As recounted by author and journalist Daniel P. Mannix, during the European witch craze the Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition’s use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits re ported. The duke was skeptical.
Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn’t believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals…. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.”
Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”
One of these Jesuits was Friedrich Spee, who responded to this poignant experiment on the psychology of torture by publishing a book in 1631 entitled Cautio Criminalis, which played a role in bringing about the end of the witch mania and demonstrating why torture as a tool to obtain useful information doesn’t work. This is why, in addition to its inhumane elements, it is banned in all Western nations, including the U.S., whose Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”
What about waterboarding? That’s “enhanced interrogation,” not torture, right? When the late journalist Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding for one of his Vanity Fair columns, he was forewarned (in a document he had to sign) that he might “receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.” Even though Hitchens was a hawk on terrorism, he nonetheless concluded: “If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”
Still, what if there’s a “ticking time bomb” set to detonate in a major city, and we have the terrorist who knows where it is— wouldn’t it be moral to torture him to extract that information? Surely the suffering or death of one to save millions is justified, no? Call this the Jack Bauer theory of torture. In the hit television series 24, Kiefer Sutherland’s character is a badass counterterrorism agent whose “ends justify the means” philosophy makes him a modern-day Tomás de Torquemada. In most such scenarios, Bauer (and we the audience) knows that he has in his clutches the terrorist who has accurate information about where and when the next attack is going to occur and that by applying just the right amount of pain, he will extort the correct intelligence just in time to avert disaster.
It’s a Hollywood fantasy. In reality, the person in captivity may or may not be a terrorist, may or may not have accurate information about a terrorist attack, and may or may not cough up useful intelligence, particularly if his or her motivation is to terminate the torture.
In contrast, a 2014 study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology entitled “The Who, What, and Why of Human Intelligence Gathering” surveyed 152 interrogators and found that “rapport and relationship-building techniques were employed most often and perceived as the most effective regardless of context and intended outcome, particularly in comparison to confrontational techniques.” Another 2014 study in the same journal— “In interviewing High Value Detainees”—sampled 64 practitioners and detainees and found that “detainees were more likely to disclose meaningful information … and earlier in the interview when rapport-building techniques were used.”
Finally, an exhaustive 2014 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzed millions of internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects, concluding that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” It adds that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.” Terrorists are real. Witches are not. But real or imagined, torture doesn’t work.
Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.