The Duck of Minerva

It Works on 24 but Not in Real Life: Peer-Reviewed Evidence That Torture Will Increase Terrorism

25 January 2017

Dear My Not-So-Fictional Family Members of Facebook,

Greetings. We really haven’t hung out since that family reunion in 1996 but it’s been great to reconnect on Facebook.  I love the pictures of your dog and it’s cool to see how much you now look like our grandfather.  We have different political beliefs; I think we both know that now.  I’ve turned into one of those Birkenstock-wearing liberals who likes science and “wastes my time” marching for rights that you think women already have. Your political beliefs are the polar opposite of that and today you’ve expressed how happy you are that President Trump is going to “give those terrorists what they deserve.”

I take it that you’ve heard that President Trump is poised to reinstate waterboarding, saying that “experts” have told him that torture “absolutely” works.  I don’t know who President Trump talked to but I’ve studied this topic quite a bit from my ivory tower; I even worked on this topic for a DoD-funded project. Let me tell you: all the experts I know say torture does not work.  Lots of evidence – collected from lots of countries and lots of terrorist groups over a long period of time – says the exact opposite: using torture will actually make our country more vulnerable to terrorists and terrorist attacks.  In this era of “alternative” facts, I understand that you might dismiss my facts. However, I hope you’ll at least look at them:

  1. The use of torture and other abuses to a person’s physical integrity (like killing them or making someone disappear) leads to more terrorist events in the future.


I understand that it sometimes feels good to hurt someone that hurts you or the people you love.  However, torturing terrorists – either for vengeance or to try to extract information quickly – backfires.  It leads the mothers, sisters, and brothers around a terrorist to decide not to come forward with information they have.  It helps terrorist groups recruit a new class of individuals that are now even more motivated against you.


Those statements are based on a very good piece of peer reviewed scholarship by James I. Walsh and James A. Piazza.  In their piece, they look at how the number of terrorist attacks – either domestic or international – in a country in a given year is influenced by how that country treats its citizens (ie whether it tortures them or otherwise abuses their physical integrity).  They are really good at statistics and their analysis controls for lots of different factors which could influence the number of terror attacks in a country (like the country’s economy, its population size, and whether it is at war) and accounts for issues of causal timing.  Across the board, however, they find that countries that use torture and other repressive practices more frequently are at greater risk for more terrorism.


  1. For democracies like the United States, abusing a person’s physical integrity backfires, leading to longer-lasting terrorist organizations and – I know you don’t want this – an increased risk that the terrorist group gets what they want.


People have higher expectations for democracies: we expect that a dictator might treat their citizens poorly but we expect more from a democratic leader.  So do terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.  So, terrorist groups actually get a boost when democracies increase their use of abusive practices. This boost helps them recruit and keeps existing terrorists committed to the cause.


Those statements are based on another piece of peer-reviewed research, this time by Ursula E. Daxecker and Michael L. Hess. They look at terrorist organizations from all over the world and their longevity from 1970 to 2006 and then whether these organizations “won” against the government. They run a ton of robustness tests (taking out splinter groups, using different codings of their variables, etc) and still find that the use of physical integrity abuses is counterproductive in democracies.  Just because a dictatorship can torture its population doesn’t mean that we should. If you value “freedom” as much as your Facebook posts imply, wanting your government to torture could end up hurting you or someone you love.


  1. The level of violence – how deadly and destructive it is – from insurgents and terrorists will increase if you abuse your population.


Accounts of torture, political disappearances, and other physical integrity rights abuses can easily become rallying cries for terrorists.  Just think –  if I knew that your mom had been tortured, I’d make sure we all talk bad about those who tortured her at the next family reunion!   People outside of our hometown aren’t that different.  If they know about a government’s use of torture, they will tell these stories to others.  They’ll show up to terrorist meetings and devote their hard-earned money to carry out bigger and better attacks.  In the end, torture and other physical integrity rights abuses may make you feel like you’ve had vengeance.  It could make a terrorist “talk” (although, they usually don’t tell the truth in this situation).  But, this abuse will help create a more destructive wave of attacks in the future.


These statements are based on my own research, together with Sam R. Bell, David Cingranelli, and Alper Caglayan.  We looked only at violence that is domestic or home grown and did a lot of statistical work to produce predictions of where home grown violence was going to increase in the future.  Using our statistical model, we were actually pretty accurate in predicting the Arab Spring.


Based on what I know from this work, I fear for my kids and your dogs. I fear for all of the rest of my Facebook friends, whether they voted for President Trump or not.  I get it – torture seems like it should work.  It worked on 24, right?  Well, that was fiction.  Torture, more often than not, increases the risk of future violence.

These are the facts I hope you remember.


Love you,