Torture Essay

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The practice of torture is so ancient that its origins are lost in the distant past. However, recorded history shows that all major civilizations practiced it, either as a form of punishment or as a means of obtaining information. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Chinese left records of it, and the Bible recounts many examples.

During the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, the Holy Inquisition used torture to elicit confessions of heresy or other beliefs or actions contrary to the dogma of the Catholic Church. During the 17th century, suspected witches were subjected to tortures for essentially the same purpose, with those found guilty of heresy or of witchcraft burned alive.

Examination of ancient castles reveals areas reserved as prisons and designed to be as unpleasant as possible. Some spaces were simply deep pits below the lower floor of a castle tower, where a prisoner was literally dropped and then left until such time as someone cared to retrieve him. Such spaces are called “oubliettes,” after the French word oublier, meaning “to forget.” Sometimes formal detention facilities were in basement areas with barred entrances. These were usually too low for a person inside to stand upright, and their location permitted frequent flooding from ground water or the castle moat. In general, the quarters reserved for housing prisoners were themselves a mode of torture.

Modern practices of torture have several possible goals: extraction of information, incitement of fear or terror, inflicting pain to punish, obtaining a confession pursuant to a criminal investigation, or, in rarer instances, application of pain for perverse sexual pleasure.

Legal Barriers to Torture

Among Western nations, legal barriers to torture became universal between 1750 and 1820, partly as a result of the Enlightenment and partly in recognition that torture was not an effective method of obtaining confessions or information, since the victim would say anything to make the torture stop. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” thereby outlawing torture.

International efforts to end torture by legislation resulted in a number of conventions. Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person… when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official.” The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also prohibit torture. The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War also specifically prohibits torture and mistreatment of prisoners. This is but the latest in a series of Geneva Conventions beginning in 1864, all of which prohibited torture. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Despite this apparent universality of legal bars to torture, resistance to its abandonment was remarkably stubborn, and local police routinely brutalized prisoners to elicit confessions well into the 20th century. Many nations still allow their police to beat and torture prisoners, especially throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Torture Methods

Generally, torture attempts to obtain compliance from the victim by inflicting or threatening severe pain or mutilation or through psychological methods, where one is deprived of sleep, disoriented, isolated, and in some instances subjected to sensory deprivation and the application of drugs. Threats or displays of torture of others may also be used.

Torture methods vary by culture and utilize available technology. The ancient Greeks wrote about the use of a brazen bull in which victims were roasted to death. The Romans practiced crucifixion and flagellation (whipping with a special multistrand whip weighted with lead at the ends). In the Middle Ages, the state and/or the church used mechanical devices in torture. The thumbscrew, rack, and iron maiden are a few of the best known of these tools of torture.

Modern torture methods vary by country. For instance, Latin American countries favor using la capucha, placing a hood filled with noxious fumes over the victim’s head, and submarino, suspending upside down by the ankles and submerging in a barrel of water until the victim nearly drowns. Many Arab states practice falanga, beating the soles of the feet with a narrow hard object, inflicting excruciating pain and leaving the victim unable to walk. Strapping may be part of other torture methods, or a torture by itself, and involves immobilizing the individual in unnatural positions by means of ropes or other restraints.

In the United States, where the law prohibits torture, intelligence agencies practice forms of psychological torture and teach them to agents of other nations. The CIA has run a training program for decades at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, teaching many interrogation techniques, including those defined as forms of torture, as illustrated by the acts committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Rape and sexual abuse are common methods of torture worldwide. Both men and women may be subjected to sexual abuse and mutilation to humiliate them and break down their will to resist questioning. Societal taboos about sexuality often work in favor of the torturer, so that the victim becomes a social outcast as well as a traumatized torture survivor. Soldiers, insurgents, guerilla fighters, and paramilitary forces routinely use severe beatings and rape to torture and terrorize the civilian population.

Implements of torture can be ordinary tools or utensils, or sophisticated techniques, including drugs, behavioral conditioning, and acupuncture. Electronic immobilization devices (stun guns), which emit high-voltage shocks, are other implements of torture.

Most arguments justifying the use of torture tend to be pragmatic, such as the “ticking bomb” scenario proposed by legal expert Alan Dershowitz. However, modern interrogation techniques are far more effective than torture in extracting factual information. When laws prevent security agencies from using torture within their home countries, they sometimes resort to involuntary removal of prisoners to countries where torture is still practiced.

The Torturers

Little sets torturers apart from other people. Some become torturers out of political or social conviction or a religious belief. Child soldiers engage in torture because they are themselves terrorized by their commanders, or because they are trying to impress their fellow troopers with their “toughness.” Some members of security forces regard it as routine job performance. Some torturers may be sociopaths, but in other instances the government trains people to perform torture and commit atrocities. In societies where torture is traditionally used, no shame or guilt attaches to its performance, and therefore police, security, and military personnel will act as torturers without compunction, even though the practice may be unlawful. In many instances, torture techniques may be developed and practiced with the assistance of health care professionals, in violation of ethical standards.

Results of Torture

The individual torture survivor suffers many consequences of the torture, some physical, some mental. These can be acute or chronic and come at great cost to the individual, the family, and society, with the possibility of long-term disabilities resulting from the torture and related maltreatment.

Psychological consequences of torture include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, phobic reactions, guilt feelings (especially survivor guilt), sexual dysfunction (especially in rape victims), and personality changes. Torture survivors often turn to substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate their trauma. Family members may even develop PTSD vicariously or suffer ambiguous loss when individuals are abducted by security forces or militias.

Another consequence of torture to society is the loss of educated and skilled individuals. Wherever torture and atrocities were committed against the civilian population, the bulk of the middle class disappeared. These individuals were some of the first targets of rebel forces, and those not killed often fled the country entirely, their potential contribution to their nation lost forever.

Treatments for Torture Victims

Treatment of survivors of torture varies with the availability of facilities within the society, the willingness of victims to access treatment, and the training available to health care professionals. While the prevalent method of treatment worldwide has been psychodynamic, evidence shows that other methods are more effective and efficient. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, pharmacological treatment, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and conjoint marital and family therapy have all successfully reduced symptoms and improved the long-term functioning of torture survivors. Especially needed is family therapy in cases where entire families were terrorized as a result of the torture or disappearance of a family member.

The Abolition of Torture

Several nongovernmental agencies attempt to combat torture worldwide through monitoring, publicity campaigns, public education, and humanitarian efforts. These include Amnesty International, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva, the International Red Cross, Physicians for Human Rights, and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims in Copenhagen, Denmark. These organizations also train professionals and paraprofessionals in how to deal with trauma and publicize the consequences of torture and trauma for society. Recently, commissions of truth and reconciliation served a role in raising public awareness of torture and its use in armed conflicts within some societies.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Boss, Pauline. 2000. Ambiguous Loss. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Duner, Bertil, ed. 1999. An End to Torture: Strategies for Its Eradication. New York: Zed.
  4. European Union. 2000. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Brussels, Belgium: European Union.
  5. Foa, Edna B., Terence M. Keane, and Matthew J. Friedman, eds. 2004. Effective Treatments for PTSD. New York: Guilford.
  6. Forrest, Duncan, ed. 1996. A Glimpse of Hell: Reports on Torture Worldwide. New York: New York University Press.
  7. Harbury, Jennifer K. 2005. Truth, Torture, and the American Way. Boston: Beacon Press.
  8. Levinson, Sanford, ed. 2004. Torture: A Collection. New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Prip, Karen. 1994. “Physical Torture Methods and Their Sequelae.” Torture (suppl. 1):9—13.
  10. Timerman, Jacobo. 2002. Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

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