The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

On Witches and Terrorists

published May 2017

Why torture doesn’t work

Scientific American (cover)

As recounted by author and journalist Daniel P. Mannix, during the European witch craze the Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition’s use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits re ported. The duke was skeptical. Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn’t believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals…. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.” Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”

One of these Jesuits was Friedrich Spee, who responded to this poignant experiment on the psychology of torture by publishing a book in 1631 entitled Cautio Criminalis, which played a role in bringing about the end of the witch mania and demonstrating why torture as a tool to obtain useful information doesn’t work. This is why, in addition to its inhumane elements, torture is banned in all Western nations, including the U.S., whose Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”

What about waterboarding? That’s “enhanced interrogation,” not torture, right? When the late journalist Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding for one of his Vanity Fair columns, he was forewarned (in a document he had to sign) that he might “receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.” Even though Hitchens was a hawk on terrorism, he nonetheless concluded: “If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Still, what if there’s a “ticking time bomb” set to detonate in a major city, and we have the terrorist who knows where it is— wouldn’t it be moral to torture him to extract that information? Surely the suffering or death of one to save millions is justified, no? Call this the Jack Bauer theory of torture. In the hit television series 24, Kiefer Sutherland’s character is a badass counterterrorism agent whose “ends justify the means” philosophy makes him a modern-day Tomás de Torquemada. In most such scenarios, Bauer (and we the audience) knows that he has in his clutches the terrorist who has accurate information about where and when the next attack is going to occur and that by applying just the right amount of pain, he will extort the correct intelligence just in time to avert disaster. It’s a Hollywood fantasy. In reality, the person in captivity may or may not be a terrorist, may or may not have accurate information about a terrorist attack, and may or may not cough up useful intelligence, particularly if his or her motivation is to terminate the torture.

In contrast, a 2014 study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology entitled “The Who, What, and Why of Human Intelligence Gathering” surveyed 152 interrogators and found that “rapport and relationship-building techniques were employed most often and perceived as the most effective regardless of context and intended outcome, particularly in comparison to confrontational techniques.” Another 2014 study in the same journal— “In terviewing High Value Detainees”—sampled 64 practitioners and detainees and found that “detainees were more likely to disclose meaningful information … and earlier in the interview when rapport-building techniques were used.”

Finally, an exhaustive 2014 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzed millions of internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects, concluding that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” It adds that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.” Terrorists are real. Witches are not. But real or imagined, torture doesn’t work.

topics in this column: , ,

29 Comments to “On Witches and Terrorists”

  1. Patrick Wright Says:

    The purpose of torture is not really to get information, it’s to terrorize into compliance all the people who haven’t been tortured yet.

  2. Richard Morris Says:

    Patrick Wright (above) is correct.

  3. Douglas Bullock Says:

    And perhaps, generate satisfaction and praise (for any result gained) amoungts those torturing. But, I cannot speculate regarding how much sadistic pleasure might be obtained.

  4. Dan McGrath Says:

    Compliance? Can one point to obvious successes in obtaining compliance from “all the people who haven’t been tortured yet”?
    Is that a ‘purpose’ or a mere rationalization?

  5. Emily Dickinson Says:

    The “witch” had no valid info; you can’t get “facts” about a fantasy. But if kidnapper of your little daughter were on the rack??? Pain to the point of death—or truth?

  6. Patrick Stirling Says:

    @Emily Dickinson – this is why we have a police force and outlaw vigilantes. Further, how can you be sure this really is your daughter’s kidnapper and not some unlucky innocent? Even with our “justice” system, far too many innocents end up in jail or worse. But the point of the article is that under torture you can never be sure that the confession is correct, even if you do have the right person, and that there are better ways to get the info you want. We as a society should strive to better ourselves, not reduce ourselves to the levels of terrorists and kidnappers.

  7. Mike Colyar Says:

    Have none of you read the Milgram study?

    Humans are sadistic animals. Get used to it. The rules of law is your only protection from your neighbors.

  8. Anne Says:

    Witches are not real? Guess I had better let all my Wiccan friends know.

    While witches cannot fly or perform magic, they do, in fact exist, and probably always have.

  9. Tony Almada Says:

    Skeptics need to base opinions on scientific testing. Unfortunately it would be unethical to implement a well designed scientific study on torture so therefore I doubt this highly emotional subject will be resolved. However the article cited doesn’t even begin to pass the smell test of any worthwhile study. It cannot be relied upon in any manner to demonstrate torture under the right circumstances stances might work. That’s the problem what could “right circumstances” be??? Without a rigerous scientific study we may never know. Let’s not be P.C. about this or any other issues. Skeptics shouldn’t be P.C.!!! Let’s admit at least which ever position one takes on this issue we can’t know for sure. This is scary and uncomfortable and most people even Skeptics like to avoid the unknown.

  10. ACW Says:

    Another point, which this article omits, against the effectiveness of torture is that ‘true believers’ or those firm in their convictions may find in them the courage to withstand torture.Many are the heretics who went to their deaths, even long, slow and horrible, taking refuge in their faith. Rabbi Akiva was flayed alive with iron combs; Jan Hus, among many others, burned at the stake; Thomas More among many others beheaded. One man in the Inquisition, whose name I don’t recall, was sentenced to be slowly boiled in oil. This is a particularly painful, prolonged death. Even as the cauldron heated around him and he stood up to his waist, eyewitnesses reported, he continued calmly to pray and to beseech his deity to forgive his executioners. Good heavens, someone who’s willing to turn himself into a human bomb and be blown to bits, or, like the Kamikazes of WW II or the 9/11 hijackers, to crash a plane, is not going to be broken by a waterboarding. To think otherwise is the mark of a person who doesn’t know what it is to hold a conviction so deeply as to be willing to suffer, sacrifice, and die for it (which is just sad, but that’s a different philosophical inquiry). More likely, especially in the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, he will give deliberately false intel to send his tormentors on a wild goose chase.

  11. Ann W Says:

    @ ACW

    All your observations are correct.
    It is far from certain that useful information can be obtained from a suspect by torture.

    Not only may they be torturing a person without the information, or who is willing to be tortured for “The Cause,” or who deliberately supplies false information … not only all of that, it is also morally repugnant.

    But the thing is this:
    In a very high-stakes interrogation, in cases where death and destruction are imminent, then why not use it anyway?

    If the suspect is left undisturbed in his prison cell, saying nothing, there is a 0% chance that those lives can be saved.

    With torture, if the probability rises to only 1% that the information is useful, that is still an improvement.

  12. Donald McLeod Says:

    The bomb in the city arguement is based on several questionable assumptions. First the bomb threat is real. In most cases it is not. Second, they have the right person that knows where the bomb is. Law enforcement is good, but not flawless. Three, the person doing the torture has the skill to make it painful yet not kill or drive unconscious the person with the bomb information. Most law enforce agencies in this country lack people trained to be good at torture. Four, torture will get the job done before the bomb explodes. My guess is there is not much data on how quickly bombs are set to explode on average versus how long torture takes to get accurate information.

  13. Tzindaro Says:

    The United States uses torture both in ordinary criminal cases at home and in overseas military ones, for domestic political reasons. It makes a certain demographic vote for the “hard-line” politician who will “get tough” and satisfy the urge to torture in those voters.

    It makes no difference if it “works” or not. What matters is the image of “toughness”. There is no difference between torture in an overseas military setting and a “get tough on crime” campaign at home. The public resistance to shorter prison terms or more humane prisons shows exactly why the US army is under orders to torture prisoners of war in other countries.

    The American public are savages. Most Western countries are horrified at the criminal justice system in the US, the conditions in American prisons, the ability of the police to literally get away with murder, the sentencing of children as young as 11 to life without parole, the lack of even the smallest attempts at rehabilitation, and other horrors of the American privatized prison industry.

    The usual practices of American courts and prisons amount to torture and there is no reason to expect the Army to do things any differently.

  14. Stan Roelker Says:

    I would like to read about the cases where “being nice” to the terrorist or criminal helped reveal the necessary facts. Presenting concrete cases would help sway my opinion. Cite specific examples please.

  15. Jim Says:

    One of the problems with this discussion is that the subject has become so politicized (e.g., the preposterous assertions by Tzindaro, above) that it’s hard to discuss rationally. Although I don’t approve of torture for moral reasons, I don’t think the arguments against its effectiveness are persuasive.

    I agree that torture victims are likely to say whatever they think will stop their torture. (I know I would.) That fact rules out a large class of questions, such as “Did you plant the bomb?” since the answer will always be yes. However, other types of questions (“Where is the bomb located?), are verifiable, at least in some circumstances. To me, common sense suggests that torture may be an effective (if deplorable) way to extract important information from a captive, provided that the information can be verified or checked and that enough time is available to do so. I have heard that it is common practice to verify the authenticity of answers gained under coercion by including “planted” questions, the answers to which are already known. Torture most likely would not work for “Jack Bauer” questions, which always involve a ticking clock, but that doesn’t mean the practice is necessarily ineffective in all situations.

  16. Ramey Zamora Says:

    Torture is only possible because some human beings are willing to do it to others. This can start with torturing animals, which is and has been a “tradition” in many cultures, and moves on to state-authorized use of torture as a weapon of civil punishment and control. There are always individuals who will volunteer to be torturers. In so many cases in modern times, we find that these people were abused, tortured or otherwise cruelly treated themselves. Our society must enact and enforce laws to prevent the use of torture on any living thing (hey, I include plants here – stay tuned, you’re gonna find out they have a consciousness of their own). That is how to evolve out of the abyss of inflicting pain, mostly useless, on our fellow creatures.

  17. William Grewe-Mullins Says:

    Of course torture doesn’t work. Even the torturers know that. But just so long as it makes Dick Cheney feel good about himself, good that he thinks he is doing the “right thing”, that’s all that matters. And he passed this sickness on to Donald Trump who is certain in his childlike mind, that Torture Works.

  18. skeptonomist Says:

    The “ticking time bomb” scenario is nonsense. Its probability is so small as to be negligible. Torture is actually used for quite different purposes, perhaps most often to extort false confessions. A fake scenario is used to divert discussion – as witnessed by several commenters in this thread – from what is actually going on.

  19. Mark Fournier Says:

    Torture is also in part based upon a flawed conception of human memory as a “tape” that can simply be replayed. In fact, it is constructed in the act of recall, and recalling it under duress changes what is recalled. The Jack Bauer scenario is so rare it has probably never actually happened (if you have one member of the conspiracy, it’s usually fairly easy to track his associates, with or without his help.) More often what you are looking for is that one innocuous fact which when combined with others tells you something you didn’t know before–and that is exactly what you will lose with torture.

  20. bruce Says:

    I’m a little curious to hear how zamora already knows this: “(hey, I include plants here – stay tuned, you’re gonna find out they have a consciousness of their own)”.
    But I’m not that curious as I suspect his/her intelligence level is perhaps lower than a dandelion’s.

  21. Edward T Haines Says:

    For torture to occur, both the victim and the torturer must lose their humanism. One can only carry out torture of a defenseless person by first thinking of that person as evil and not deserving of humane treatment. In addition, only psychopaths or persons with minimal to no moral humaneness can carry out torture of another. In the end, both of the persons involved lose.
    Because of the above paragraph, to me there is no reason to question whether torture is effective. It is dehumanizing and evil. To justify it is not unlike justifying murder of a helpless person. Oh wait, our society does that every time we carry out a capital punishment, don’t we?

  22. Shekwolo Says:

    There is an innate need in man to dominate other men via torture and otherwise. Whether its right or wrong is irrelevant. Does it get the job done? Maybe! The most important thing is that it wont ever stop.

  23. Charles Says:

    When my wife was a girl, her mother suspected her of stealing some money (which she had not done). He mother beat her other four daughters in front of my future wife in a futile attempt to get her to confess.

  24. MBDK Says:

    Those supporting the idea of torture are attempting to rationalize the irrational. Dehumanizing another begins with the dehumanization of self.

  25. awc Says:

    I have not investigated but concluded, there must be a pill for that. Pharmacology today can get you to confess. I’m certain.

  26. awc Says:

    Most torture is done not knowing if the person is guilty or innocent

  27. Robin Oxman Says:

    I’m reminded of the 60 minutes interview with associate Justice Scalia in which he was asked if waterboarding was considered cruel and unusual punishment in the context of the Constitution. His answer was,”no, for what is he being punished?”

  28. Barbara Harwood Says:

    Another aspect of torture is the relentless interrogation of a suspect by police until the person reaches a state in which he will confess to something that he did not do just to end the suffering. This may not seem as bad as some of the popular methods of torture, but many false confessions have been obtained in this manner. This would include depriving the person of sleep and any other relief that he may need.
    Torturers may start in a small way with bullying. I recall that in school it was standard practice to encourage the older children to mistreat or bully the younger ones. This guarantees the pecking order and makes life miserable for those who find themselves in a scary new place to feel even less confident. Fortunately, not all children believe in doing what is considered normal behavior toward smaller children.

  29. LindaRosaRN Says:

    While it is often taken for hyperbole, there is a pseudo-psychotherapy inflicted on adopted/foster children in the USA that is based on torture.

    Torture is defined (UN Treaty on Torture) as the intentional infliction of mental and/or physical pain for a purpose.

    These “therapists” use hours of physical restraint with assorted aversives (suffocation, knuckling the sternum, threats of abandonment, etc.) to re-enact what the therapist assumes the children experienced earlier in life. This is supposed to cause “repressed memories” of abuse to resurface so that “infantile rage” can be drained off by catharsis (another discredited notion). During these sessions, the children are also expected to confess to more and more incidents of bad behavior that they have presumably kept secret from their current caregivers.

    Obviously, “Attachment Therapy” is a misnomer for this practice, which has also led to deaths, starvation, caging, and other atrocious treatment of children. It has also led to wholesale misconceptions among Americans about child development and Reactive Attachment Disorder.

    More info:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data.