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Expert Voices

An Open Letter to Dramatic Artists Who Write About Torture: Video Games, Films and More

Published October 17, 2016

Stanton Wood is CVT strategic initiatives officer.

Popular culture is confused about torture. This has probably always been true, but it’s been especially notable in the last 15 years as “enhanced interrogation” entered the lexicon and torture began to be routinely used as an interrogation technique in film, games and television. Sometimes game developers and writers got it right, but often they got it wrong. Disinformation, popular misconceptions and wishful thinking have all contributed to a profound misunderstanding about the effectiveness, legality and morality of torture as a method of interrogation. This is particularly problematic because the interrogation/interview scene is a mainstay of drama; there are lots of opportunities to get it wrong.

As it happens, I might be qualified to provide come clarity. I have an MFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon and worked in the computer game industry for more than seven years as a game designer and writer. Today I work in program development at the Center for Victims of Torture as strategic initiatives officer. I am also a published playwright, with credits in film and television, and I continue to maintain a career in the arts. So I would like to offer my thoughts on the subject of torture from the perspective of a dramatic writer, some considerations for those well-meaning artists out there who might be considering incorporating torture (or even an interrogation scene) into your game, film, stage play, radio play, television show, anime or opera.

Let’s start with why you should think carefully before incorporating torture into a narrative:

Torture can’t prove innocence: As Lynn Hunt explains in Inventing Human Rights, torture as an interrogation technique is actually based on a pre-enlightenment idea that the body in pain cannot lie, even when the mind resists, and that sufficient pain literally forces a person to tell the truth. This has since been debunked, along with a number of other great medieval ideas, such as that illness is a punishment by God, that the Black Death was the result of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars getting too close together, and that madness can be cured by cutting a hole in your skull so the evil spirits can escape.  The reality is that torture does not make people tell the truth – it just makes people say anything to make it stop. An innocent person can never convince a torturer that he’s telling the truth, and torturers don’t stop because they hear the truth – they stop when they want to. In fact, an innocent person subjected to torture has only one sure way to make it stop:  tell the torturer what they want to hear. 

Furthermore, even if the person was guaranteed to tell the truth at some point in response to torture, the interrogator will not necessarily know or recognize it. We’d like to believe there’s a way to distinguish lies from truth. Television over the past few years has been filled with micro-expression facial reading experts and super-observant consultants who can tell instantly when people are lying. But the fact is, in real life, people can’t really tell. It’s a sad part of life that human beings are really good at lying and really bad at seeing it. Even the lie detector is inadmissible in court because it’s not actually that good at detecting lies. The fact is that there’s no definitive, objective way of knowing whether someone is telling the truth solely based on what they tell you in that moment. So even if you torture someone and they tell you the truth, you won’t necessarily know it. That’s no different from standard investigative interviewing, of course, but standard investigation is not illegal and immoral. 

Torture is ineffective:  First a caveat. Even if torture was the most effective means of interrogation ever invented, it should still not be used. Ever. It was outlawed for a reason. Nuclear weapons are far more “effective” at destroying military installations than standard artillery, but we don’t use them. We also outlawed mustard gas as well as chemical and biological weapons and the neutron bomb, which could all be considered more effective at killing groups of people than standard military assault rifles, grenades or artillery. Even if torture was super effective at gleaning information, it’s immoral and a crime and should be outlawed. No matter what the scenario. By definition, you can’t use the dark side of the force for good; that’s exactly how you become Darth Vader.

That being said, it’s worth noting that torture is actually not effective, except in the same way a broken clock is effective at telling time. In his book Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, brain scientist Shane O’Mara points out the ways in which common torture techniques like waterboarding and sleep deprivation damage cognitive facilities to such an extent that suspects not only make false confessions, but don’t even remember doing it. In a 2015 episode of the BBC documentary Panorama, a volunteer who underwent waterboarding not only confessed to “being born a bunny rabbit,” but had no memory of even doing so. Waterboarding systematically deprives the brain of oxygen through simulated drowning while at the same time causing carbon dioxide build up in the body over time, which leads to fear, panic, and cognitive impairment. Recent research projects on sleep deprivation, many of which have focused on far less dramatic deprivation than that carried out by the CIA, have highlighted the ways in which lack of sleep can impact cognition, inhibit the accuracy of memory, create mood changes, cause hallucinations and lead to false confessions. O’Mara also points out that torture wouldn’t necessarily work faster than traditional interrogation; it’s basically never a better option.

So why would we intuitively think that a suspect who is disoriented, exhausted, freaking out, suffering mild hallucinations and rambling incoherently would give actionable intelligence, particularly under a time limit? Why would we assume it’s more effective than building relationships, acquiring social leverage, negotiating and offering trade-offs, or subtle “information elicitation” strategies like the Scharff technique? I’m glad you asked. It’s because . . .

Torture is not about gathering information:  Strictly speaking, torture is not actually an interrogation technique at all. It’s an intimidation and punishment technique during which people can ask questions.  Sort of like how a professional baseball game is not a peanut gathering event but a sporting event during which people can get a bag of peanuts. In reality, the primary goal of torture is to shatter individual will, destroy community, intimidate dissidents, enforce compliant behavior, create a climate of fear and exact vengeance. Gathering usable intelligence is usually at the bottom of the list, if it’s there at all.   That’s why proponents of torture talk first and foremost of vengeance, of “getting tough” and “fighting fire with fire.” They also forget that . . .

Torture is illegal:  Yes, it’s a crime. By United States statute, an act of torture committed outside the United States is punishable under 18 U.S.C. § 2340. In addition, the United States is a party to the following treaties that prohibit torture:  the 1949 Geneva Conventions (signed 1949; ratified 1955), the American Convention on Human Rights (signed 1977), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (signed 1977; ratified 1992), and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (signed 1988; ratified 1994). A number of protections were made stronger as a result of the recent McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment to the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which codified the Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations as the standard for interrogations across all government agencies.

It’s also worth highlighting that the Bush administration did not actually make torture legal. It created a new category of “other stuff,” called enhanced interrogation, and said those didn’t amount to torture.  Then it took a bunch of atrocities, such as waterboarding, and moved them out of the illegal torture column and into the enhanced interrogation column. This was a magic trick of legal misinterpretation.  Prior to this, “enhanced interrogation” did not exist in the U.S., and waterboarding, for example, had been considered torture dating back to the 16th century before we arbitrarily decided it wasn’t. I just want to note here that if Medieval Europeans (the same people who wanted to drill a hole in your skull to cure your depression) considered something violent enough to call “water torture,” it’s probably not something we should be using as part of our legal investigative process in the 21st Century, no matter what we call it. And even it if was legal . . .

Torture is counter-productive and antithetical to American values:  One of the most important factors distinguishing the British from the Americans in the Revolutionary War is that George Washington refused to torture British POWs. Here’s what Washington wrote in a letter to General Benedict Arnold in 1775 before his invasion of Canada (yes, that Benedict Arnold and that Canada and yes, it feels silly to write “invasion of Canada” even if it technically happened): 

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any Canadian or Indian [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”

And following the Battle of Trenton in 1776, Washington wrote this, with respect to the captured Hessian mercenaries:

Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”

By the way, that was this battle.

Washington took this point of view despite rather than because of British treatment of Americans. It was the British who declared the Americans “non-combatants” and thus not subject to the rules of war.  All of the Americans captured at Bunker Hill at the beginning of the war were dead by 1778, and an estimated 8,000 – 12,000 American POWs, often held in brutal conditions on floating prison ships off the coast, died at the hands of the British through starvation and beatings. In contrast, many of the Hessians who survived the Revolutionary War went on to become American citizens afterwards.   

It didn’t end there. In the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln adopted General Order No. 100, Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, otherwise known as the Lieber Code. Article 16 begins:

“Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.”

The Leiber Code became the foundation for subsequent civilized rules of war, including the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

Meanwhile in the 21st Century, there’s plenty of evidence that torture and war crimes by American operatives led to increased radicalization and a hardening of anti-American attitudes that made it more difficult to achieve strategic goals related to making the world safer. 250 years of having the moral high ground on human rights pioneered by our country has been severely damaged. We’re in danger of becoming the villains in our own origin story, spiritual descendants not of George Washington but of King George III.

Torture diminishes both perpetrator and victim:  Many of the thousands of American soldiers who worked in detention centers suffered PTSD as a result of their experiences. For her book Tortured: When Good Soldiers do Bad Things, Justine Sharrock interviewed soldiers who participated in abuse and torture in Iraq. Many had symptoms of PTSD and describe their time working in the prisons, not their time in combat, as the most debilitating. In None of Us Were Like this Before, Joshua E.S. Phillips describes the ways in which ordinary soldiers both contributed to abuse and were debilitated by it. As Jonathon Shay writes in that book’s introduction: 

“The overwhelming majority of people who volunteer for our armed forces are not psychopaths; they are good people who would be damaged were they to live with the knowledge that they had applied torture or committed murder. The distinction between lawful combatant (who may be legally and morally attacked) and protected person is the bright line between soldier and murderer.” 

CVT generally does not treat perpetrators, but you, as writers portraying torture, have an obligation to do so as artists. The act of torture carries weight that must be grappled with.

Writing torture scenes takes care and skill: Those were all scientific, ethical, legal and moral arguments. Here’s an artistic one. In most cases where torture is portrayed in dramatic media, it’s as a result of poor dramatic structure. Beating the information out of a suspect is a lot easier than building a relationship or acquiring leverage or subtly eliciting information, and it plays easily with time-based dramatic tension clichés, such as I know the bomb is going off in 20 minutes but I don’t know where it is. The scene involves torture because the writer has painted herself into a corner and needs information revealed, and yet she’s failed to craft a scene with meaningful engagement and resistance, or to craft a narrative where the information emerges organically. Torture ex machina. To a large extent, the ticking time bomb torture scenario is the last refuge of hacks, and just as much a cliché as the evil twin or convenient amnesia.  #goodwriting  #youcandobetter

Okay, but my story really demands a torture scene: Okay, so you’re dramatizing a story that involves torture, and it’s a part of the historical record or a key component. Torture is a part of our reality, it happened and continues to happen, and while I’d like to see it become a part of our history, there will occasionally be a need to dramatize it. But with power comes responsibility. If they decide to take it on, artists have the power and the responsibility to dramatize the ineffectiveness and destructiveness of torture, because that’s the reality. This is true of screenwriters, TV writers and playwrights, but it’s particularly true of game designers, because of the immersive nature of games and the player’s control over the experience. 

So as an example, let’s cover how you might responsibly deal with torture from a game design point of view. If you think games are childish then you can skip the next paragraph. You can also skip this next paragraph if you believe that torture should never be portrayed. I empathize. But my purpose here is not just to advocate for less portrayal of torture in media, but to argue for accurate and responsible representation when it does appear.

So let’s deal with a player having the ability to use torture as an interrogation tool in a war game as an example. First of all, good game design means meaningful choice with ramifications, so if the player has the option to torture then they should also have the option to not torture and get information through standard interviewing. Information given under torture is unreliable, so fire up your random number generator and build some fuzziness into your results – maybe the information you get from torturing comes more quickly but is only 30% accurate, while the information from standard interrogation is 100% but takes a little bit longer. Create ramifications for that inaccuracy, so that information that comes from torture gets the player killed half the time because it’s bad, whereas information from standard interrogation never gets the player killed. Deal with the ramifications of torture, so maybe the player’s stats or abilities are permanently lowered after choosing to torture because now the character has PTSD. In addition, the game itself becomes harder because torture impacts public opinion and the intensity of armed resistance, so on post-interrogation levels perhaps you see more enemies who are harder to fight, which makes progression extremely difficult. And deal with the legality in the epilogue, so that a player who tortures for perceived short term gain is criminally indicted, and any gains he achieved in the region are wiped out by increased radicalization of the population as a result. In this way you’re actually dramatizing torture’s realities, not its myths. These same principles can be applied to any narrative for the page or screen: if the character chooses to torture, give him or her consequences.

So there you have it. As artists, be mindful that torture is intimidation not interrogation, that it’s ineffective, illegal, unethical, inconsistent with American values, counter-productive, and damaging to both survivor and perpetrator. You’re allowed dramatic license. All I ask is that you treat torture with the weight it deserves. Don’t use torture when the scene calls for interviewing. If the scene actually calls for torture, fine. But know that it’s an illegal act of irredeemable and irrevocable violence. 

And in the words of TV’s super-observant consultant Adrian Monk, “You’ll thank me later.”

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