Metin Basoglu's blog on war, torture, and natural disasters

Zero Dark Thirty: The unbearable lightness of the torture debate

The debate on whether torture works is once again revived, this time by Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming film Zero Dark Thirty. The responses to the film vary. Frank Bruni of the New York Times, summarizes the movie’s basic message as “no waterboarding, no Bin Ladin” and concludes that it does not “reflect many experts’ belief that torture is unnecessary, yielding as much bad information as good.” MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough disagrees by arguing that the information leading to Bin Ladin was obtained through waterboarding. He believes that indiscriminate drone strikes killing civilians “are a little rougher than waterboarding three terrorists” and therefore they may be an even greater threat to human rights. He also notes:

…the very things that we do to American soldiers in basic training are now described as torture…but suddenly over the past several years sleep deprivation has become torture. Making somebody uncomfortable because it’s too hot or too cold has become torture… Torture has been redefined in the press over the past several years so just to say that we in quote engaged in torture I think is inexact… I am just saying we have generalized this term to suddenly make things that we do to our soldiers every day qualify as torture.

These comments once again remind us of the misconceptions about torture. In this article I review these misconceptions from a scientific perspective and discuss how the movie Zero Dark Thirty illustrates the misguided nature of the debate on torture.

What is torture? – A sound theory- and evidence-based approach

In international law torture is defined as acts designed to induce severe physical or mental pain or suffering for specific purposes. Learning theory of trauma provides useful insights into features of stressor events that cause mental pain or suffering. I had briefly summarized this theory in a previous article:

Since the 1960s substantial experimental work (e.g. inescapable shock experiments) with animals has shown that unpredictability and uncontrollability of stressor events lead to anxiety and fear. [Inescapable shock experiments involved giving electric shocks to an animal placed in a box while not allowing it to stop the shocks (e.g. by pressing a lever).] Exposure to such stressors causes certain associative, motivational, and emotional deficits in animals that closely resemble the effects of traumatic stress in humans. These deficits include learned helplessness – a phenomenon characterized by failure of animals initially exposed to uncontrollable shocks to later learn to escape or avoid shocks that were potentially controllable in a different situation.

 If helplessness effects of unpredictable and uncontrollable stressors play an important role in traumatic stress, then certain contextual characteristics of torture can distinguish it from other stressful events. These include (a) exposures to often multiple, unpredictable, uncontrollable stressors that threaten physical and / or psychological well-being and (b) lack of control over the stressors leading to a state of total helplessness.

This formulation implies that a particular stressor situation constitutes torture to the extent that its contextual processes maximize helplessness. It may be useful to illustrate how the learned helplessness concept was used by the CIA in developing ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ Jane Meyer describes this process in her book The Dark Side:

The apparent leader of the CIA team was a former military psychologist named James Mitchell, whom the intelligence agency had hired on a contract . . . Central to Mitchell’s thinking, the associates said, was the work of one of America’s best known and most successful psychologists, Martin Seligman, the former president of the American Psychological association and an esteemed professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. It was Seligman’s experiments with dogs to which Mitchell had referred when defending his approaches to the FBI… Mitchell cited the uses of Learned Helplessness in handling human detainees. According to Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, “Learned Helplessness was his whole paradigm.” Mitchell, he said, “draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoner’s ability to forecast the future –when their next meal is – when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency… But through a lawyer, he disputed that Learned Helplessness was the model he used for the CIA interrogation program. Nevertheless, soon after he arrived in the CIA’s black site in Thailand, Abu Zubayda [America’s first “high value detainee”] found himself naked in a small cage, like a dog.

This account illustrates the importance of learning theory approach to definition of torture. If effective torture can be designed by recourse to learning theory principles, then the same principles would also be useful in understanding what constitutes torture. Bearing this issue in mind, let us now examine some of the misconceptions that characterize the debate on torture.

Misconception: “Light torture”

International law makes a distinction between cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment (CIDT) and torture. This has led some to argue that various forms of CIDT, such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, forced stress positions, and fear-inducing psychological manipulations, constitute “light torture” and are therefore acceptable in certain circumstances.

We have examined this issue in two research studies, one published in 2007 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, and the other in 2009 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. The first study included 279 tortured war survivors from former Yugoslavia countries. In this study we asked the survivors to rate the stressfulness of each form of torture they endured on a scale of 0 to 4 (0 = not distressing at all, 1 = mildly, 2 = moderately, 3 = markedly, 4 = extremely distressing). They were also asked to rate how much control they had over each torture event while they were experiencing it (0 = totally in control, 1 = markedly, 2 = moderately, 3 = slightly, 4 = totally out of control / extremely helpless). The mean scores (and standard deviations) are shown below in Table 1.

Table 1 – Mean distress and control ratings in relation to torture events


Mean   distress ratings

Mean   control ratings


3.9   (0.5)

3.4   (0.8)

Suffocation / asphyxiation

3.8 (0.5)

3.5 (0.7)

Palestinian hanging (hanging by the wrists tied at the back)

3.8 (0.5)

2.8 (1.0)

Electric torture

3.7 (0.6)

3.2 (1.2)

Sham executions

3.7 (0.7)

2.8 (1.3)

Fondling of genitals

3.7 (0.5)

3.2 (0.9)

Threats of rape

3.6 (0.6)

2.8 (1.2)

Witnessing torture of close ones

3.6 (0.5)

2.7 (1.1)

Falaqa (beating of the soles of feet)

3.6 (0.5)

2.9 (1.1)

Burning of parts of body

3.6 (0.6)

2.8 (1.2)

Forced extraction of teeth

3.6 (0.7)

3.5 (0.7)


3.5 (0.9)

2.4 (1.1)

Stretching of the body

3.5 (1.1)

3.0 (1.1)


3.5 (0.7)

2.5 (1.1)

Hanging by hands or feet

3.5 (0.6)

2.8 (1.1)

Sexual advances (by hand, etc)

3.4 (0.8)

2.9 (1.2)

Throwing of urine / feces at detainee

3.4 (0.7)

2.6 (1.4)

Needles under toenails or fingernails

3.4 (0.9)

2.8 (1.1)

Beating over the ears with cupped hands

3.4 (0.8)

2.6 (1.1)

Prevention of urination / defecation

3.3 (0.8)

2.4 (1.2)


3.3 (0.9)

2.6 (1.2)

Pulling / dragging / lifting by hair

3.2 (0.8)

2.3 (1.2)

Threats against family

3.4 (0.9)

2.5 (1.1)

Witnessing torture of others

3.4 (0.7)

2.4 (1.1)

Threats of death

3.3 (0.9)

2.5 (1.2)

Threats of further torture

3.2 (0.8)

2.4 (1.1)

Stripping naked

3.2 (1.0)

2.5 (1.3)

Rope bondage

3.2 (0.8)

2.4 (1.2)

Excrement in food

3.2 (0.8)

2.9 (1.2)

Sleep deprivation

3.1 (0.8)

2.2 (1.2)

Forced standing with weight on

3.1 (1.0)

2.1 (1.2)

Exposure to extreme heat or cold

3.0 (0.9)

2.1 (1.2)

Forced standing

3.0 (0.9)

2.1 (1.1)

Verbal abuse

3.0 (1.0)

2.0 (1.2)

Water deprivation

3.0 (1.0)

2.1 (1.3)

Mockery / humiliation

3.0 (1.0)

2.0 (1.2)

Fluctuating interrogator attitude

2.9 (1.0)

1.9 (1.3)

Deprivation of medical care

2.9 (1.1)

2.1 (1.3)

Exposure to bright light

2.9 (0.9)

2.2 (1.1)

Cold showers

2.9 (1.0)

2.1 (1.2)

Restriction of movement

2.8 (1.0)

1.9 (1.2)

Exposure to loud music

2.8 (0.9)

1.9 (1.1)

Prevention of personal hygiene

2.7 (1.0)

1.9 (1.2)

Food deprivation

2.7 (0.9)

1.8 (1.2)

Denial of privacy

2.6 (1.1)

1.7 (1.2)

Infested surroundings

2.6 (1.0)

1.7 (1.2)

These findings show that psychological manipulations designed to induce fear (e.g. sham executions, threats of rape / torture, threats to family, being made to witness torture of close ones), humiliating treatment (e.g. fondling of genitals, sexual advances), solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and forced stress positions cannot be easily distinguished from physical torture methods in their stressfulness. Some are even more distressing than various forms of physical torture. With respect to each torture event, the control ratings are highly correlated with distress ratings, meaning that lack of control during a torture event is closely associated with perceived distress. Based on these findings, we concluded that

…aggressive interrogation techniques or detention procedures involving deprivation of basic needs, exposure to aversive environmental conditions, forced stress positions, hooding or blindfolding, isolation, restriction of movement, forced nudity, threats, humiliating treatment, and other psychological manipulations conducive to anxiety, fear, and helplessness in the detainee do not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the extent of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanisms of traumatic stress, and their long-term traumatic effects. Such stressors satisfy the criterion of “severe mental suffering,” which is central to the definition of torture in international conventions…These findings point to a need for a broader definition of torture based on scientific formulations of traumatic stress and empirical evidence rather than on vague distinctions or labels that are open to endless and inconclusive debate and, most important, potential abuse.

Misconception: “torture lite” is less harmful than torture

This issue was examined in the 2009 study, which was based on a larger sample of 432 survivors of torture. This study showed that CIDT, compared with physical torture, was not only more closely associated with perceived severity of torture but also more likely to lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The survivors who rated their CIDT as severe were more likely to have PTSD (63%) than those who perceived it as relatively less severe (34%). The latter figure suggests that even relatively milder forms of CIDT can lead to mental damage in a substantial proportion of survivors.

Misconception: Waterboarding is not torture

Note in Table 1 that among 45 different forms of torture, suffocation or asphyxiation was rated as the second most distressing experience –second only to rape. In addition, it was rated as the most uncontrollable form of torture. Indeed, effective coping during waterboarding is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Its impact is not only cognitive and emotional but also physiological. The physiological sensation of drowning is extremely aversive and not controllable in any way. The person knows that death is imminent, if the procedure is not terminated. This is why it is more distressing that many other forms of physical torture listed in Table 1.

Such evidence clearly does not support the view that waterboarding is a mild form of torture. However, Scarborough’s comparison of drone strikes with torture deserves some serious thought. In a previous article I reviewed the traumatic impact of drone strikes relative to torture and concluded that drone warfare is likely to have psychological effects similar to those of torture in nature and severity. Thus, I would agree that, as a human rights issue, drone warfare deserves no less attention than torture. Having said this, it is important to note that this fact does not morally justify use of waterboarding or any other form of torture. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Misconception: Individual torture methods can be compared with ordinary stressor events

Another common misconception is the belief that one can reliably judge the stressfulness of a particular form of torture by comparing it to ordinary stressful life events (or by simply imagining oneself in that situation). When Donald Rumsfeld signed the memorandum authorizing interrogation techniques against detainees at Guantanamo, his comment about forced stress positions (“I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”) is one of the many examples of a fundamentally flawed approach to the issue of what constitutes torture. Today we still see similar arguments about waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement, among others.

Such arguments are totally oblivious to the fact that torture is never a single event. Our 2009 study has shown that (a) torture involves multiple and concurrent stressors and that (b) the cumulative effects of individual stressors (e.g. X, Y, Z) are not simply additive (i.e. X+Y+Z) but multiplicative (i.e. X*Y*Z). For example, blocking visual control (e.g. by blindfolding) and behavioral control (e.g. by tying of hands) during beating greatly magnifies the threat value impact of beating. Thus, the distress associated with a particular stressor is largely determined by the interactional or contextual impact of all stressor events. The most important contextual element of torture perceived threat to psychological or physical well-being. This means that the stressfulness of a particular stressor in a captivity setting cannot be reliably judged without an understanding of its threat value. Indeed, this is why Scarborough’s contention that the “very things that we do to American soldiers in basic training are now described as torture” is grossly misleading. Soldiers know that their training does not involve real threats to their safety, no matter how aversive their experiences might be.

Misconception: Torture is defined solely by interrogators’ behaviors

Many people view torture as limited to the captors’ behaviors during an interrogation process, disregarding all the contextual stressors in the captivity setting. Our 2009 study showed that appraisal of threat associated with being held captive by an enemy was more traumatic than physical torture itself. Furthermore, torture by the enemy in a war setting was more traumatic than torture by the State authorities in one’s own country. This suggests that the overall context of captivity and associated perceived threat to life is a critical factor. In addition, deprivation of basic needs, isolation from the outside world, and lack of access to lawyers and due process of law are other important contextual factors that maximize fear and helplessness.

Misconception: Torture is unnecessary because it does not work

In the last decade there has been considerable debate as to whether or not torture is effective in obtaining critical information from detainees. The participants of this debate have included academics, scientists, and human rights experts, as wells politicians and newspaper columnists. As a behavioral scientist with expertise in human responses to torture, I have had to turn down many requests from the world media for comments on this issue, for reasons that are explained in my 2010 commentary on a New Scientist article “Beyond torture: the future of interrogation“:

I find the debate on whether torture is an effective interrogation method rather disconcerting, because the public is likely to perceive it as implying that torture might be justified in certain circumstances if torture did work. While “torture does not work” arguments might be viewed as useful in disarming the other side of this debate, one can easily get trapped in this position, if and when someone effectively challenges these arguments. Indeed, there are already claims of “classified evidence” to the contrary and such claims may well appear more convincing to an already fearful public than any indirect scientific evidence. Furthermore, there will always be challenges to scientific evidence on this politically sensitive issue and thus one needs to make sure that such evidence is watertight before making it public. In any event, even sound evidence does not easily translate into governmental policy when it goes against certain political interests. A more effective strategy in efforts against torture would be to clarify public misconceptions about what constitutes torture and to appeal to public conscience and sense of morality by emphasizing the illegal and immoral nature of the act. After all, public opinion is the ‘soft belly’ of governments in western societies.

Unfortunately, time appears to have proven me right. Perhaps we did not yet see any “classified evidence” that torture works but one might think such “evidence” came in the form of the new movie Zero Dark Thirty, whose producers are said to have had access to information from the US government and the CIA. What kind of impact do such media exercises have on public opinions about torture? In his review of this movie, Scott Shane of the New York Times notes

The portrayal of torture in television shows like “24” — which makes no pretense of reflecting real events — may already have contributed to a notable shift in American public opinion toward the idea that brutal interrogations are necessary and effective, said Amy B. Zegart, who studies intelligence at Stanford University. She commissioned a study in August that showed a switch since 2005 in views on the torture of terrorists who might know about new plots. There was a sharp a decline, for instance, in disapproval of waterboarding and of chaining naked prisoners in uncomfortable positions in the cold. The more spy shows people have watched, she said, the more enthusiastic they are about torture.

A debate that implicitly conveys the message to an already fearful public that torture is acceptable if it provides safety would certainly be expected to erode moral values against torture and shift public opinion. Zero Dark Thirty is simply the inevitable outcome of a grossly misguided debate on torture. Whether or not it implies that torture led to Bin Ladin is irrelevant. Rather than endlessly debating whether torture works, Americans need to come to terms with the fact that they are facing a choice: do they want “security” at the expense of their moral values? David Ignatius of Washington Post addresses this issue:

Here’s the bottom line, at least for me: We should oppose torture because it’s wrong, not because it doesn’t work. Perhaps the courier’s trail could have been found through other means; we’ll never know. President Obama was right to ban torture, but the public must understand that this decision carries a potential cost in lost information. That’s what makes it a moral choice.

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian quite rightly notes:

Emily Bazelon is right when she says that “we opponents of harsh interrogation need to remember that we can make the moral case against torture . . . without resorting to the claim that torture never accomplishes anything.” In all the years I’ve been arguing about torture, I never once claimed it never works – because that claim is, to me, both untrue and irrelevant. Torture – like murder – is categorically wrong no matter what benefits it produces.

In the last decade the media has played a significant role in shifting public opinion about the acceptability of torture. A new study found that major media outlets, when covering instances of torture, refer to it via euphemisms on average about 50% of the time rather than using the word torture. From a cognitive psychology perspective, euphemisms, such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh interrogation,” can be said to play a major role in overcoming cognitive and emotional resistance to torture. This is understandable, given the horrific scenes the term “torture” conjures up in people’s mind. Such euphemisms essentially serve to hide the truth about torture from the public eye. As such, their use by the media also becomes a matter of moral choice.

I will end my article with a brief analysis of some comments by the makers of film Zero Dark Thirty, which, in my view, highlights the erosion of moral values in the US about torture. An article in New Yorker notes:

Bigelow maintains that everything in the film is based on first-hand accounts, but the waterboarding scene, which is likely to stir up controversy, appears to have strayed from real life. According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding. “It’s a movie, not a documentary,” Boal said. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.” Still, Bigelow said, “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.”

Several disturbing questions immediately spring to mind. How can one make a movie about torture that does not have an agenda or that does not judge? Does Bigelow think that lack of a moral position against torture is something good about this movie? Furthermore, if the movie has no agenda, then why make the point that waterboarding and other “harsh tactics” were part of the CIA program? If it does have an agenda against torture, then why associate torture with the killing of Bin Ladin in total disregard of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s conclusions about the issue?

Finally, let us see what Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal had to say in an interview about the movie:

We’re trying to present a long, 10-year intelligence hunt, of which the harsh interrogation program is the most controversial aspect. And it’s just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about bin Laden. If you actually watch the movie, the detainee doesn’t say anything when he’s waterboarded. He gives them some information that’s new to them over the civilized setting of a lunch — and they go back to the research room and all that information is already there.”

The “civilized setting of a lunch” appears to have taken place after torture. Referring to this scene, Glenn Greenwald notes the following:

The key evidence – the identity of bin Laden’s courier – is revealed only after a detainee is brutally and repeatedly abused. Sitting at a table with his CIA torturer, who gives him food as part of a ruse, that detainee reveals this critical information only after the CIA torturer says to him: “I can always go eat with some other guy – and hang you back up to the ceiling.” That’s when the detainee coughs up the war name of bin Laden’s courier – after he’s threatened with more torture – and the entire rest of the film is then devoted to tracking that information about the courier, which is what leads them to bin Laden.

The statement “I can always go eat with some other guy – and hang you back up to the ceiling” is clearly a threat of further torture. Such threats constitute torture , not matter how “civilized” the setting might seem.  [Indeed, this method has a place in our list of torture events in Table 1.] As discussed earlier, torture is not limited to discrete “sessions.” It is a complex process embedded in the context of the captivity setting. It appears Bigelow and Boal simply did not get their facts about torture right. If they are really concerned about the public “misreading the film” they can only hope that the viewers are as much in the dark about what torture is really about as they are.

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