6+1 Questions

13 April 2022, 1531 EDT

Name of the book…and its coordinates?

Ron E. Hassner.  2022.  Anatomy of Torture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press)

What’s the argument?

You’re not going to like this book. Some readers may come to this book believing sincerely that “torture doesn’t work.” Others may start from the position that torture is a counterterrorism “silver bullet,” a quick and effective—if cruel—tool for addressing “ticking bomb” threats. Based on my review of hundreds of cases of torture performed by the Spanish Inquisition, I conclude that neither group is right. Torture works, but not the way you think it does. Torture can provide truthful information that detainees would not otherwise have revealed. Yet, it is slow and produces (at best) fragmentary information.

Tell us why we should care

This book matters for two reasons. First, despite the historical nature of this book, it is relevant to contemporary debates about torture. Applying lessons from these historical cases to current concerns demands extreme caution. Inquisitors tortured for different reasons, with different goals, based on different assumptions, and in a social, political, and religious setting that is entirely alien to that of modern interrogators. Yet, several key insights may hold across time. American interrogators too learned that torture could provide modest corroborating intelligence but that it was a slow, often untrustworthy, and a dangerous institutional practice.

Second, the book offers lessons for anti-torture activists. Rather than argue that torture is ineffective—an argument that American audiences tend to find unpersuasive—they should  focus their criticisms on the immorality of torture. Torture can yield information, under certain limited conditions. But it is cruel and exacts a tremendous social, political, and moral cost.

Why should we believe your argument

We don’t know enough about modern cases of torture to judge its effectiveness. But we find plenty of evidence in the exhaustive archives of the Spanish Inquisition. There we find detailed accounts, including of the words spoken by torturers and their victims during interrogations.
 I am the first to use this evidence to construct a dispassionate, empirical analysis of the causes, characteristics, and effects of torture.

I investigate why the Inquisition used torture in some cases but not others, why it changed its methods over time, and when (and how) torture provided information. Trial records allow me to compare evidence extracted through torture with that provided by witnesses who were not tortured.

Why’d you decide to write it in the first place?

I was struck by the naivete and bias in the scholarly conversation around torture. On the one hand were fierce torture opponents who argued that torture couldn’t possibly work because interrogators would ask leading questions or fail to corroborate intelligence gained from torture. On the other hand, torture enthusiasts believed that the right kind of torture could quickly coerce terrorists into dismantling ticking bombs. Both of these beliefs struck me as unrealistic.

The argument that really drove the social scientist in me up the wall was the spurious claim, from both sides, that “torture works better/worse than alternative methods.” How could we possibly know that? When did we run such an awful experiment? Rather than guess, or continue to indulge in wishful thinking, I went out in search of evidence.

What would you most like to change and why?

I managed to access manuscripts in Spain, Mexico, Germany, and the United States. Had it not been for the pandemic, I would have liked to dive even deeper into the archives of the Inquisition. I hope I have inspired others to do so.

The +1: How difficult was it to get the book published?

Cornell University Press and its editors were enthusiastic and supportive throughout as were the reviewers. My experience with peer-reviewed journals has been far less pleasant. There, the bias around the topic of torture is brazen. One editor refused to review an article because “one needs to ask about the ends to which such research would be put,” while a reviewer of another asked “is he contributing to torture prevention or is he not?” I encounter none of these purity tests when I published articles with a more obvious “anti-torture” agenda in these same journals. 

I would like to see the study of torture develop into a professionalized, sophisticated, and nuanced academic subfield. As with the study of terrorism or genocide, we need to persuade both readers and scholars that explaining torture is a separate enterprise from criticizing or endorsing torture. It is both possible and necessary to study painful and sensitive topics of this sort in a dispassionate manner. This scholarship does pose some difficult moral questions for scholars. I discuss these in the epilogue to Anatomy of Torture.