Torturing and The Rambo Myth. A case against waterboarding.

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

My goal in writing this essay is to convince you that using torture — techniques that use hypoxia particularly — cannot be tolerated as a method to gain intelligence. You are already convinced? Good. Let me suggest that you are probably convinced for the wrong reasons. But I want your ear, even if you’re convinced for the right reasons — because, to my way of thinking, many of the people who advise our lawmakers about torture policy in the United States overlook critical information about the effects of waterboarding. Even many of the well-meaning ones suffer from a critical lack of understanding when they make their policy decisions.

My problem is with what I’ll call The Rambo Myth: Subjects of torture will grant a true confession in order to avoid the pain of more torture, and The Rambo Corollary: Any method that is not painful enough to make Rambo crack will not extract a true confession.  

First, The Rambo Corollary. If it’s torture, it’s got to hurt. And if we can’t imagine that it hurts, it can’t possibly be all that inhumane. Let me suggest that our government tends toward a “Rambo” standard for torture: if it isn’t harsh enough to impress Rambo, it really isn’t so heinous. The problem with this is that it gives lawmakers the ability to define torture arbitrarily — to torture the definition of torture, so to speak. Because we can’t ask Rambo what would make him crack, the lawmakers are left to define that for themselves. This is perhaps a subtle point, but accepting these assumptions without question allows our leaders to define torture in any way that they choose. They are left to imagine the experience for themselves. What they actually do is project an empathy for application of severe and acute pain. Something that would make Rambo scream bloody murder. Rambo wouldn’t flinch at a little dunk, would he?

The well-meaning policy makers suffer from this misunderstanding just as deeply as the W crowd did. There is endless discussion about whether or not waterboarding hurts. A lot of distraction is paid to the idea that, since it hurts to get water up the nose — waterboarding techniques should be careful to not get water up the nose. Then it’s okay, right?

The water is not the point. The element of torture at play with waterboarding is systematic, repeated oxygen deprivation. Its sole purpose is to convince its subjects that they are going to suffocate to death. The interrogators deprive their subjects of oxygen until they become convinced they are going to drown, and then let them come up for air for a confession. Then they do it again. And again. And again. This cycling is repeated until the subject wears down with terror and despair. It is a brutal, heinous practice, and it would be just as brutal and heinous if interrogators used a dry method for implementing systematic, sub-lethal suffocation — a dry technique that does not hurt at all by policymakers’ standards. But the psycho-neurologic effects of stress by systematic oxygen deprivation are severe and often permanently debilitating. Since governments over the world have trouble agreeing on what torture is, let me suggest that there is a more useful reason for arguing against waterboarding: using waterboarding to extract accruate information is not a self-consistent practice.

It is disingenuous to argue that waterboarding is okay because it does not physically hurt: waterboarding was never intended to “hurt” in that sense. In fact, it was invented so that interrogators could terrorize a subject without leaving any evidence.  This technique “hurts” by imposing extreme psychological distress in its subjects. Notwithstanding the notion that it’s bad from a human rights standpoint, it is also counter to the goal of extracting confession. Waterboarding creates a psychological climate in its subjects that makes any confession extracted during its use unreliable.

So, what happens when a person undergoes torture, and in particular hypoxic stress? It depends on the duration and frequency of waterboarding episodes, and the total length of time that the person is under the threat of torture. Memory is affected in most cases, though, and by several mechanisms. Extremely high levels of stress hormones, cortisol in particular, suppress memory function. In cases of hypoxia, memory is affected particularly. In cases where there is a prolonged threat of torture, sometimes the limbic system becomes injured — in particular, the stress hormones shut down the hippocampus. Sometimes this injury persists, and the result is chronic and sometimes lifelong Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Systematic oxygen deprivation is an attack on the central nervous system, and in particular the part of the central nervous system that affects memory. But the stressful environment, taxing of the limbic system, and confusion caused by lack of oxygen does not create an effective psychological environment for retrieving accurate memories. Hypoxic torture leaves its victims disoriented, confused, terrified, and — if done properly — convinced that they will not survive the day. In fact, a mind under extreme hypoxic stress is very likely to produce confabulation rather than reliable intelligence, even if the victim thinks he or she is telling the truth.

Which brings us to The Rambo Myth: Subjects of torture will grant a true confession in order to avoid the pain of more torture. Under waterboarding? I don’t think so.

Read more about long term effects of torture here and here.

Crossposted at DK

4 comments

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    • rb137 on March 7, 2009 at 8:59 am
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    • Valtin on April 13, 2009 at 8:16 am

    on the debilitating psychological and physical effects of torture, I really appreciated this excellent discussion of the waterboarding/hypoxia issue.

    Great work!

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