Torture breeds spurious belief in guilt of tortured

This video from the USA is called “Torture and Democracy: What Now?” – Darius Rajali.

From Ryan Sager’s blog in the USA:

Making the Tortured Seem Guilty

One of the enduring fault lines of the debate over torture in the United States is that, in general, those who have been close to torture and responsible for torture, from interrogators on up to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, have a very different perspective from many of those outside the loop. While there are plenty of exceptions — some people responsible for torture have turned into whistle blowers, and plenty of members of the general public support torture — as a general rule, people who were responsible for torture firmly believe it did good and that only guilty people were tortured.

This certainly lines up with what we know about human nature, especially cognitive dissonance: “I did it, therefore it must have been right and good.” And now, a new study out of Harvard (PDF) shows — via a clever experiment — that complicity in torture makes one more likely to believe that a torture victim is guilty. What’s more, the more pain the victim feels, the more the complicit believe he or she is guilty.

Here, from ScienceDaily, is how the experiment was conducted:

The study included 78 participants: half met the woman who was apparently tortured (actually a confederate of the experimenters who was, of course, not harmed at all), and half did not. Participants were told that the study was about moral behavior, and that the woman may have cheated by taking more money than she deserved. The experimenter suggested that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as she was subjected to the sham “torture.”

The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.

“Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” the piece quotes Kurt Gray, a graduate student in psychology and the lead author of the study, as saying. “On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence.” …

What’s closer to settled, however, is how torture affects the torturer. And, no, I’m not talking about how it morally corrupts one’s soul. I’m talking about how it biases the way we look at the information that comes from torture. As I discussed in this post, another problem with torture is the incentives it creates for tortured and torturer. Basically, it serves both for the person being tortured to just say something, anything, so that the torture can stop — because, outside of true sadists, the torturer finds torturing very unpleasant and will take any excuse to not have to keep doing it.

This study out of Harvard just emphasizes the problems for those who would set out to torture. Not only are they predisposed to believe whatever a torture victim says, they’re also — by virtue of their complicity in another human being’s suffering — more likely to assume that person is guilty. Which makes the prospects of gaining actionable and accurate intelligence from torture all that more dim.

The American public could learn more about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s torture and rendition policies on Friday if the Obama administration follows through on a promise to review a number of internal Bush administration documents. Earlier this month, the administration vowed to make its “best efforts” to process some 224 documents by October 30 to determine what can be publicly released. Government lawyers acknowledged last month that these documents are potentially responsive to a years-old ACLU Freedom of Information Act request for information relating to the death, treatment, and rendition of detainees: here.

Rumsfeld sent Bush 2005 WSJ op-ed dismissing torture allegations: here.

4 thoughts on “Torture breeds spurious belief in guilt of tortured

  1. Gates blocks release of detainee abuse photos


    U.S. Defense Secretary Gates listens to a question as he talks with the media while en route to Oshkosh Reuters

    By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER, Associated Press Writer Stephen Ohlemacher, Associated Press Writer – Sat Nov 14, 9:18 pm ET

    WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates has blocked the public release of any more pictures of foreign detainees abused by their U.S. captors, saying their release would endanger American soldiers.

    The Obama administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court late Friday saying that Gates has invoked new powers blocking the release of the photos.

    The American Civil Liberties Union had sued for the release of 21 color photographs showing prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq being abused by Americans. Federal courts had rejected the government’s arguments to block their release, so Congress gave Gates new powers to keep them private under a law signed by President Barack Obama last month.

    Gates’ order specifically cites the 21 pictures sought by the ACLU, plus 23 additional ones cited in a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. However, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the order covers all photographs from investigations related to the treatment of individuals captured or detained in military operations outside the United States between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 22, 2009.

    Gates’ new powers were included in a budget bill for the Homeland Security Department.

    “Public disclosure of these photographs would endanger citizens of the United States, members of the United States armed forces, or employees of the United States government deployed outside the United States,” Gates said in his order blocking release of the photos.

    The release of photos showing prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq sparked international outrage.

    Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said the group will continue to fight for the release of the photographs, arguing that Gates’ order was overly broad.

    “We think the photos are an important part of the historical record. They are critical to the ongoing national conversation about accountability for torture,” Jaffer said. “It sets a bad precedent for the government to be suppressing information that relates to government misconduct.”

    Obama initially indicated he would not fight the release of the photographs, but he reversed course in May. The president said he was persuaded that disclosure could further incite violence in Afghanistan and Iraq and endanger U.S. troops there.

    The photographs at issue were taken by servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan and were part of criminal investigations of alleged abuse. Some pictures show “soldiers pointing pistols or rifles at the heads of hooded and handcuffed detainees,” Solicitor General Elena Kagan said in an appeal to the high court.

    In one, “a soldier holds a broom as if ‘sticking its end into the rectum of a restrained detainee,'” Kagan said, quoting from an investigation report prepared by the Pentagon. Two investigations led to criminal charges and convictions, she said.


  2. Pingback: Spanish torture in Iraq scandal | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: British torture in Iraq, again | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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