New Book Shows Torture Games Have No Winners

By Adelma Jakupovic

Does interrogational torture work? How frequently must torture be used to produce information to be considered effective? Will innocent detainees be tortured or only guilty ones? How harsh must the torture be? And is it justifiable?

These are the questions John Scheimann asks in his book, Does Torture Work? Schiemann, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University, uses game theory—a mathematical tool for studying interactive decision-making where the outcome for each participant or “player” depends on the actions of all—to try to answer these questions.

You don’t need prior knowledge of game theory to understand the book. Schiemann draws from domestic and international examples of the use of torture to provide context to the arguments. Framing torture as a strategic game played between an interrogator and a detainee, Schiemann walks the reader through the logic of interrogational torture, as he compares the outcomes to the claims made by torture proponents.

Schiemann begins with the Bush Interrogational Torture (BIT) program, a real-world application of an ideal, normative interrogational torture model that calls for using torture only as a last resort. The model consists of two players, the detainee and the interrogator. Each has two strategies: the detainee’s strategies are “reveal information” or “don’t reveal information,” while the interrogator’s are “torture” or “don’t torture.”

According to Schiemann, the logic behind the BIT model produces a simple binary relation between torture and information: no torture, no information; some torture, some information; lots of torture, lots of information. It assumes that the duration and severity of torture will be kept at a minimum, and that torture will be so effective that it will compel high-value detainees to full disclosure. It also assumes that the interrogators will know when detainees have provided enough information not to resort to torture.

Schiemann finds that under realistic circumstances, BIT far exceeds its prescribed limits. Torture is used too often and too harshly, producing false and unreliable information. Resistant detainees will be subjected to increasingly brutal torture. Innocents with no information will also be tortured. Some will make false confessions to please their interrogator. An interrogator may also misperceive valuable information as nonvaluable, subjecting detainees to torture even after they revealed everything they knew. This is precisely why cooperative and innocent detainees who might otherwise provide information do not: they know they will be tortured anyway.

Having shown that torture in this model becomes increasingly harsh and even more frequent than its proponents expect, Schiemann concludes that torture does not work. Torture is never just “one person and a bomb.” Nor can the brutal actions of interrogators be attributed to a few “bad apples.” As the Senate torture report demonstrates, the detainee abuses were not isolated occurrences; rather, they were emblematic of a larger culture and acceptance of torture. Torture was not only restricted to the CIA’s undocumented prisons, or black sites. Versions of their techniques were also used at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Perhaps most significantly, Schiemann argues that there are things the United States simply must not do because it compromises our values and character. As Senator John McCain said in December of 2014, the CIA torture program “stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good”

And while some may argue for using torture regardless, Schiemann clearly demonstrates that the failure of the Bush torture program is a failure of the legal-theoretical and philosophical justification on which it is based. Torture cannot be justified.

“The question as to whether—in reality—interrogational torture actually provides us with vital information we otherwise would not get—and at what human cost—is one of the pressing moral questions of our time,” he writes. “The debate over this question suggests that this reality needs probing, and the probing offered here suggests that torture games have no winners.”


Published on May 4, 2016


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