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1.1     Background of the study

Governments sometimes characterize torture as an indispensable interrogation tool for gathering strategic intelligence. In this article, we review the relevant social scientific research on the effectiveness, impact, and causes of torture. First, we summarize research on false confessions and examine the relevance of that research for torture-based interrogations. Next, we review research on the mental health consequences of torture for survivors and perpetrators. Finally, we explore thesocial-psychological conditions that promote acts of cruelty (suchasthoseseen at Abu Ghraib) and examine the arguments typically offered to justify the use of torture. We argue that any hypothesized benefits from the use of torture must be weighed against the substantial proven costs of torture. These costs include the unreliable information extracted through interrogations using torture, the mental and emotional toll on victims and torturers, loss of international stature and credibility, and the risk of retaliation against soldiers and civilians.

Torture is one of the most extreme forms of human violence, resulting in both physical and psychological consequences. Torture has been used for thousands of years, and is still widespread, occurring throughout much of the world (Amnesty International, 2009). Research has shown that torture can have enduring negative effects on both survivors and perpetrators, and is ineffective for obtaining reliable information in interrogation. Although many international laws and codes have been established to prohibit torture, its widespread use continues as part of internal

conflicts within nations, as well as in international conflicts. The issue of torture has most recently stirred debate with respect to interrogation practices used by the United States.

In 2003, the world was stunned by a series of photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These photos, taken by U.S. soldiers on cell phones and digital cameras, depicted prisoners subjected to cruel and humiliating treatment at the hands of U.S. troops. In one photo, a handcuffed, terrified prisoner is shown cornered by a snarling military dog straining against its leash. In many photos, naked prisoners had been forced to lie on top of one another in a pile or to simulate sexual acts. Several pictures show naked, hooded inmates handcuffed in painful positions to beds and cell bars. Some inmates have bleeding wounds; others appear to have wires attached to their bodies (Hersh, 2004). Some photos were especially disturbing because they show soldiers (both men and women) posing next to the abused prisoners, grinning or giving “thumbs up” signs, appearing to take sadistic pleasure in the abuse. In responding to the outcry created by the photos, soldiers explained that they had been instructed to “soften up” prisoners for more systematic interrogation (Scherer & Benjamin, 2003).

At present the United States is engaged in what it has termed the “Global War on Terror.” In this effort many prisoners are taken by the US and its allies. Clearly some percentage of these prisoners may hold information which has the potential to: 1) prevent (or lessen the impacts of) terrorist acts against civilians; 2) prevent terrorist acts against military targets; 3) provide the means to break up the terrorist network(s); 4) provide the means to disrupt terrorist command and control activities. Similar situations may exist in many other areas of the world, such as Chechnya or Israel, where a recognized government is “at war” with terrorist organizations.

The governments or occupying powers hold an asymmetric relationship with the groups they are fighting. Decisions of the governments will be unilateral and any concessions toward humane treatment will not necessarily be reciprocated by the terrorist groups.

This paper does not directly examine issues of whether the detention of prisoners is justified, but rather the conduct of interrogation sessions and whether the use of torture in those sessions is ever justifiable.

1.1.1 Definitions

Dictionary definitions:

Interrogate: verb: 1 : to question formally and systematically [1]Torture: noun: 2 : the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure verb: 1 : to cause intense suffering to : TORMENT 2 : to punish or coerce by inflicting excruciating pain [2]

Other definitions:

[from 18 USC 113C Section 2340 US Anti-Torture Act]

  • “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended toinflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
  • “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
    • the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mindaltering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
    • the threat of imminent death; or
    • the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain orsuffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality;

From the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

The definition of interrogate yields very little sense of the fact that subjects of interrogation do not

generally want to divulge information. Interrogators often utilize coercive techniques to cause the subject to cede

the desired information. These coercive techniques exist on a continuum from “direct questioning” through “torture” and “death”.[3]


1.2     Statement of the problem

As early as the third century A.D., the great Roman Jurist Ulpian noted that informationobtainedthroughtorturewasnottobetrustedbecausesomepeopleare “so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it” (Peters, 1996). This warning about the unreliability of information extracted through the use of torture has echoed across the centuries. As one CIA operative who participated in torture during the Vietnam War put it, “We had people who were willing to confess to anything if we would just stop torturing them” (Andersen, 2004, p. 3). Indeed, the Army Field Manual explains that strategically useful information is best obtained from prisoners who are treated humanely, and that information obtained through torture has produced faulty intelligence (Leahy, 2005).

It is important to acknowledge that torture may sometimes lead to the disclosure of accurate information. That is, confronted with excruciating pain, some people tell what they know. However, many survivors of torture report that the truthful information they revealed was intentionally incomplete or mixed with false information (Harbury, 2005). The goal was to appease the torturer, not to reveal the truth. And, because the interrogators were not omniscient, they could not discern which bits of information were true and which were false. Misreading their victims, torturers often failed to recognize the truth and continued to inflict pain. Victims continued to disclose, often fabricating information to in an effort to stop the pain (Conroy, 2000; Haritos-Fatouros, 2003). Many survivors of torture report that they would have said anything to “make the torture stop” (Mayer, 2005; McCoy, 2006). And, even in cases where torture may have preceded the disclosure of useful information, it is impossible to know whether less coercive forms of interrogation might have yielded the same or even better results.


1.3     Aim of the study

The main aim of this study is to evaluate torture as a means of obtaining reliable information from crime suspects.


1.4     Significance of the study

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the national and international public debate over the use of torture in interrogations has focused on legal and moral issues. Often overlooked is the psychology of torture and the substantial body of empirical research relevant to the debate. This study summarizes that empirical research and places the issue of torture in social-psychological context. We begin by reviewing research on the psychology of coercive interrogations and the problem of false confessions. Next, we summarize the findings of research on the psychological impact of torture on victims and perpetrators. Finally, we place the issue of torture in context by exploring the situational factors that facilitate cruelty and the arguments used by governments and individuals to justify the use of torture.

This study will also benefit researchers and academicians carrying out research related to this study.



[1] “Interrogate.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/interrogate

[2] “Torture.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/torture

[3] Filarowski-Sheaks, Christina, Interrogation Policy & the Global War on Terrorism, Presentation to Terrorism

Cybersecurity Class, Berkeley, California, 30-Nov-2005


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