Fight fire with fire! Revisiting the Torture Problem by Robert Imre

When it comes to war, terror, and political violence, fighting fire with fire only makes you fight in a burning house. Decades of research tells us that it makes no practical sense whatsoever, when engaged in a violent contest with terrorists, to use torture.

Intelligence organizations themselves say that they do not use torture to get information as it is unreliable and the 9/11 report confirmed that no reliable information was gleaned from the use of torture. In the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, parts of the US intelligence community chose to ignore what they knew about torture, and mistakenly thought they might gain an advantage by attempting these practices. The disappointing complicity of the American Psychological Association made the practice even more problematic.

The utility of torture is to be found elsewhere and this is why dictators can use torture to keep people in line, not to glean information (Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s). Torture one person randomly, then do a series of random house searches and take away political prisoners, and then threaten to torture people some more. This is a process as old as dictatorships and totalitarian regimes themselves. But torture usually has the opposite effect on committed terrorists and/or insurgencies.

Once a group of people see a common cause and are motivated enough to enact forms of political violence, through hopelessness, criminality, stupidity, or perhaps even just pure evil, torture becomes a mere theatre of destruction. The question of torture being raised again might demonstrate the frustration that people might feel with unresolved political issues that lead to violence. If we want revenge, and we seek to make that vengeance public and carnivalesque, then torture functions just fine. But it does not get us reliable information on our enemies, and it entrenches a victim mentality that terrorists can continue to use to get people to join their cause. ‘Crackdowns’ on political violence have limited effect as in Northern Ireland and numerous other examples.

We know from decades of examples that there must be some form of political accommodation, and some redress of political grievances. This must be done through intelligent political leadership. Without that the violence continues.

The solutions must be political solutions. Torture itself has never been a tool that does anything beyond two things: entrenches political grievance forever so that victims of torture always have a legitimate reason to enact violence on their aggressors, and gives dictatorial powers to political leaders seeking to control their own people through fear. Torture does not work in terms of stopping terrorists as individuals or terrorist organizations.

There are a number of other problems associated with torture, and especially as linked to terrorism. In terms of fighting terrorism, torture is not effective in gathering intelligence and information that might give authorities an upper hand.

Dr Robert Imre is currently Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at The University of Newcastle, Australia and a Fellow with the Space and Political Agency Research Group (SPARG) at the University of Tampere.

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