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Why the CIA torture techniques aren't a reliable way of extracting information

Far from getting reliable information, torture is a gruelling process that yields few results - and harm for both victim and perpetrator.

If Ant and Dec had read the “torture memos” released by Barack Obama in 2009, they might not find I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! quite so funny. Food and sleep deprivation are standard fare for the CIA but one of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” under consideration was to place a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist “in a cramped confinement box with an insect”. Abu Zubaydah was believed to have a fear of insects. Being at close quarters with one was supposed to be a route to “breaking” him.

That CIA torture techniques are also employed as entertainment on prime-time television is ironic: many of the CIA’s best ideas come from watching TV. Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver has said that staff at Guantanamo Bay watched 24 on cable while at the base, for instance – and that its maverick hero, Jack Bauer, “gave people lots of ideas”.

You could be forgiven for thinking that modern torture methods were rooted in a scientific understanding of stress. Sadly, though, the opposite is true: science says torture is counterproductive. Under extreme stress, the mind and body cave in, rendering any utterance unreliable.

We know this thanks to the detective work of Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist at Trinity College, Dublin. His first encounter with the torture memos set him on a path that has led to the publication of a new book: Why Torture Doesn’t Work. It is a synthesis of all the available scientific evidence on the effects of torture and stress. His conclusion? Torture will give you a confession, if that’s what you want. It will not yield reliable, useful information. The work could hardly be more timely. In the wake of the Paris attacks, there is bound to be heightened pressure to force information out of captured terror suspects. The scientific evidence suggests that, as well as being morally bankrupt, this is misguided. Those who study the brain under stress know that it will not help save lives.

What we do not study enough is how to question suspects in a reliable, replicable, humane fashion. However, the studies we do have suggest that skilled interrogators can use language as a tool to get detainees speaking freely about their motivations, memories and experiences. One study, performed in 1993, showed that upwards of 95 per cent of people in police custody will answer questions, given the space to do so. “Suppressing disclosure about the self is remarkably difficult and the phenomenon has deep roots in our own neurobiology,” O’Mara says. Prolonged effort at self-monitoring requires “enormous levels of concentration”.

Perhaps the most salient aspect of O’Mara’s work is the growing appreciation that torture has a detrimental effect on the torturer and anyone watching. “Subjecting a fellow human being to torture is stressful for all but the most psychopathic,” he says. American soldiers who tortured and abused prisoners in Iraq returned home with “intense, enduring and disabling guilt”. Suicide was not an uncommon end point.

Experiments have shown that witnessing distress brings out brain states that mirror those in the victim. Natural empathy has to be repressed in order to avoid sympathetic pain. “Doing so must come with some considerable psychological cost,” O’Mara says. According to the psychologists Mark Costanzo and Ellen Gerrity, the result is “anxiety . . . and impaired cognitive and social functioning”. And you thought Ant and Dec were harmless.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State

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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder