The tragic flaws of torture

By Matthieu Ricard on July 31, 2011

Torture is still widely practice all over the world as a supposedly efficient way of extracting confessions from allegedly guilty people. Torture certainly works to obtain confessions, the problem being that such confessions have, more often than not, not much to do with the truth. In countless cases, the target confesses something as the only way to make the excruciating pain cease. Unless the accuracy of the confession can easily be checked, most of the time, the torturer is in no better position to ascertain the truth than before inflicting the torture.

The reason is that a guilty person may either 1) speak and tell the truth because he cannot stand the pain or 2) not speak because he has enough forbearance to keep his secret. A non-guilty person may either 1) speak and confess something he has not done because he cannot stand the pain and simply wants to get rid of the torture, or 2) not speak and bear the suffering because he does not want to confess something he has not done.

As Michel de Montaigne wrote in his Essays: ‟The putting men to the rack is a dangerous invention, and seems to be rather a trial of patience than of truth. Both he who has the fortitude to endure it conceals the truth, and he who has not: for why should pain sooner make me confess what really is, than force me to say what is not? And, on the contrary, if he who is not guilty of that whereof he is accused, has the courage to undergo those torments, why should not he who is guilty have the same, so fair a reward as life being in his prospect?”

In fact, the dubiousness of information extracted under torture can sometimes be fatal to the one who spoke merely to get relief from the excruciating pain. Just to take a few examples:

In a broadcast of Oct. 6, 2006, the BBC World Service interviewed a grieving Chinese mother whose 19-year old teenager son had been sentenced to death and executed a week later for a crime he did not commit but confessed while being tortured. Within a month the actual killer was exposed.

In China, too, another man, who had been sentenced to death for allegedly killing his wife, recounted: ‟I was tortured and deprived of sleep for 10 days and 11 nights non-stop. At the end I just wanted to die. My will was broken and I would have said anything they wanted.” He was one of the very few lucky ones whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He then spent 11 years in solitary confinement until his wife eventually turned up at the village, well and alive. She has simply left and married another man.

In a recent issue of Newsweek (June 20, 2011), Christopher Dickey, reported that a Qaeda member, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was tortured by the Egyptian secret service under Mubarak, until he confessed there were operational links between his organization and Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein — what President G.W. Bush's US intelligence wanted to hear — although, in fact there was no such links. ‟They were killing me,” al-Libi was quoted as telling the FBI latter, ‟I had to tell them something.” All this is well known, yet many continue to advocate and practice torture.