Torture Techniques: A Psychological Perspective
GIVE ME A PILLOW CASE, oven mits, some poster tubes, reverse cycle air conditioning, your favourite death metal song and one of those chairs we had to sit in during primary school; then come back in 48 hours and I’ll have them talking alright. I can do it, that isn’t the question. The question is whether what they will be saying will be worth a gosh darn.
Humans are dumb. If I ask you to hold a hot coffee, just while I get my bus card out, when we first meet; you will like me more and won’t know why.
If your arousal is up from fear because I let my dog out (even though I know you have a phobia) and then after I put the dog outside I return and immediately feed you any mating cues: you’ll think you are attracted to me, outside of your normal mate sorting protocols. You may even get a fatalistic crush on me, depending on how I orchestrate it. “love at first sight” you’ll say. You “just knew” I was the one. Knew on the first date I’d be the one you would marry.
And all this without considering scripts, heuristics and schemata. There is so so much more; such that the only blessing becomes it is all but overwhelming to try and apply it all with intent. I mean, you’d need a team of people whose full time job it was to manage this stuff. It’d be like a real estate agent, but with heaps more salesmen and multiple locations. Yep, you’d need whole agencies. I know, how Sci Fi.
Quickly, off the top of your head, how many script writers does a politician need to speak his mind and represent his constituents honestly? That’s a tiny example, obviously. But is it more than ‘0’? Because even that seems like probably too many. Well one could argue. One does.
And, of course, there are agencies of people devoted to these kinds of activities: more per 100’000 than ever before. And that’s not just America.
And you don’t have to study too much psychology before you start seeing this kind of thing being thrown at you, without your consent, everywhere you go (particularly from news programs, building designs and worst of all advertising). Anything replicated will be used. And anything we know of from say “the Gruen Report” for example is really only a fraction of what is really available.
[*NB It is claimed that Gruen tried to be distant from the research findings. Gruen did not want the discovered effects to carry the family name; citing ethical reasons for the decision. Didn’t work out I guess].
We (the literature) also know fairly consistently (when it can actually be verified) that certain interrogation techniques do not produce reliable information above chance.
People don’t tend to “break”: they either tell all at the first nail, don’t know anything or, tell you absolutely anything by the third nail. This concept has a reasonably high level of reflective face validity too, I think you’ll agree.
We do know that investigative and forensic psychological techniques work. But Psychological torture falls into the other “ripping your nails out” category. As such, so do the produced results.
But boy, torture wise, they do really do that trick surprisingly well. In fact, well enough to get all the same results: They even recruit Jihadists to the anti-western cause as well as any melted plastic skin ripping, electric clamp downstairs or pull your teeth out tactics.
And people become delusional very quickly and say anything to make it stop as well. Yep, just as good. Useless. But let’s have a debate about it.
These things have been studied at leading universities for a very long time. Tried AND tested.
I just think the idea that “I didn’t even touch him” or euphemism like “stress positions” or “cacophony” is enough for people on the whole to back off and only focus on clumsy methods like “waterboarding”: which probably will be banned in a classic highballing switch (I hope they pay their psychologists well, they seem to be using them) because waterboarding is not on the list of perfected skills from the last half century of experiments.
They offer things up for sacrifice. If they ban waterboading, and then everything else appears at a glance to be tame by comparison, well alright. They do this kind of thing all the time.
If they finally given us gay marriage…
These things are pacifiers. A false demand is created (or inflated, like with gay marriage); then blown out of proportion; then you are told you “NO! You CAN’T have it!” (This something arbitrary that you were getting on fine without. So you fight for it, it’s on every station; the radio on the way to work; every panel show; things get heated; a protest or two until… they give it to you! Then people are satiated. And they didn’t know it was missing.
It has a flash point: it just takes a few of the right news items to be picked up by the right people then boom! No maintenance required. And on conclusion, people still have opinions on both sides but no matter what, it feels good. It feels like something has got DONE, you know:
“Well, we did get this thing that wasn’t, at the end of the day, a massive big deal (until they told us it was) but we have had to fight long and hard for it, and we have it now so… VICTORY! The system works. But we can forget about getting anything else for a while, cause, want it or not, we just got that thing. The government is so progressive. The government is my friend.” Except a more kinda unconscious type dealio.
And controlling everyone with broad strokes is just the shallow end.
I am not really going to talk too much about MK-ULTRA or SH or Manchurian candidates and the like or the recent equivalents because [erased].
I’ll just repeat a recurring theme, because it is important in political research in general: – There is a big difference between “an important official spokesperson said” and actual reporting/investigative journalism from multiple sources.
Just as there is a difference between “conspiracy theory” and straight up “declassified”. You don’t even need common sense with those. No newspaper clippings, no eye witnesses who strangely have dementia now, no dots to connect. You would need to read it though. And ideally be able to read through black Nikko.
But beyond that, I figure you either know that stuff already or you’ll never know (and probably haven’t read this far). Yes, it’s the same people at the wrong place at the right time over and over, it’s not disputed. Yes, they join little groups, slap each other on the butt with paddles and promote each other. Don’t you find your friends jobs? Paddle them on occasion?
Yes, they topple governments on purpose (*a lot) to steal their stuff. And yes, they kill people at will and indiscriminately: they tell us as much. What are drone strikes? What is war for that matter.
(*But what is a lot?)
People will put up with anything and applaud for nothing. And vice versa. And I know how they feel. But I took a very different route to get here. That part I don’t understand.
Hitchens makes an interesting observation in “H22” about how much respect you have for the badge and uniform of a police officer as a kid. “Protector”. “Friend”. And how the first time someone from the middle class gets kicked by a cop it’s one of those rare “moment(s) of truth”, where a reality about the world just falls into place without desire for epistemological inquiry. Just:
“Oh God what’s happening, why is this happening, ahhhhh, pepper spray, I’m a chick, I’m not doing anything, I called you! Ahhhhh! Stop your breaking my AHHHHH! Why are you spraying me and not even chasing th… ahhhh …phonebooks…”
They are not here to hug us.
And those of us who grew up under the community based model are going to get a bit of a shake up under a more intelligence lead paradigm.
Like Maslow says: If all you have is a hammer, everything suddenly looks like a nail.
And do you know why you can’t talk about, well, anything for the most part, with anyone? Why we watch football and the same episode of two and a half men day after day? You would think we would question for a while. At least at first, just after birth maybe, I mean wouldn’t you? Well, yeah, of course. And we do question. We learn apathy from our parents. Sometimes we break out for ourselves for a little bit in college, then become apathetic for ourselves over the lifespan and then teach that to our kids.
On occasion the “break out” part is missed (more and more) and people who have never read a book and never asked a question just pass that straight on to their kids with a beer and a football. I’m not saying either is right.
But you can’t just watch Michael Moore documentaries either. Every time someone says “look it up”; you have to look it up.
Usually they are both lying. And it is hard work to cross match everything, even without cover-ups. At some point (where I live) you don’t even want to talk to people unless you know they look into things with the same rigor as you. Because you don’t have time too look into it and won’t believe it before you do, so what would be the point?
Sensationalism is in videos, information is in writing. It’s good and bad. But it is a lot easier to work up a biography profile sketch of a claimant and skim a few documents by different authors then it is to skim a film. The smallest thing will still take all night though. And there are a lot of small things.
I’m not even going into Australian legislation or programs. Skim the “anti terror act” of 2005 and search for our bill of rights; that should keep you occupied till bed time. Actually, that’s what we should do instead of Easter bilby hunts: have children try and find the bill of rights in a chocolate Australian constitution.
Specifics start to matter less. This is the cynical part of this feature (lol oh THIS is the cynical part). Just assume it’s the same in every similar religion; and that its worse then you think. You’ll be closer to the mark from the get go.
Again, they don’t hide most of this stuff they just leave it in writing and that’s good enough. They make legislation into dissertations. Bills, which use to be 2 pages long, are suddenly coming out 1’000 pages long. This kind of thing. (Jokes on them; the 2 page system would have kept enough people in the dark by far. The fools! We’ll bleed them through ink Mubahaha!).
Anyways, as pointed out by Alfred McCoy (UWN), the photos from Abu Grebe are like pages out of a text book (the first, no, second edition, let me go to my bookshelf…KUBARK, 1st). Actually there are lots of official handbooks for every branch of military intelligence, and every different agency; plus the updated versions. I have a few, but you could fill a bookshelf of just the current editions. My favourite title is “Human Resource Exploitation: A Training Manuel”. It is a title that speaks to the times.
Hitchins (Hero) allowed himself to be waterboarded to know the experience of legal “enhanced interrogation”. The officer refused at first saying waterboarding was for “Green Berets in training, or wiry young jihadists whose teeth can bite through the gristle of an old goat. It’s not for wheezing, paunchy scribblers.” Very caring, the military. Any military, that’s just across the board.
Before they began on the day they also double checked to make sure he didn’t have asthma (S.O.P. when waterboarding terrorists i’m sure). In the piece he wrote in Vanity Fair he jibes about whether or not he should tell them about the 15’000 odd *cigaretts a year he’s taken part in for the last x decades.
[*Devastatingly, he would in fact be dead in 2 years from smoking related cancer. And in interviews around this time, in hindsight, he does seem symptomatic and speaks of trouble being supine; even though he wasn’t diagnosed until it was upon him. But he did the waterboarding experiment anyway, cause he wanted to know. Twice. Hero.]
His conclusion regarding the whole experience was it doesn’t feign the sensation of drowning: when water is forced into your lungs against your will; that is drowning. By definition. It is just whether or not they stop and if they are monitoring your vitals with medical equipment to make sure they know when to stop (I’d say they usually aren’t). Here is a bit of his experience:
“I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose …I held my breath… had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out… sheer panic”
And, indeed, when people have died from the application of this technique they have drowned. That would be quite the convincing sensation. I’m sure there have been cardiac and neurological deaths as well. Saves a bullet. Hitchens added:
“Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia”
The torturer comforted him by saying “anytime is a long time when you are breathing water”. Interestingly though, Hitchens swears he gave the predetermined signal to stop: the torturer said, himself surprised, that Hitchens had not.
Rather he had produced the “dead mans handle”, not an RPG item or Masonic handshake but the sign that unconsciousness had set in and he was drowning. Same as a dead man’s switch on an explosive device, but in reverse. (Like train handles so if the driver had a stroke the train would just stop. Basically his hand went limp).
This is all in the first 30 seconds. That is not much margin for error, but good to have such an attentive tormentor (with lawyer, paramedic and camera looking on: we should all be so lucky when they come for us. “BANG BANG: Ve are here to see a man about a blog…)”
There is no question a psychological component to any torture, including this one obviously. But the other techniques are as potent. And there is no one near you. In fact, that is kind of the point taken, to its extreme.
Hitchens’ experience did have other features of the favoured biopsych techniques (sensory deprivation, strobing lights, cacophony). But you would be surprised what rapid changes temperature, uncomfortable posture and sensory distance, deprivation followed by sensory overload can do; especially in a schedule of unpredictable repetition.
Like the dripping bathroom tap where the drip just won’t drip in an appreciable rhythm. That probably isn’t the adequate comparison I was looking for. But do think of how much you want to kill that drip. It’s the same out of control “I don’t rule this world…I AM NOT SAFE” circuit. And it begins to fire over that.
Try and picture the full scenario. Be in it.
The experiments at McGill had people dissociated in minuets to a few hours. Hallucinating soon after. The lead research psychologist reported that within 48 hours subjects began to show signs of “complete personality breakdown”. Think about that. And this was just disorientation, sensory depravation and cacophony. And at a university where you are not in any danger and you know what is going on. 2 days.
Section 2340 allows a lot more than both of these. When I dare to dream what could be done with pharmaceuticals; and that is just theorising about the ones that aren’t classified. Terrifying. But as I said, none of it sounds all that great. Could it be possible that torture is just…bad?
Now, sure: we all want to be ruler of the world. Without exception.
Show me someone who doesn’t want to rule the world and I’ll show you a self deceiving automaton. Seriously, I carry one in my wallet.
It is true though. There is no shame in it; it is part of being alive. As soon as you have needs or even desire you have an equal will to inversely impact the world, with preference, by at least that much. If there is a song you like, you want to hear it over a different song. You want to eat the food, get the girl, not be abused or poorly treated. You want to rule your world.
“Why can’t we all just get along” is enforcing your will on others. Or even the oh too personal “I just want to be left alone”. It doesn’t work like that, and we do ok for the most part. But we would all become Gods in a heartbeat if we were offered the power.
Detachment and a strong will can only do so much; in fact they are a type of ruling your world that proves my point that the desire to…anyway.
We all want to be safe. But personality disintegration: that is not going to lead to good information. If you are completely disassociated you may not even understand the questions, and some of these people never come back.
If tortures are designed to be so bad that people will say anything to make them stop, well that begs the question.
But where does that leave us? Well with the better techniques of culture respectful subtle psychological manipulation.
Matthew Alexander (pseudonym) outlines these techniques further in his work on How to Break a Terrorist.
After the pentagon released his manuscript (with a significant delay, causing him to miss the print date and ultimately only removing things in the public domain that he cut and pasted off the CIA webpage), he arranged a new print date and I’ve seen some lectures by him about the place as well. It is interesting.
Trained in all styles, like everyone else at Hogwarts espionage academy for Wizards and spies; his team DECIDED (ie by choice) to use psychology of culture and interaction to (more successfully) track down key Al-Qaida operatives.
I mean, do what ever you wanna do, you know. But there is really only so many times you can say to a torturer “I don’t know anything, I don’t know anything man I don’t know anything AHHHH” : before you are going to suddenly know something. And it is not going to be worthwhile.
And people say what about the ticking time bomb scenario?
I say ESPECIALLY in the ticking time bomb scenario. 1) What good is bad information when you have even less time to vet it? And 2) The enemy combatant only has to wait a tick and he’ll be dead anyway.
Science that is any good just takes time. I know, It sucks, but it is the case in every discipline.
Maybe there is merit in enemy combatants knowing there is torture and death involved (so if they have something to tell, they will more likely tell it quick).
But perhaps the science of, surgically applied, applied psychology will be of more use in a pinch then the “don’t make me make you tell me anything” approach.
For Hitch, try CoL :- “CML Letter to a Friend”
Jay J. Raphael
cognito ergo propter hoc memento mori
* Photo Vanity Fair, Aug 08
**First published JChronLettSci Aug. Edition 2012