The Truth about Torture

Peace Advocate July 2021

by World Can't Wait. Guantanamo protest in Washington, DC.

by Annika Lof

A Case against Torture and Discussion of Alfred McCoy’s “In the Shadows of the American Century

Torture has always been a difficult issue to confront directly and honestly. Hiding its brutality behind the rhetorical mask of “enhanced interrogation” that causes “no long-term damage,” many continue to defend the practice of inflicting pain on terror suspects for political ends because of its supposed benefits. Today, however, torture has a less favorable image, as the practice calls to mind memories from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of waterboarding in Guantánamo and horrifying photographs from Abu Ghraib. Despite this modest progress, in order to come to terms with the CIA’s murky history of torture, we must fully confront the lies that have allowed the practice to continue for so long. In his book In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of Global US Power, Alfred W. McCoy explains the history of torture, its effects on those subjected to it, and even its potential role in America’s downfall. He debunks several myths propagated by proponents and perpetrators of torture in order to shed light on the injustice and destructive consequences of its use. 

The first lie used to justify torture, he explains in his work, is that the CIA’s methods of interrogation aren’t technically torture, as they use methods that allegedly cause no long-term harm. Their techniques include waterboarding (which some prisoners are subjected to over 100 times), sensory deprivation (which produces psychosis in as little as 48 hours), and prolonged standing (which causes swelling, lesions, and hallucinations). Torture methods are also created based on individual phobias and the humiliation resulting from violating essential cultural values. The CIA is adamant that these methods don’t create enduring psychological harm, but those who were subjected to torture disagree. Many victims still experience nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks — all of which are clear indicators of long-term psychological harm. Experts in both the human rights and medical fields have confirmed that the US’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques are actually torture, and often create long-lasting trauma for those subjected to them. 

The second lie is that torture works. Defenders of torture claim that it extracts information able to save thousands of lives; however, several experts have said that while torture does convince people to talk, it doesn’t convince them to tell the truth, and can even encourage animosity that leads to false information. In one case, CIA torture failed to yield any information from a terrorist while sympathetic and painless FBI questioning was able to obtain vital information about co-conspirators. Several scientists have found that this situation is fairly common, since severe pain can impair ability to think clearly. Torture also incentivizes people to talk as much as possible, so some victims fabriacte stories to avoid being subjected to more torture. In 2016, CIA director John Brennan admitted that the link between important intelligence and torture is “unknowable.” When the director of an agency conducting torture can’t corroborate a link between torture and useful information gained, there isn’t one. 

The third lie, which is often tied up with the second, is that torture makes the world a safer place. In fact, it may do the exact opposite. US diplomats focused on terrorism in the Middle East found that torture of detainees was the most important factor in attracting jihadists to Iraq. Several founders and high-ranking members of ISIS have themselves stated that their time in the US prison Camp Bucca led them to create ISIS. In 2014, the Iraqi government estimated that 17 out of 25 top ISIS leaders had been detained in US military prisons. Torture, then, doesn’t stop terrorism—it breeds it.

The fourth lie is that torture has helped the US maintain its position as the world’s sole superpower. Many people believe that ending America’s policy of torture will make the country appear weak and cause terrorism to rise. Looking at historical precedent, though, the opposite seems to be true. For example, in 1954, France resorted to torture in an attempt to keep Algeria, then their colony, from starting a revolution. This in actuality had the opposite effect, delegitimizing French rule and causing more people to sympathize with the rebels. In France, several influential people and organizations were appalled by the human rights abuses and called for an end to the war and the colonization of Algeria more broadly. In 1962, France’s 130-year rule in Algeria ended in part due to opposition against their torture methods. Torture, more than anything, spawns opposition to the government committing such grave human rights abuses and often leads to a reduction in its power and international image. 

To reach the truth, we must confront the lies that have for so long obscured it. The CIA’s torture programs have been so clouded with lies and cover-ups that we might never get the full picture. Even with an obfuscated view, though, we can clearly see that torture causes physical and mental anguish, produces no useful information, and in fact encourages terrorism. These facts are a scathing indictment of the US’s use of torture and remind us to remain stand guard against human rights abuses committed by our government.

Annika Lof is a 2021 graduate of Arlington High School, will enroll in Smith College in September, and is a MAPA Summer 2021 intern