The Worst Kind of Torture

By Joseph Young

Nearly all states torture. Kingdoms, personalist and military dictatorships, and even democracies use this tool to coerce, punish or elicit information from dissidents.[1] What is the worst kind of torture? Much has been made of waterboarding, but the pear of anguish is one hideous device from antiquity. Strappado is a form of torture where a person’s arms are tied behind their back and pulled above their head. It also has a long history and has many variants. US security forces allegedly used this technique at Bagram air force base. What’s worse than either of these?

The Red Hot Chili Peppers

A new report details how the CIA put the Red Hot Chili Peppers on an endless blaring loop for the detainee, Abu Zubaydah. Supposedly, Metallica was also used against detainees in Iraq.[2] During the FBI’s ill-fated assault on the Branch Davidian complex in 1993, the Bureau played Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking.” In 1996, Peruvian security forces used patriotic music to both annoy the rebels that had taken hostages and to conceal their digging during the siege of the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Noriega, the ex-Panamanian dictator, received his own playlist in the late 1980s,[3] which included gems like “Don’t Fear the Reaper”[4] and “Never Gonna Give You Up”[5]. Of course, this is all mildly serious. Music, sensory deprivation, water-boarding, and the like are often termed torture lite, but as Darius Rejali and others have demonstrated, the long term effects can be as or more pernicious than torture heavy on the individual.

Loran Nordgren and colleagues have done a series of experiments to examine how people like us determine when an action is torture. What they find is that people’s perspective on torture is characterized by an empathy gap. In short, if we haven’t experienced the device or technique, loud noise, extreme temperature, or the like, we discount the pain caused by such methods. When we are exposed, even when the exposure is relatively mild, we then tend to view similar techniques as more painful and generally support their use less. This empathy gap, can explain at least one case in the US Senate. One of the most vociferous opponents of US enhanced interrogation is John McCain, who experienced similar (and worse) techniques during his time as a prisoner in Vietnam. So, is music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers torture? Go ahead and try it. Grab a copy of their greatest hits, lock yourself in a small dark room, press repeat and turn it up.


[1] See Moore and Conrad (2010) for why states stop torturing. Rejali (2009) offers the most comprehensive treatment of how democracies torture.

[2] And against my parents in the late 1980s.

[3] Thanks to Mike Allison for this suggestion.

[4] I won’t make a more cowbell joke, I won’t make a more cowbell joke.

[5] You’ve been Rickrolled.

  1. Interesting, provocative essay, Joe. I wonder, what metric or metrics can be used to establish whether one form of torture is worse than another? Debates over the measurement of happiness have been, ironically, fierce and furious. Is this the flip side?

  2. Thanks for the comment Brian. There are likely a number of equally plausible metrics one could use to distinguish the negative impacts of torture on the person. Most basic, you could separate physical from mental anguish. Of course, proponents of torture “lite” would argue that say water boarding is more mental than physical pain (but discount that physical pain involved because of the empathy gap). How to decide the severity of the mental anguish? Some work has been done on this question. As far as I know, however, researchers did not disentangle the physical from the mental effects ( Obviously, solid social science that disentangles the causal effects is challenging to say the least. Experiments, like those I cite above, are a good way though to start trying.

    1. Without going into experimental measurements, I wonder if there are good and bad effects of trying to determine which forms of torture are “worse.” On the one hand, it’s tempting to just say that torture is torture and leave it at that, but on the other, that type of blanket moral ban opens up the same kind of “torture is bad, but this isn’t torture” logic the US has exploited in the last decade.

      1. Good point Taylor. There are some inane debates in history over whether Stalin or Hitler was worse (They were both horrific, so creating a some mental scale probably not helpful). It does suggest two states of the world (reasonable state behavior and unreasonable state behavior) rather than a sliding scale of more or less.

      2. I think that’s less the U.S. exploiting some loophole and more the U.S. government (especially CIA) being willfully ignorant and repeating the same weak argument over and over. Looking at what was described years ago, I don’t think you could honestly say it wasn’t torture. Looking at what has been reported in recent months, you definitely could not say that there was no torture. Just because some of it might not have been as extreme as what was carried out under other governments at other times does not mean it was not torture.

        1. Thanks Grant for the reply. I wonder if the CIA tried some kind of randomized controlled trial to gauge the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation” tactics? My sense is that many people don’t like torture, but would support its use if it works. If it doesn’t work, then my guess is that there is a lot less support for its use (regardless of the morality or legalese).

          1. I’m a strong proponent of field experiments, but not in this case, for several reasons: 1. Torture violates fundamental moral principles that render it wrong in most situations in which it is used, even if occasionally effective; 2. It is very difficult to test its long-term effects on all individuals involved; 3. It undermines legitimacy, both intrinsic or perceived; and 4. It risks “net widening”, if it were found to have a short-term benefit.

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