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April 14, 2019


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Alas, at least 48% of Americans say there are some circumstances under which the use of “enhanced interrogation” (a euphemism for torture) is acceptable in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts (some law enforcement agencies and prisons across the U.S. have resorted to torture as well). And not surprisingly, given the many unethical, bizarre, paranoid, ill-considered, and delusional beliefs and fantasies (and phantasies) he holds, President Trump believes torture to be “effective” (his reticence on this topic of late may reflect one of the few occasions in which he has listened to and followed legal advice). His commitment to the Guantánamo Bay detention camp (last year he signed an executive order to keep the prison camp open indefinitely) suggests his views on torture have not changed. [Should anyone be interested, I have a bibliography on the moral, legal, and political dimensions of torture on my Academia page.]

Enrique Guerra Pujol (

Patience is a vice in ticking time bomb scenarios.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

That may be, but lest anyone make the wrong inference from that possibility, and apart from the often unreality or irreality of such scenarios (on the order of the trolley problem in ethics), it has been well-argued in the literature that even these ticking time bomb scenarios do not justify the use of torture.

Steve L.

"Ticking bomb" scenarios are overwhelmingly imaginary.

Bharara gives the example of Abu Zubaydah, a captured al Qaida operative (although not a leader, as was once erroneously thought). Zubaydeh provided extensive information, including the identity of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, to his FBI interrogators who had taken the time to build up rapport with him.

Afterward, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and subjected to other enhanced measures by the CIA, presumably because they were searching for a ticking bomb. The brutality produced nothing new.


Hi Patrick,

Where's the empirical literature establishing that torture isn't effective?

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I don't have the time to do your homework for you, but you will find ample evidence cited in the literature I gathered for the bibliography cited above.* I will summarize this material with a quote from Alfred W. McCoy: “The past two millennia are rich with examples that confirm, time and again, Ulpian’s dictum from the third century A.D.: the strong can resist torture and the weak will say anything to end their pain.” If torture on occasion has been found to be “effective,” that represents an exception to the general rule, and not a predictable one at that.



It was a trick question, Patrick: there is no such literature - that is, at least none which is publicly available. You're a somewhat (but not too) clever person, so you should (now) be able to figure out WHY there isn't.

The McCoy quote, moreover, is not evidence or proof of anything.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

There is, in fact, some relevant literature discussed by Darius Rejali (although empirical, it is not scientific), referenced in my post today, Does Torture Work?, at Ratio Juris and Religious Left Law. As for the McCoy quote, it represents a conclusion drawn from historical knowledge, and so it does, in fact, amount to one form of evidence.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Incidentally, you must know me quite well to draw a conclusion as to whether or not or to what degree I may be a clever person (I happen not to fancy myself one). If so, you would be a family member or dear friend, in which case you should be ashamed for not revealing your name.


You mean, at best, anecdotal evidence. And in that vein, there is such evidence that time/place/manner questions asked under torture DO generate accurate information.

Further, given what I have hinted to you about empirical research on the topic, the McCoy quote is NOT grounded in historical knowledge: it's just circular reasoning.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Thank you for being wrong on all counts (and ignoring the relevant literature), but please have the last word, you need it.


Is that your rhetorical trick when you've nothing left to say of value on the merits?

Patrick S. O'Donnell

It is a way to end comments from my end when those have been inadequately or insufficiently or irrelevantly addressed. For example, the point is not about information per se, but the specific kind of information that is generated from torture:

“ … [T]hree different sources of error … systematically and unavoidably corrupt information gathered through torture. These are deceptive, but actionable information given by uncooperative or innocent prisoners; the well-documented weakness of most interrogators for spotting deception; and mistaken, but high-confidence, information offered by cooperative prisoners after torture. [….]

For harvesting information, organized torture yields poor information, sweeps up many innocents, degrades organizational capabilities, and destroys interrogators. Limited time during battle or emergency intensifies all these problems.” (Darius Rajali)

From my end, I judge it no longer productive or worthwhile to continue this conversation, as I have said all I want to say (or what I believes need to be said).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

erratum: or what I believe needs to be said


Keep repeating such claims about the quality or kind of information procured. They're without empirical foundations.

I, in turn, am now satisfied that you don't even understand why your claims and citations are impotent. Have a good day. :)

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