Torture is not only cruel. It is also ineffective and unreliable, according to a leading neuroscientist studying the effects of the brain under conditions of extreme, repeated and prolonged stress.
Writing in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, Shane O’Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin points to studies showing that changes in brain chemistry from torture actually lead to more confusion and an increasing inability to separate reality from fantasy. In short, torture does not lead to truth-finding, but to a compromise of “the normal functioning of the brain.”
Despite our government’s assurances of torture providing crucial security information, the corroboration from the scientific studies is simply not there. In fact, it proves the opposite. The person being tortured is likely to say anything to make the experience stop.
“This has been noted … by commentators from the Spanish Inquisition through the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s to the present day,” clinical psychologist Dr. David Harper of London says.
O’Mara’s research further reveals how the person under duress is not just willfully making up stories to end the torture, but is actually, over time, incapable of speaking the truth.
Without the shaky moral excuse of legitimatizing torture to gather crucial security information, we are left with an even greater and more vexing question: Why has this betrayal of our basic common humanity been tolerated and even defended by the American public?
I suggest that our cultural thirst for allowing torture has appealed to one of the most basic, raw and dangerous emotions of our collective psyche: revenge. The unprecedented attack of 9/11 on the continental United States in an age of media overload has shattered our image as protected, insulated and isolated from the reality of terrorism felt around the rest of the world.
We were hurt. We wanted to hurt others in return. Seeking justice was secondary to the more primary need to lash out.
With now-overwhelming evidence of Iraq’s official non-involvement in the events of 9/11, we have initiated and still continue to sustain an eight-year war with an “undetermined” end. To date, we have committed $800 billion with more needed each month. As a German proverb attests, “revenge converts a little right into a great wrong.”
Christian wisdom has consistently warned against taking revenge. Ultimate trust in ourselves, instead of a moral and righteous God, is just as destructive to the defenders of such war and torture as it is to its victims. Without guidance toward forgiveness, fairness and restoration, revenge is a beast devouring all who sit at its table.
Where has been the witness of the church? Maybe we were too conditioned by that flimsy, utopian dream of “love means never having to say you are sorry.” But I know it’s not love that holds our tongues. It is hatred.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.