, destroy community, intimidate dissidents, enforce compliant behavior, create a climate of fear and exact vengeance. Gathering usable intelligence is usually at the bottom of the list, if it’s there at all. That’s why proponents of torture talk first and foremost of vengeance, of “getting tough” and “fighting fire with fire.” They also forget that.
Torture is illegalYes, it’s a crime. By United States statute, an act of torture committed outside the United States is punishable under 18 U.S.C. § 2340. In addition, the United States is a party to the following treaties that prohibit torture: the 1949 Geneva Conventions (signed 1949; ratified 1955), the American Convention on Human Rights (signed 1977), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (signed 1977; ratified 1992), and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (signed 1988; ratified 1994). A number of protections were made stronger as a result of the recent McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment to the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which codified the Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations as the standard for interrogations across all government agencies. It’s also worth highlighting that the Bush administration did not actually make torture legal. It created a new category of “other stuff,” called enhanced interrogation, and said those didn’t amount to torture. Then it took a bunch of atrocities, such as waterboarding, and moved them out of the illegal torture column and into the enhanced interrogation column. This was a magic trick of legal misinterpretation. Prior to this, “enhanced interrogation” did not exist in the U.S., and waterboarding, for example, had been considered torture dating back to the 16th century before we arbitrarily decided it wasn’t. I just want to note here that if Medieval Europeans (the same people who wanted to drill a hole in your skull to cure your depression) considered something violent enough to call “water torture,” it’s probably not something we should be using as part of our legal investigative process in the 21st Century, no matter what we call it. And even it if was legal.
Torture is counter-productive and antithetical to American valuesOne of the most important factors distinguishing the British from the Americans in the Revolutionary War is that George Washington refused to torture British POWs. Here’s what Washington wrote in a letter to General Benedict Arnold in 1775 before his invasion of Canada (yes, that Benedict Arnold and that Canada and yes, it feels silly to write “invasion of Canada” even if it technically happened):
“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any Canadian or Indian [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”And following the Battle of Trenton in 1776, Washington wrote this, with respect to the captured Hessian mercenaries:
“Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”By the way, that was this battle. Washington took this point of view despite rather than because of British treatment of Americans. It was the British who declared the Americans “non-combatants” and thus not subject to the rules of war. All of the Americans captured at Bunker Hill at the beginning of the war were dead by 1778, and an estimated 8,000 – 12,000 American POWs, often held in brutal conditions on floating prison ships off the coast, died at the hands of the British through starvation and beatings. In contrast, many of the Hessians who survived the Revolutionary War went on to become American citizens afterwards. It didn’t end there. In the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln adopted General Order No. 100, Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, otherwise known as the Lieber Code. Article 16 begins:
“Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.”The Leiber Code became the foundation for subsequent civilized rules of war, including the Hague and Geneva Conventions. Meanwhile in the 21st Century, there’s plenty of evidence that torture and war crimes by American operatives led to increased radicalization and a hardening of anti-American attitudes that made it more difficult to achieve strategic goals related to making the world safer. 250 years of having the moral high ground on human rights pioneered by our country has been severely damaged. We’re in danger of becoming the villains in our own origin story, spiritual descendants not of George Washington but of King George III.
Torture diminishes both perpetrator and victimMany of the thousands of American soldiers who worked in detention centers suffered PTSD as a result of their experiences. For her book Tortured: When Good Soldiers do Bad Things, Justine Sharrock interviewed soldiers who participated in abuse and torture in Iraq. Many had symptoms of PTSD and describe their time working in the prisons, not their time in combat, as the most debilitating. In None of Us Were Like this Before, Joshua E.S. Phillips describes the ways in which ordinary soldiers both contributed to abuse and were debilitated by it. As Jonathon Shay writes in that book’s introduction:
“The overwhelming majority of people who volunteer for our armed forces are not psychopaths; they are good people who would be damaged were they to live with the knowledge that they had applied torture or committed murder. The distinction between lawful combatant (who may be legally and morally attacked) and protected person is the bright line between soldier and murderer.”CVT generally does not treat perpetrators, but you, as writers portraying torture, have an obligation to do so as artists. The act of torture carries weight that must be grappled with.