VOL.2 NO.7 May 16, 1997
The Psychology of Torture and Ticking Bombs
Abstract. This article describes some psychological features of the controversy over the Israeli government’s authorization and use of “moderate physical pressure” to extract terrorism-related information from detainees.
Much international opprobrium along with a United Nations (UN) condemnation has greeted the Israeli government for the use of torture with detainees. The UN position is that the “shaking of prisoners” and their maintenance in contorted and excruciating positions with a foul-smelling bag over their heads constitutes torture, and that even the Israeli concern with terrorism and hostilities from citizens of adjacent and proximal states does not justify use of these methods. The Israeli position is that these methods do not constitute torture. Instead interrogators are engaged in “moderate physical pressure,” and that this is used only to obtain information about “imminent” terrorist acts--so-called “ticking bombs.”
Lost in the many journalistic analyses, political denunciations, and rare defenses is the following. First, “imminent terrorist acts” does not only denote the end point of a terrorist act--injury, murder and destruction. It may denote any act about to be perpetrated or just perpetrated as part of a sequence leading up to the terrorist endpoint. Such acts may include anything from buying an apartment, surveilling a route, or smuggling a weapon. Second, the credibility of information from torture--as with hypnosis, polygraphy, and a host of brutal interrogation techniques--is often suspect. Often the interrogators are trying to extract information supportive of what they already believe--regardless of the disparity between the confidence and accuracy of belief. Third, torture ascriptions seem to be revolving around the specific interrogation techniques employed rather than the psychological effects on those people being interrogated. This focus on technique instead of psychology may be a variant of what may be termed the fundamental attribution error of torture.
The strategic moral calculus of torture identification and justification is not a simple one. The gallows humor of governments which employ torture with a most gruesome style and high frequency attacking Israel is both simple and typical of international political discourse these days. (See Lewis, A. (May 12, 1997.) ‘There is no stopping.’ The New York Times, p. A17; Proceedings of a seminar on Israel and international human rights law: The issue of torture. (June 9, 1995.) Jerusalem: Center for Human Rights, Hebrew University.) (Keywords: Terrorism, Torture.)
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