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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cruel and Unuseful Punishment

Book review by Richard J. McNally
Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation
Shane O'Mara Harvard University Press, 2015.
Science 16 October 2015:
Vol. 350 no. 6258 p. 284
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2340

Here is an excerpt:

While denying that these practices qualified as torture, the Administration and its allies also invoked the "ticking time bomb" defense to justify their efforts. In this thought experiment, law enforcement officers have seized a suspected terrorist who harbors information about an imminent attack on American soil. Should interrogators torture the detainee, forcing him to disclose details of the attack? Or should their moral aversion to inflicting temporary pain cost the lives of countless innocent civilians? Advocates of enhanced interrogation argue that, although torture is abhorrent, we must do whatever we can to prevent acts of terrorism.

Legal scholars have published persuasive moral rebuttals to the ticking time bomb defense for torture (1). Yet does torture actually work? To be sure, it can compel people to confess to crimes and to repudiate their religious and political beliefs. But there is a world of difference between compelling someone to speak and compelling them to tell the truth. As Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said, "During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop." Yet the assumption underlying the ticking time bomb defense is that abusive questioning reliably causes people to reveal truthful information that they would otherwise refuse to disclose. Few scholars have scrutinized this assumption--and none with the rigor, depth, and clarity of Shane O'Mara in his excellent book, Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation.

The entire book review is here.