The History of Torture Shows It Does Not Work

News Abroad

Mr. Thurston is Phillip R. Shriver Professor of History, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.  He is author, among other works, of The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America (Pearson/Longman, 2007). 

Recent comments on torture pay inadequate attention to the history of the practice.  Observers have long noted that torture does not work; it does not elicit the truth, nor does it provide solid evidence of anything.

            Saint Augustine thought that the idea of extracting a true confession from a felon by torture was “absurd.”  A Church Synod held in Rome in 384 denounced the use of torture in secular courts, while in the sixth century Pope Gregory I ordered ecclesiastical tribunals not to accept any statement made under torture.  Louis IX of France (ruled 1226-1270) held that torture should not be used on his subjects.  The Inquisition, begun in the thirteenth century, allowed torture only after a heretic had been convicted by other evidence, and then only to fill in gaps in testimony or to learn the names of other suspected heretics.  Of course, individual inquisitors often broke the rules.

            In the eleventh century, European continental secular courts began to allow judges to order torture when other “indications”–for example a bloody knife that fit the wounds in a dead body–were linked to an accused person.  During the witch hunts, roughly 1500-1700, local jurisdictions often violated even that simple requirement.  A bad reputation, a squint, or a “gobber tooth,” as one English cleric put it, could put someone accused of witchcraft into the hands of a torturer.  Since a confession served as the “queen of proofs,” officials often took the low road of inflicting pain to extort an avowal of guilt.

            By the eighteenth century, judicial torture decreased, partly because of the rise of punishments less final than maiming or death; these were the galleys and more permanent prisons.  Since sentences could be undone, less than the “final” proof of confessions now served for convictions.  More important in torture’s decline was a chorus of objections to the practice itself.  In his essay “On the Lame,” 1588, Michel de Montaigne indicated his belief in witches and the devil, yet understood that evidence for the practice of witchcraft was defective.  It was wrong to execute people on the basis of testimony, however obtained, that they had flown to a witches’ sabbat and committed evil deeds on the devil’s orders.  “After all, it is placing a very high value on one’s conjectures to burn a man alive because of them,” he continued. 

            In 1621 the French jurist Bernard de la Roche Flavin proclaimed torture “a dangerous invention.”  He asked, “What would people not say or do to avoid such great pain?”  Flavin realized that under torture people said what they thought their tormentors wanted to hear.

            The German Jesuit Friedrich Spee von Lagenfeld, a confessor to tortured and convicted “witches,” became an outspoken opponent of torture.  In 1631, Spee denounced the violence inflicted upon “countless innocents daily.”  Anyone could be made to confess; torture had been “all powerful” in the witch hunts.  Other writers of the same period remarked that torture tested only an individual’s ability to withstand pain.

            My work on the European witch hunts and the Soviet Terror of the 1930s underscores the views of early modern critics.  “Torture” evokes for me thousands of women forced to say that they flew instantly to sabbats and that they fornicated there with the devil and killed and ate babies.  I picture young Soviet engineers, dedicated to their jobs but made to “confess” that they had sabotaged steel production.

             Those broken people almost invariably said what they thought their tormenters wanted to hear.  The uselessness, even dysfunctionality, of torture eventually became clear during both the witch hunts and Soviet Terror.  Sometimes torture caused the hunt for enemies to spiral out of authorities’ control.  In 1585 the magistrates at Rottenburg, Germany, after burning more than twenty females since 1578, remarked that there would soon be no women left in the town.  A French woman about to be executed for witchcraft in 1601 exclaimed, “What is this, they say that every woman is a witch!”

            In 1937, all 32 Soviet butter experts who returned from a trip abroad to study dairy production were arrested and charged with espionage.  Only 17 of the top 170 executives in one network of coal mines had held their positions more than one year in October 1938; 126 had been in their posts five months or less.  The Communist Party all but ceased to exist in the countryside, its membership was so reduced by the Terror.

            In February of 1938, Andrei Vyshinskii, procurator-general of the USSR, whose reputation as prosecutor in the Moscow show trials of 1936-38 will forever mark him as repugnant, began to condemn the use of torture in memoranda to other Soviet officials.  He mentioned beatings, forcing arrestees to stand for long periods, and “direct fabrication of cases.”  In March the Procuracy Council, under Vyshinskii’s direction, referred to widespread “beating of honest Soviet people.”  By the fall, many memoirs and other accounts show, torture had become a rarity.

            Despite the recent promotion by Dick Cheney and others of torture as a route to the prevention of terrorism, no evidence supports his view.  A notable example in opposition to his view is the finding by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel that for the period 1990-99, no credible evidence demonstrates that physical coercion helped avert a terrorist attack.  In 2007 the Committee concluded that the idea of finding a “ticking bomb” by torturing prisoners was merely a convenient cover that allowed government agents to continue using extreme physical abuse.

            There will always be people who advocate torture as somehow a necessary and non-naive approach to the most evil enemies of order and civilization.  The historian Andrew Roberts has taken this position.  He has argued that British torture somehow convinced “19 hard-bitten Nazi spies” that the Allied invasion of France would proceed through Calais, thus saving thousands of soldiers’ lives when the Germans positioned their troops in that area, not in Normandy.  Roberts does not explain how someone can be tortured into believing a false story–and why wouldn’t these men have changed their “testimony” as soon as they were released, as many “witches” and Soviet citizens did?  Finally, Roberts states that former British counter-intelligence officers “never . . . would have revealed precisely how the Abwehr agents were turned.”  Once more, no evidence.

            Torture may “work” on a battlefield when used on freshly captured prisoners, to learn if new units have been brought into combat.  Even then, the value of information obtained decreases minute by minute.  For all other cases, torture is simply a favorite of self-styled tough guys and women who believe that they know better than others how hard it is to deal with reality.  The historical record shows that they do not.

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    More Comments:

    Patrick Murray - 6/10/2009

    Dick Cheney shot a friend in the face and then covered it up for 24 hours. After being shot in the face his friend said it was no big deal to be shot in the face by Dick Cheney.

    To such were the people that less than half the country entrusted geopolitical strategy for eight years.

    Cheney was shooting birds on a reserve. They can't fly and cannot get away. The amazing thing is that Cheney doesn't see that Guantanamo is of itself a torture. They can't fly and they can't get away. If you don't know when your prison sentence ends then you are in a concentration camp, which is ipso facto torture.

    Nothing these birds did worked for 8 years. Why would we trust them to tell us that torture works?

    Arnold Shcherban - 6/6/2009

    The author obviously had not meant to prove that torture NEVER worked.
    This on its own already invalidates the majority of your objections.
    At the same time the author of the article inconspicuosly targets the claim of Dick Cheney and others of his type that torture (in those specific cases - waterboarding) did work, pointing to the fact that those proponents of torture showed no direct
    and conclusive evidence that it did.

    Using one or even several examples to illustrate the (great or limited) effectiveness of torture to obtain information for prevention of terrorist attacks versus many
    cases that illustrate quite the opposite cannot serve as either logical or legal premise for instituting a practice of torture.
    The US (like other mostly
    "evil" regimes) widely used torture and terror methods directly or instructed others to do so during the Cold War period while officially tearing apart its ideological adversaries for much lesser violations of human rights and international laws and aggreements, so the recent reconstitution of it under Bush (Cheney?) leadership was hardly surprising. Its all part of the same good ol' game of double standards and had/has nothing to do with obtaining any reliable intelligence.

    Fritz Mohn - 6/4/2009

    If, in his article, “The History of Torture Shows It Does Not Work,” Robert W. Thurston intends to argue that torture NEVER works, he has a difficult task. To disprove Thurston's thesis, all an opponent has to do is show one case where torture did work.

    In his article, “How Torture Helped Win WWII,” Andrew Roberts purports to offer such an example (although not in reply to Mr. Thurston). Roberts believes that torture was necessary for the success of Operation Fortitude in “turning” German agents in order to deceive the German High Command about the location of the coming invasion of Europe. I agree with Mr. Thurston that Mr. Roberts simply makes an unwarranted assumption about this necessity.

    However, I believe Mr. Thurston has misinterpreted Mr. Roberts' article. The problem with Roberts' article is that Roberts fails to state how torture got the 19 German spies to “fall in” with the Allied deception. Roberts does not even explain what he means by the term, “fall in”. Therefore, there is nothing in Roberts’ article to support Thurston's interpretation that Roberts believes that allied interrogators “convinced” the spies “into believing a false story” or that the spies would have had the opportunity to “have changed their 'testimony' as soon as they were released.”

    In fact, none of the spies were released, to tell a false story or otherwise. They were forced to make radio reports (or, rather, their captors made their reports for them). What the interrogators wanted and obtained were verifiable facts: codes, passwords, and procedures. With multiple spies under control, each prisoner could be certain that his information would be corroborated against the others' confessions. Whether torture was used and, if used, whether it was necessary is still unknown and cannot be assumed.

    Seemingly contrary to his thesis, Mr. Thurston admits that torture might obtain useful intelligence on the battlefield. It is not clear whether he approves of torture in such circumstances or considers this an exception too insignificant to justify any continuing use of torture. After all, the spies “turned” in connection with Operation Fortitude were part of the European battlefield. Nor was the successful deception concerning the location of the invasion the only benefit of the British “turning” of the German agents. When the Germans sent updated codes and passwords to the “turned” spies, British intelligence used this information to monitor German communications with their spy networks in other countries.

    Most of the other historical examples that Mr. Thurston discusses concern torture to expose “thought crimes,” such as heresy or disloyalty. I simply deny any parallel between these examples and torture to obtain verifiable information. In fact, I believe that any introduction of the Inquisition into a discussion of torture is very likely to raise the already high levels of emotional involvement beyond the continued ability of the participants to remain reasonable and respectful of their opponents.

    (I therefore propose a new Internet “law” similar to the well known “Godwin's Law”. “Godwin's Law” predicts that in ANY Internet discussion, a comparison to Hitler or Nazism will eventually occur. This encourages termination of any Internet discussion after the first such comparison. My new “law” would encourage the end of any discussion of torture after the first introduction of an historical parallel to the Inquisition. Perhaps a similar “law” could end Internet discussions of torture after the first conjecture about the psychology of either advocates or opponents.)

    More contemporary and unquestionably relevant to the use of torture to obtain verifiable information is the Israeli report cited by Mr. Thurston. This report states that, “For the period 1990-99, no credible evidence demonstrates that physical coercion helped avert a terrorist attack.” It is difficult to prove why something did not happen. (This goes for Mr. Cheney, too.) Attacks may be called off for any number of reasons. If an intelligence agency had such penetration of a terrorist high command that the agency knew why an attack was cancelled, it is unlikely that the agency would have had to resort to torture to prevent it.

    In conclusion, the opponents of any use of torture have a difficult case to make if they wish to prove that torture can never be effective. Not only do they have to explain away all apparently successful uses of torture in the past, they have to show that no imaginable “ticking bomb” scenario could ever justify torture in the future. A case against torture based on abstract morality, such as “Regardless, it’s always wrong,” might be more defensible (because not falsifiable). However, such moral arguments, like discussions of imagined future scenarios, are not within the specialized expertise of the historian.