Press the shift key.


Again. Again. Again.

Faster. Faster. Faster.

That's not fast enough. Try 15 times a second.

In many track and field simulations on video game consoles, the gameplay consists of pressing one or two buttons as rapidly as possible. In older games, it is possible to get 30 button presses per second by using the turbo feature of your controller. Most games sample the controller 60 times a second; apply the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, and the highest frequency this can capture is 30 Hz. Newer track games keep out turbo cheaters by requiring the presses to alternate between two buttons, to be timed to a beat (Yo'ster Isle in Super Mario RPG), or both (upper levels of Dance Dance Revolution).

This gameplay system was adapted for use in Super Mario RPG for Super NES, Mario Party for N64, Metal Gear Solid for PlayStation, and WarioWare for Game Boy Advance. The newer games define a response curve that peaks at around 15 or so button presses per second, again to keep out the turbo cheaters. In Super Mario RPG, the faster you press the Y button when doing a fire spell, the more powerful the spell. In Mario Party and WarioWare, many of the minigames rely on rapid pressing of the A button (as well as rototorture, but that was eliminated in Mario Party 2; to learn why, see ). MGS, on the other hand, places the hero in Revolver Ocelot's torture chamber; while it's eating at your health, you can press the O button rapidly to restore it. This, in addition to what it does to your hands, arms, and controller, is why it's called "torture."

How to survive torture (without turbo)

If you have to press one button, turn your controller so that the button in question is front and center. Place both thumbs on either edge of the button. Now rock the controller back and forth rapidly. If you do this right, you will press the button twice for every cycle of the controller motion. I get 15 Hz this way.

If you have to press two buttons, do the same thing, but place one thumb on each button. If the game accepts presses whether or not they alternate between buttons (as in Mario Party 2's wind-up helicopter race), you can become nearly 50% faster by placing one thumb flat across both of the buttons and the other thumb on one of them. This way you get A, A+B, A, A+B...

I'd provide illustrations, but E2 doesn't support outside links in any node that non-gods can create.

Many tales of particularly gruesome methods of torture circulate, and some are linked below. However, in reality the preferred and most common methods of torture are rather mundane: repeated vicious beatings and, in recent times, electric shocks.

If you get down to it, pain is pain, and these less spectacular methods have the advantage of being far less likely to kill the victim prematurely when you still want information.

Also, contrary to common beliefs, sadists are bad torturers. They get carried away too easily, and don't pay enough attention to their mission, the gathering of information.

These statements are backed by recollections of officers of the former French occupation forces in Algeria, which (this has recently become undeniable) used torture extensively during that country's war of independence.

Throughout time, there have been many hundreds of different types of torture, from the complex rack- a device used for stretching- to the simple bullwhip, from the expensive boiling to the cheap thumbscrews. Many are used to cause pain without injury, though most types of torture also cause damage to the body.

There are hundreds of devices used, from those specially made to cause an agonizing and horrific death such as crucifixion, to those for mutilation like eye-gouges and a simple hammer, to those for information extraction like piling rocks. Below is a list of some common techniques and tools.



the most crude technique: Merely beat the victim into submission with feet and hands, with a bar or bat. The most common form of torture and probably (but not certainly) the least effective, and certainly the cheapest.

Rock Piling

The victim is bound and made to lie while massive, flat rocks are piled on him until he either loses consciousness, cannot breath, or gives in. Quite cheap, uses gravity for its effect, and extremely simple to use.


A simple technique where the victim's nose and mouth are dunked underwater and he is drowned. While the first dunk will be short, each successive dunk will be longer until the victim loses consciousness (when they may be revived or left to drown) or agrees to talk.


A mixture of drowning and burning, boiling a victim could be done in many ways. From simply thrusting underwater and heating until the victim gives in in the aforementioned, to heating water and repeatedly placing parts of the victim's anatomy underneath the water/pouring it on him until he agrees to talk. This is a horrific method with an incredibly high chance of scarring.


This could be done in many creative ways, from branding with a poker or such to setting light to a victim or tying to some burning object. While most of the time scalding tongs were used, it was not unknown to leave a victim in a hot area to burn until they decided to talk. Much like boiling, it was merely a matter of finding a way to apply heat to the victim.


Any whip was a deadly effective torture device; while the cuts and weals from a whip will rarely if ever kill, they will continue to sting for hours afterwards and also hurt more than a stab to the area*.
Scars from whips are common and heal quickly for what they are, but will be painful and a reminder to the victim for years afterwards.


Salt dries out most things very effectively, including people and gaping holes in them. It also stings as bad as vinegar when put into the aforementioned, and though not scaring, a dose in the eye can have a victim squealing in seconds.


Simply, one would cut the victim to bleed him. When he decided he had bled enough- fresh cuts and water would help restore the flow- he could be allowed to heal. This technique often led to infection or over-blood loss and commonly death.


A combination of bleeding and cutting, one would use a blade to repeatedly cut in the more meaty areas of victim, letting wounds heal naturally. The victim would either give in, faint or die normally, and this very crude method often resulted in death anyway.


More advanced than cutting, mutilation targets specific areas such as eyes and arms, hands and feet, fingers and faces. This way ALWAYS scars, and this is the aim; it's also very effective, if not as painful as some of the other techniques. The thought of losing an eye is still often enough to get a victim to give in before any damage is actually caused, but mutilation is a horrible torture that is normally permanent.


Using a hammer or such, a victim could have bones broken until he decided to talk. While scarring and bleeding come often with this, it's nonetheless effective and very painful; it also has long-lasting pain, much like the whip, and will take a long time to heal.


Placing a victim's sensitive areas in any kind of vice... and pressing. Thumbscrews are a typical type of vice, causing internal injury and external injury very quickly; a vice would normally be something as simple as those used in woodwork.


Not necessarily in a sexual connotation, penetrating into the victim is an effective, if messy and often scarring, event. Similar to cutting in many ways, a dagger can be used to push into the victim's skin; however, penetration in this case is normally is defined as entering an orifice that is already there, and therefore often is sexual. A nail through a hand is also applicable.


A technique that requires often little effort but more foreplanning, deprivation- be it sleep, oxygen, or food and water- is one for the more squeamish torturer. It features no blood loss or cutting in any way, but those deprived tend to die quite quickly. Food and water is a matter of taking it in, so it is easy to deprive a victim this way, while sleep Deprivation is often very hard due to the body naturally falling unconscious. Oxygen Deprivation can be done as easily as with a belt around the neck and a victim tortured thus will show few scars (if they survive) and can be easily given air.


Not physically damaging normally, Psychological torture works not in actual harm but showing intent to harm. While on some it will be horribly effective, letting them talk in seconds, others are totally immune to this; they are often also resistant to other forms of torture; however, if torture is threatened against another and not the victim, it is occasionally more effective (if not always).

The Rack

The victim is placed on a large bed of wood, stone or metal with winches attached to the bottom. These are attached to the legs via chains and manacles and the arms are locked in place in similar style, and the victim is very slowly stretched until he gives in or falls unconscious. Scars are common, bleeding notso.


Like Mutilation, Surgery is cutting into the victim... not necessary to cause permanent harm, but it's really quite startling how quickly a victim will come along when you can show him his small intestine! Anaesthetic can be used, where this becomes mainly psychological, or one can not use it and let the victim *savour* the scalpel. Scalpels are the most commonly used for this.


Needlepoint is, IMHO, the most effective torture. With a little knowledge of anatomy and some knowledge of the pressure points, one can quite easily push a few six-inch needles into a victim and get him talking in moments. Popular areas are the eyes, lips and stomach, especially the navel, and the genitals. It rarely leaves scarring- depends on the quality of needles- but the pain is incredible.


A victim can be constrained to a post or suchlike and left out in the weather, in the cold or in the heat for a long time until he agrees to either 1) die or 2) submit. This takes very little effort and is effectively depriving sleep, food, water and movement, in addition adding the effects of wind and rain on the victim.


By putting a couple of these over the victim's thumbs and tightening the screws, eventually the victim's thumbs will break, but not before some horrible pain along the way. Effective and simple, it's good to start off small.

Iron Maiden

Not really a torture device but more for execution, the Iron Maiden could be used most effectively psychologically. The door was held and pushed in slowly until the victim changed his mind or suddenly found several blades in him, two especially placed over the eyes.


Really another execution device, a victim could be taken down after he decided he'd had enough of the weight of his own head crushing his ribs in and of the sleep and nourishment deprivation he was taking.

There are many more methods of torture known, though most of these are truly execution methods. If you think of any more common ones, /msg me and I will add them.

Added late:
Electrocution - pm CB

Similar to- but not the same as- burning, Electrocution is merely trying to link a strong electrical charge to the victim in question. A horrible form of torture, perfected only recently (with the advent of electricity and the cattle prod), Electrocution leaves little visible scarring but can cause incredible pain and internal damage.


While deprivation of movement is effective torture, it is even more effective while a victim is suspended. The Germans and Danish thought of many creative- if overly so- ways of suspending a victim in the middle-ages, and all rely on the victim's body weight for maximum discomfort. Crucifixion falls under this category, but few of these are as lethal as that.



Another interesting technique, similar to cutting, is flaying the skin from the victim. An incredibly painful- and often scarring- technique, flaying is most often combined with other, less subtle techniques to cause maximum pain in the victim. Agonisingly painful and reveals the veins and muscles to the air, being quite, quite painful; while a knife or scalpel is bad enough here, something like sand-paper rubbing the skin raw is even more horrific.


Very similar to burning, this time with acids and alkaline. Either of these substances will make quite a mutilated mess of any body-part, and the pain from either is incredible- even a droplet of acid stings like anything if it's concentrated enough. Areas such as the eyes are particularly nasty targets for these, due to the poor resistance to either of these chemical-types there. Even a "weak" acid like vinegar is horrid in the eyes, and on raw skin (from rubbing, wetness, or flaying) the pain is quite terrible.

Salt - Additional information

Salt is neither acidic nor alkaline, but like dissolving above it feels like internal fire. In the eyes and in wounds, the screaming just a little table-salt can cause is quite incredible. While it leaves little scarring and has little chance of fatality, other techniques are needed to make the area sensitive; fortunately, many animals like salt, leading us on to...

Consumption - CJ A2K

Normally left to animals, Consumption of a victim is first inexacting, second painful, and third as bad psychologically as physically. Like all mutilation, it causes scarring physically, and the effect of seeing a finger disappearing down something/someone's maw is quite terrible. In addition, the intimidation factor of charring at someone's flesh is horrible, whether the main victim of the torture or not. Be warned, consuming human flesh is often not healthy; it can drive a tamed animal wild, and often carries all the diseases that the victim has.


The easiest form of deprivation, suffocation is sometimes harder than drowning, and often slightly less effective. Using something as simple as a garrotte, belt, or piece of rope, suffocation is easy if risky; brain damage can set in more quickly than thought of, and all the risks of drowning are there, including the risk of crushing a victim's windpipe and having him die on you, often undesirable. Most easily done by wrapping the garrotte around a victim's neck and pulling it tight; as the victim struggles, let it lax for him to breath. Repeat until unconsciousness, death, or until he breaks.

Be careful of your garrotte choice; there are razor-wire garrottes out there, favoured by assassins as a quick form of decapitation!


Much like suffocation or drowning, but constriction does not cut off oxygen all over the body; it merely cuts it off to one limb. The limb can often die, and the pain in this is quite terrible, aswell as the psychological effects- "I'm going to lose an arm if he doesn't stop this". The arms, especially, when targeted like this feel as if they will explode, and external damage is often not as bad as internal damage. Limbs are easily lost in this way, but it does take a relatively long time before tissue death.

Above are listed several different techniques and types of tortures, but in the end there are basic categories into which all types and kinds of tortures can be placed. Below I have listed different categories of tortures, every once in a while you will come across some type of torture that doesn’t fit into any of these categories, but a good 95% will fit into something.

Blunt: Blunt objects of any type are used to cause pain. This includes beatings that involve wood, steal, fists, or pretty much anything that is not sharp but can cause harm. This can extend to include even getting hit by a car. Wounds caused by restraining devices that rub against the skin can also count here. This also includes pressing down using an instrument, or pulling apart.

Sharp: See above only here the object has at least one sharp edge that can cut. This can be anything from cutting with a knife to throwing stones at someone.

Hot: Any kind of torture that involves anything that causes discomfort using heat. You can leave someone tied up outside to receive a sunburn and call it torture under this category, heck you can even just leave a heating pad on someone for too long and have it count here. This includes chemical burns.

Cold: See above only with cold objects. This usually involves ice or water; it's harder to be inventive in this category.

Loud: Never underestimate the sensitivity of the ears. This only applies to noises above a comfortable decibel level, this has nothing to do with playing something over and over, I’ll get to that next.

Repetitive: This is usually used in Chinese torture techniques, but applies to lots of things. Repetitive music is always fun, but something as simply as letting water drip in the same area over time applies. Even something as small as a drop of water can cause massive bruises if it is continuous over a large period of time.

Aggravation: Aggravating pre-existing wounds. Lemon juice and salt are very effective, but this can also mean purposely allowing infection.

Deprivation: Depriving someone of anything from movement to air. This includes solitary confinement, as it is a deprivation of contact with the outside world.

Psychological: Technically this can be broken up into lots of different subgroups in and of itself because it encompasses a lot of information. The most effective psychological torture comes from convincing the victim that their loved ones are being hurt.

Torture is one punishment that is generally agreed to be wrong, even by countries which institute the death penalty. However there has recently been talk of allowing interrogators in America to apply for a permit to use torture in certain cases. (Source). Of course there would have to be very restrictive criteria for using it, one of which would of course have to be that you are certain beyond all possible doubt that the person has the information and will disclose it under torture. This raises a question:

"Is it right to torture someone in certain circumstances, i.e. you know they have the information and you need it desperately?"

The pro-torture case is presented within the question, basically it runs that if you need information badly enough you should be allowed to use any means to get it. For this reason I will present and anti-torture argument.

The first argument is of course that you can never know for certain that someone has the information you need. This is probably the most powerful argument since you would have to literally torture them to death to find this out. Humans can withstand huge amounts of pain and so simply giving the appearance of knowing nothing is unlikely to be taken as proof by the torturers. The pro-torture argument would be along the lines of “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs,” but I suspect that their view would change if it was them being tortured endlessly. There is often a view of “it will never happen to me, so I won’t worry about it,” unfortunately the “it will never happen to me” clause can be disproved by it happening to you. It is very easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The second argument is that even if they do have the information you need, they may be capable of withstanding torture to death. Is it worth torturing someone to death on the grounds that you might get the information you desire? You would have to be prepared to torture them to death, which does have the additional problem of martyrdom, which from a political and fairly cold point of view is not good.

The third argument is someone has to do the torturing. This means that you need to train someone in the “art” of torture. Torture instruments would have to be built so that it is as efficient as possible, with the intention of inflicting maximum pain. People would have to be employed to build and maintain them. Training people to torture and build torture instruments would have to remove some of their humanity, to be able to torture someone you need to be able to take the same view of the victim as the Nazis did of the Jews. You need to be able to objectify the person, training someone to do that would be dangerous should they change jobs or retire. Is it a good idea to have people who enjoy torturing people (which they would have to, to do it efficiently) in society?

The final argument is that the reasons for torturing someone would have to allow for a little interpretation. This would mean that they could be manipulated so that more people could be tortured. Many people act on revenge. Torture should obviously not be used as punishments on the grounds of getting the wrong person. Revenge leads to punishment. Torture would be used under the guise of getting information. For instance you can claim that terrorist X who killed the president’s daughter defiantly knows where the leaders are and use torture on him. But what if he doesn’t know, it’s fairly clear he might not and so torture would be being used as punishment and revenge. If you believe this is right that’s your view, but I would have thought that the fact that you might end up torturing an innocent would be case enough not to allow it’s use.

mr100percent says re torture: good topic. You forgot to mention that even innocent people will say anything to end the pain.

"We would skin people on the Nevsky Prospect if it was fashionable."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky


It's only after thinking about how to make this writeup "permanently topical" (as the great man once said) that I remembered that my interest in torture isn't new. I'd forgotten all about it but now I remember that, for a while, as a young boy, I even had a fascination for it. Nothing too morbid, but as children are, I was devoid of morality, and all that torture meant to me was all these nifty, gory things and techniques. I always loved tinkering, and that's what torture was to me. People too were like toys that, if you broke them open the right way, would reveal their secrets. Cool!

I did not torture anyone, although I was pretty mean to my cat. Kids are pretty cruel, and since they were cruel to me, I guess I took it out on my pet. Once again, this is pretty normal I think, and judging by my cat's compulsion to invade my lap whenever I put a keyboard or a book on it, I'd say he's forgiven me.

I forgot all about this childish interest, and the only reason I mention it is because I have to start this writeup somewhere, and the beginning is as good as anywhere. I did get to learn and think about torture later on: it's hard not to read about it when you have an interest in military history. Since I'd grown a moral bone in the meantime, my views on the issue obviously changed. I have disgust and rage for any form of abuse of the weak, and torture is abuse at its best, or rather at its worst. Furthermore, the cynic in me frowns upon this unjustified sadism: haven't they heard of truth serums?

But most importantly, torture revolts the part of me from which all others derive: my Christian faith. It is no coincidence that the way our Saviour chose to redeem humanity was to be tortured to death. Torture therefore represents something very grave.

Every survivor has mentioned this. There is a moment, right before the actual torture begins, where the tortured-to-be is tied down and the torturer is rolling her sleeves (literally or figuratively), and the victim, even though she had anticipated it, realizes that this is it, it's going to happen. What matters in that specific moment isn't the prospect of physical pain, for which one can prepare, it is the realization that the metaphysical link between all human beings has vanished. That all the rules of society are off, and that there is only one powerless being on one side, and the other, rolling up her sleeves, who is going to begin. A space is created, where all bets, all rules are off. Where the only law becomes the law of nature, in its most implacable, terrifying way: there is a strong one and a weak one, and the strong one is going to beat on the weak one. So entirely inhumane and yet so frighteningly human.

This is what creeps me the fuck out about torture. We are all political animals, as Aristotle put it, and it is these links between all of us which allow us to be ourselves while being part of something greater. This is what being human is. Every society recognizes this. However, Jesus's great contribution was to reveal to us that these links are only a reflection of God's love, and that they are meaningless without it. The Christian word for this is charity. And this is what torture is, how I define it: an absolute lack of charity toward a fellow man.


The writeups above list a lot of techniques, a guide for the young apprentice torturer. However, the how isn't the what or the why, and a problem is that the word is as vague as possible, which is convenient for those who want to wave it around without defining it. So we need to clarify a bit. The word "torture" covers several activities, and the fact that they often overlap doesn't mean we shouldn't differentiate them :

  1. Gratuitous atrocities: a summary execution isn't torture, but I think Bosniac Muslims crucifying Christian children can be called torture.
  2. Atrocities committed out of sadism or to make examples: members of the Cheka in Ukraine peeling the skin off of prisoners' hands to make gloves would qualify.
  3. Excessively cruel punishment: nowadays, we would say that Damiens, who had tried to assassinate Louis XV, was tortured when his executioners poured molten lead in his wounds.
  4. Physical abuse on a person to get her to speak: this is the meaning most people refer to when they speak of "torture." The Inquisition called this putting someone to the question, and so will I for convenience.

I won't dwell on the idea that psychological abuse is also torture and that, like, it's even worse than, like, real torture. You can't mention torture without someone saying that within thirty seconds. I don't think I have the qualification or lack of pudor necessary to try and rate the efficiency of physical vs. psychological torture, but if something must be said on this non-issue, let me just point out the fact (obvious to me, apparently a secret to some) that the physical has an impact on the psychological and vice-versa. Of all things, torture should disabuse those who think mind and body are separate, and make them realize that "psychological torture" is an oxymoron. Also the cynic in me would like that those who think having their parents get a divorce is equivalent to a romantic evening at the Gestapo would have a few chopsticks driven under their nails and other such delicacies, just so they can compare. But I digress.

Torture, of all the above kinds, has been common practice in all places and all of history since the beginning of time. It was a tool of war, government and justice. If a few thwaps on the ass count as torture, it was also a tool of education. This is what Cesar did when, during his conquest of Gaul, the Cadurc tribe rebelled against him and he had the arms of their men cut off after defeating them. Basil II, the byzantine emperor, got his name Bulgaroctonus "the Bulgar-slayer" after having 99 of every 100 of his 14,000 Bulgar prisoners blinded, with every 100th man left one eye to guide the rest home. This was an effective policy, since the Bulgar tsar is said to have died of sorrow upon seeing his men return. This couple examples, among many more, only serve to show that for most of history torture was an instrument of political power like any other.


Tesis, a movie by Alejandro Amenábar, is a brilliant thriller which deals with snuff movies and our fascination with watching scenes of violence. I'm not going to spoil anything, but those who have seen know that, relating to the subject of torture and media, the end is back-chilling.

But there's no need to make movies speculating to see that horror in media is commonplace. The Vietnam war is famously known as the first "television war." Earlier, World War II was the first motion picture war: cameras were put in airplanes with the bombs, and people from all sides flocked to the cinemas to watch footage of cities being bombed. Is the Iraq war going to be the first camera phone war?

This is the big lesson that everyone's overlooked of the whole Abu Ghraib scandal. With their size, cheapness and capacity to export digital pictures almost anywhere, these cameras are going to obliterate a large part of the secrecy which surrounded anti-guerilla wars. You might think this is a good thing: now that the horrors will be exposed, the outcry will cause them to stop. Call me a cynic but I think it would be a little naive to think that once we see horrible things happen they will automagically stop happening.

On the contrary, now, they will increase. We haven't seen all of the pictures and videos of torture in Iraq. We're going to see dozens, hundreds more. We should also expect, even though they haven't been mentioned yet, to see a few mass graves. We will see them being dug, we will see them being filled, we will see them being sealed. Any young torturer will be able to call her parents on her cell phone and show them live, with the same phone, what she's doing to the enemy. And those are probably going to be proud to see their progeny show herself so worthy. And those images of the bastard, they'll probably send them to the local television so that all the neighborhood can see what good parents they are. Sound far-fetched? Not to kids in Palestinia, who are shown in school the last footage of suicide bombers, explaining that they are doing something heroic and will go to heaven for it.

Remember the second world war, both sides dumped millions of tons of bombs on cities filled with women and children. When the pilot came home, when his parents saw the footage of him dropping the bombs, they were all the more proud of him. Nowadays in Iraq, a terrorist (or whatever label you please, fanatic, patriot or mujahid) can cooly cut the throat of a bound man while his buddies get it all on tape. Those tapes are sent to TV networks so that as many people as possible can know how good and just it is to slaughter a prisoner. In some countries viewers get the whole spectacle even though media in the West have spared us the gory bits.

You could probably get the full version with the file-sharing utility of your choice but the way things are going you won't have to for long. We're soon going to get overwhelmed with footage of crimes, committed by all sides. Increased exposure will not cause these atrocities to stop, on the contrary it will make them increase in number and cruelty.

We could try to reject these images, but it would be deluding ourselves. Images are products, which answer to the market forces. The reality is that torture in the media is going to increase not just because of the advance of technology, but because demand is high.

Torture is (God willing) something extreme with which most of us are not directly confronted, but this is all about to change, and this poses a very serious moral question to all of us. The problem with the news media is that it creates a frightening logic of non-commitment. The more we watch horrors happening all over the world, the more we change from thinking "I can't help it" to "I don't want to hear about this." This doesn't comcern me. The news (voluntarily or not) reflect back to us our own incapacity to do anything about the state of the world. I have grim laughs when I see our all-too symbolic (because useless) acts (all the protests...) in response to the world's horrors. We commune by condemning horrors we cannot stop. People are not born cowards, they become cowards. And every evening with the news, we learn to better become cowards.

H I S T O R Y   O F   T H E   Q U E S T I O N

To put someone to the question is a euphemism for the fourth kind of torture I mentioned earlier: the purpose of the torture is to get the victim to answer said question(s). This is what most people mean when they say "torture," not just because they naively overlook the more gratuitous kinds, but also because this is what most instances of torture are. For this reason I have decided to dedicate the latter half of my writeup to the question.

Like other methods of torture, the question was always accepted and widely used as a method of interrogation. A prisoner of war was taken for exactly what he was: a potential source of information, and treated as such (unless a ransom could be gotten out of him, which significantly improved his condition).

In 1254 the Pope authorized the use of torture as an investigative technique by the Inquisition. There are several things to be said about the question as applied by the Inquisition. First of all, the introduction of torture in the legal process was a great progress. Up until then, the way to determine the truth was the trial by ordeal, you know, that thing where they drown you and if you die then it means you're not a witch. The shift to a paradigm where you squeeze the truth out of everyone involved and start from there was a great progress from relying on God's willingness to protect the innocent (see also: trial by duel).

Furthermore, the Inquisition applied the question with a lot of humanity (so to speak), and with a great concern for the truth. For instance, no session of torture could last longer than two continuous minutes (which could be exceptionally expanded to five) with a five minute break between each. Bloodshed was forbidden. The myth according to which anyone who fell in the hands of the inquisition was mercilessly tortured until they confessed whatever it was that they wanted to hear is exactly that: a myth. All things considered, the Inquisition was often humane in its search for the truth, and almost always rational. For instance, there were much less witch burnings in parts of Europe which the Inquisition worked than in Protestant countries.

Then, after the Renaissance, something odd happened in the 18th century. The horror of the question suddenly became apparent to the European public opinion and all countries banned it around the same time (Louis XVI of France in 1780 to Alexander I of Russia in 1801). The question was little under use under the French Revolution — it's true that under the Terror (half a million killed, out of a 28 million population), it wasn't too useful. When you're busy carrying out a genocide you don't really care about such refinements. Napoleon's police was pretty ruthless but was also subtle and preferred to rely on informants to obtain intelligence.

The 19th century, through all its troubles, revolutions and repressions, rarely resorted to torture or the question.

2 0 T H   C E N T U R Y

However, it came back during the Russian revolution, and with a vengeance. While the Inquisition only selectively applied the question and the French Terror's "infernal columns" killed men, women and children without discrimination, the Communist forces in Russia allied the most intricate methods of torture with massacre on the largest scale. The Communists were probably the worst torturers of the 20th century:

Under Lenin, in Voronej, the members of the Cheka rolled naked prisonners in barrels with nails pointing inside; in Potlava they impaled priests; in Kiev they put cages of rats on the bellies of prisoners and heated them until the rats burrowed through their intestines; in Odessa white officers were tied to planks and slowly introduced in furnaces. In Poland in 1955, the secret police used fourty nine standard techniques of "punishment and torture," including zakopane, which combined sleep deprivation and blows to the face to induce psychiatric disorders. In Romania, on top of blows and burnings, prisoners were "baptized" by plunging their head in a bucket full of urine and feces, while the other inmates were forced to chant the words of the baptism. People who wanted to be rehabilitated had to "reeducate" their best friends in these kinds of ways. In China, torture by famine was (is?) systematic. In Cambodia, the Khmer rouge tortured children by interrupted drowning. In Cuba, prisoners were (are?) forced to climb up and down stairs with weighted shoes, electroshocks were used punitively, and, like in 1984, the torturers used the phobias of the inmates. In communist Afghanistan, prisonners were buried alive in latrines, and there were eight kinds of torture: use of electricity, pulling off of nails and beard, forbidding to urinate and defecate, impalement through the anus or the vagina for women, hanging by the feet, and urine in the mouth.

I tried to keep the descriptions to a minimum in order to focus on the what instead of the how, but I felt the above enumeration was necessary to show the horror of communist regimes everywhere, an ideology which is still active for over a sixth of humanity, and still lacks its Nuremberg. But more importantly, no discussion on horrors should be too clinical, lest we should grow more like those who commit them. If the above paragraph hasn't disturbed you, read it again until it does.

Of course, the communists aren't the only guilty party. The Gestapo's talent at the question is proverbial, and the French Milice was a good student. It is less talked about, but on the other side of the fence, the Resistance had little more scruples when they had to squeeze information out of prisoners.

Non totalitarian regimes are less thought of as using such violence, but as we know that would be too good. The French army refined methods of questioning so well over the course of the Algerian war that we made a trade out of teaching them to other countries. Practices such as the "third degree" in the U.S., the sensory deprivation used by the British against Irish terrorists and by the Germans against German terrorists blur the line between interrogation and torture. In Israel, "important physical pressure" on suspects has been authorized by a special judicial commission, and Le Monde reports that they led to one fatality in 1995. So, in short, nobody is innocent.

2 1 S T   C E N T U R Y

What this means is that, after having been national for a century, when wars became, at least partly, ideologic, the question became the most convenient way to extract intelligence. Because this is what matters here: in the context of modern life, modern war, modern politics, intelligence is even more literally vital than it was in Sun Tzu's time. Information, and information exclusively is what the wars of the 21st century are won and lost by.

There is a harsh torture scene in an episode of the excellent series 24. It is narratively justified by the imminence of a nuclear threat over Los Angeles. Closer to home, at least mine, is my annoyance whenever people feel good about my country's non-involvement in the Iraq war because it means we won't get attacked by terrorists. First of all, this amounts to giving in to blackmail of the worst kind, out of cowardice. Second of all, it relies on a delusion about the extremism of a terrorist, to whom every Western country is a worthy target, and would only be too happy to bomb the hell out of an anti-Iraq war protest march, French or otherwise.

And third of all, it is contrary to the facts. There have been attacks against us by terrorists. There was the bombing of the AZF factory, which was badly covered up as an accident. It is a known, although little publicized fact that a car bombing against the U.S. embassy in Paris was planned as synchronous with the 9/11 attacks and narrowly avoided. My father lives in the same building block as the facility which was targeted. Several other terrorist attacks against landmarks or trains have been prevented by our police and secret services since.

And there are only so many ways for them to obtain the operational intelligence they need in order to do their job:

The first two are largely unreliable. Putting agents undercover takes time, and there's always the chance that they can be turned around by the oponent. And listening in only works really if they are careless. However good one gets at these accessory intelligence gathering methods, they will never provide the meat of the intelligence necessary to capture terrorists, discover drug caches or map out organized crime networks.

That leaves the interrogation of suspects.

Ideally, you would sit her down and she will tell you everything you need to know. There are tricks supposed to help you achieve that, like the Reid technique® that American detectives are trained in, where the interrogator presents the suspect with orientative questions and leads her to a confession. Contrary to what TV says, things rarely happen that way. It is also very rare that the investigator gets the opportunity to play Sherlock Holmes and deduce the truth from clues. This means that on top of shrewdness, the interrogator must use intimidation to get the suspect to talk. And if intimidating the suspect doesn't get her to tell her story, then there isn't much else left than violence.

So, have my compatriots used torture to protect their compatriots from terrorism? In all likelihood, yes. Am I grateful? As much as I hate to admit it, yes. So, were they right? Is torture justifiable, or not? I spent paragraphs explaining how torture goes against everything I believe in. So basically, it's not justifiable, except if it keeps my fat hairy French ass safe?

T H E   E N D S   A N D   T H E   M E A N S

I have before mentioned "the cynic in me" a few times, Jiminy Cricket's tough, no-nonsense twin who lives in my head. He's the part of me who always thinks up new ways to hurt idiots, would spend his time kicking ass and taking names if I let him, and, more importantly concerning this writeup, who has only few qualms concerning torture.

My problem is that the cynic in me isn't evil, because then I could just reject what he has to say offhand. I also have an evil side to tempt me. The cynic in me is different. He does have a moral code, which is built around the same beliefs as mine, but it's just more—he says realisticcynical than mine. This is one of my principles which haven't changed from when I was a child—I was a lot more ruthless then than I am now.

Then, it was my firm belief that pity has little to do with real world politics, that the reason of State is a perfectly good reason, that the end tends to justify the means and if the end is big enough then it starts to justify a lot of means. I remember an enraged tirade I spouted at a couple idiots who parrotted to each other what the media said about how bad it is that "the Americans" torture people at Guantanamo Bay. The gist was that what would be outrageous was if there weren't such a facility, if we weren't dedicated to getting the information we need through whatever means necessary. And I can't really disagree: there's a war on, against ruthless people who dream nothing better than to kill our wives and children in the most horrible ways, and because of some idealistic moral code we should let that happen? And since Jiminy Cricket plays well with logic, he adds that it makes us as evil as terrorists: because of a fanatical attachement to our moral code we could let horrible, immoral things happen (and sins by omission are just as bad as the others, if not worse).

Jiminy is really the Creon to my Antigone. But if the play ultimately gives reason to Antigone's intransigence, in real life things aren't always so simple. Morals teach us that the ends don't justify the means, but history teaches us that, indeed, they do. So, in order to properly weigh ends and means, please allow me to play Jiminy Cricket's advocate.

First of all: what's so bad about torture, really? I mean, it's basically just a lot of pain. Sure, that sucks but, ultimately, it's just a bodily sensation. "Pain is an illusion." It sucks for a while, your nerves fire up, and it ends. One way or another. What's the big deal? It used to be that kids, and later men, accepted corporal punishment, because pain was a part of life, and you took it like a man. As I've said before, the condemnation of torture is a relatively recent phenomenon, consistent with the mellowing of our living conditions brought about by the industrial revolution. In our mellow civilization, maybe a little torture could help keep things fittingly crunchy.

This brings up the fact that public flogging is a much better mode of punishment than prison. It's better from a practical point of view. Prison serves as three things, in three stages: a deterrent, a punishment, and a road to reinsertion. Prison isn't very good a deterrent. As a punishment, it's either ineffective when you're in a gang, since you'll have as much cash, rugs and cosiness inside as outside, and if you're not in a gang it's downright despicable, because you become the prey of those said gangs. And as a means of reinsertion, no-one seriously disputes the fact that it's downright shitty. Prison is the graduate school of crime. Public flogging for misdemeanor, and torture for crimes, fits all the bills: it's a strong deterrent (that's the "public" part), it's a pretty good punishment (that's the "flogging" part) and, as a means of reinsertion, I'm not sure if it's any good, but anything is bound to be ten times better than prison.

French lefty philosopher Michel Foucault documented well that prisons are meant to do the opposite than their official end. Structurally, they create a controlled caste of deliquents and criminals, channelling influences which might otherwise challenge the actual makeup of society. Foucault shows that prisons are a much more expensive and inconvenient system than fining, exile, execution and, well, torture, which used to be the normal ways to deal with penal offences. Prisons, despite all their apparent disadvantages, suddenly popped all over Europe and America at the beginning of the 19th century—the same time that torture became a taboo. And it is a taboo. The common objection is that public flogging is barbaric. It may be barbaric, but you are wrong if you think that prison isn't barbaric. A lot more barbaric: once the flogging stops, it's over. You may have scars, physical and psychological ones, but scars heal. Prison becomes a way of life. It chases you after you leave (if you do—given the violence that reigns there, you're likely to either die or kill, even if you just came in for a month). If you can somehow compare that to walking up on a stage, taking off your shirt, getting whipped a dozen times and going home, let me know.

The taboo-ization of torture has another disadvantage. On top of making us resort to practices which are even more barbaric, it deprives us of the advantages of torture. As the writeups above attest, torture is a complicated practice. It takes some know-how, some—dare I say it—talent to properly torture someone. How many people knew important information but were punched to death by a bumbling police officer? The Catholic Church, in its boundless wisdom, understood this and the Inquisition was very scientific and rational in the application of torture. It's in the interest of the torturer and of the tortured that the torturer be as experienced as possible, so that he may "break" the guy with as little fuss and damage as possible. There's always going to be torture: the more humane thing would be to have schools, to train good torturers, who would apply torture in a rational and compassionate manner, like a good medieval Inquisitor would. This is now impossible because of the taboo associated with torture, and so we are condemned to the bumbling Abu Ghraib fools instead of something more efficient (and ultimately ethical) like what you see in the movie Brazil.

The need for quality torture is made more pressing by the fact that, as I said above, we are in a century where acquiring information is, quite simply, vital. Torture is a significant item in the intelligence officer's toolkit, and we would be foolish to deprive ourselves of it. Most of the wars of the first part of our century, it seems, will take the form of counter-insurgency (or insurgency, depending on your point of view) wars. The most widespread use of torture in a counter-insurgency war was during the War of Algeria. It was also the only guerilla war in history which was actually won by the invaders. (Holy shit! You mean the French actually won a war?) The Algerian example is striking. Let's take a look at some key facts:

  • There was extremely widespread use of torture on both sides; while the French army used torture only as a means to extract information, the insurgents used it also as a means of repression, punishment, and mutilation of enemies and "collaborators."
  • The French were bad at doing torture. I read somewhere that the Pentagon recruited some French advisers for Camp X-Ray but that seems unlikely, as the French arsenal was rudimentary, including pretty much just la gégène and la baignoire.
  • The French were bad at using torture. They used it on the wrong people and didn't ask the right questions, and didn't correlate intelligence gathered from different sources.
  • More importantly, they grew to rely on torture more and more despite its inefficiency, simply because it's easier, cheaper and quicker than following people around, going through their rubbish, bribing them, tapping their phones and all the stuff commonly associated with the intelligence trade. This led to a vicious cycle where more torture led to worse intelligence which led to a need for more info, which led to more torture, etc.
  • The war was won not by spies but by the rest of the military, by cutting off the guerillas' supply lines instead of trying to attack them directly, and sweeping them off the map once they were thus rendered powerless.
  • Even though the war was won militarily, it was still lost politically: the government gave up the country into the hands of the defeated.

This gives us a worrying indication: even though torture is a great tool of social control, as an intelligence gathering tool it has serious shortcomings, despite the great advantages it may have in some specific circumstances. The problem with torture is that it's too easy. Why spend precious time and resources on complicated set-ups around some-one when you can just grab them up, tie them to a chair and drill tiny holes in their incisives? Shakespeare teaches us that, like all serious sins, torture is not only terribly easy, but terribly easy to do over and over again once you've started. This is not good.

Riverrun's writeup on The Phoenix Program, a similar attempt by the U.S. during the Vietnam war with similar results, exemplifies this phenomenon perfectly, even though the writeup holds silly notions about the morality of such a potentially productive counter-insurgency program. What the Phoenix Program did wrong wasn't to kidnap, torture and kill people (what should it do in a war, send them flowers?) but to waste its time kidnapping, torturing and killing people who needn't be. Any intelligence endeavour which relies on tortrure first starts by extracting key information from key people, then learns to rely it not as a special tool to be used with parcimony but as the main tool, and all of a sudden the operation becomes a bunch of bumbling fool who grab up anyone who's suspected of knowing something and just beat him up in some cellar somewhere, not even bothering to ask the right questions or to make sure he's been milked dry before granting his probable wish of a bullet to the back of the head. Intelligence is a very subtle art, if only because its working material is the human. When you start to poke at the material with needles when you should only slightly be nudging it with tweezers, it may be fun, and it may produce results at first, but ultimately you're just a kid screwing up.

So, to sum up, it is the opinion of Jiminy Cricket that we need more torture, but not any kind of torture: quality torture, a learned craft, used as efficiently as possible. Like all powerful tools it should rest in the hands of the discerning. So we need a system like, well, the Inquisition, which turned torture into a part of the process of law, and trained its inquisitors into efficient torturers.

A   P A R A D O X

Of course, all of this relies on the postulate that the end justifies the means. The question isn't whether torture is bad, or whether I am opposed to it. Of course I'm opposed to torture, everyone's opposed to torture. And I also believe that the ends don't justify the means. But I also believe that "man is neither angel nor beast, and whomever tries to make him an angel turns him into a beast." So, do the ends justify the means? I don't know. I have no set answer. I have tried, in this writeup, to look at the question from all relevant angles: religious, moral, historical, pragmatic.

In the end, I believe the reason why I can't solve the moral dilemma is because it's abstract. Let's get a concrete example, the classic tale used to get people to agree to torture during the war in Algeria:

Suppose you are the military commander of a city. You know without a doubt that there is a bomb out there which will destroy a bus full of schoolchildren if it's not stopped soon, and you hold in custody a man who knows the location of the bomb. After you politely quiz him, he politely refuses to answer. What do you do?

Of course, this anecdote is totally unrealistic. You will never know for sure there is a car set to explode. And you will probably never have the guy who knows where the bomb is, but the guys who knows the guy who knows it. Besides, why should the bomb only kill schoolchildren? Would the dilemma be less terrible if the target was a bus full of prison inmates? This is all correct, but I don't think that this question can be escaped in order to solve the problem. This situation mimics the famous philosophical debate between Immanuel Kant who, under the principle of categorical imperative, proclaimed that one should never say a lie. Benjamin Constant replied by proposing a situation where, living under a tyranny, you are hiding a dissident in your attic, and the police knocks on your door and politely asks whether you're harboring a dissident. Do you tell them the truth? Kant's answer was that he would first sneak the dissident out the backdoor before answering the police's question: the intellectual dishonesty is easily discernable, but we do have the same fundamental distinction between Kant, a man who adheres to a moral code strictly, and Constant, to whom the end (not having a dissident arrested) justifies the means (a big fat lie, with bells on it).

Let's go back to our little story with the bomb. Suppose that after your unsuccessful little chat with the terrorist, since torture is evil, you send him back to his cell. A carbomb detonates, killing a kindergarten class. Will you be proud of yourself, then? Oh, sure, you can say that as a Christian, or a believe in human rights, you did the right thing by refusing to put the end before the means. And you'd be totally correct. But will you be proud of yourself? Paradox. The answer to this question is that, just like Kant obeys his moral code by sneaking his friend out the back door, the way to solve this dilemma is to not become the military commander of a city, so you don't have to make a decision.

I'm not trying to dispute the fact that torture is bad, of course torture is bad, everyone knows that torture is bad. I still have no answer for you, I merely present to you my findings. What I have grown certain though, is that this paradox separates mankind in two groups: those few, those unhappy few who, by taking on the burden of other people's fates, put these decisions before them, at the cost of their moral virginity, and the others, who look up to them to make these decisions, and wait the chance to slaughter them if these decisions turn out to be wrong. I don't know what I would do if I was the military commander of that city, because I've never been the military commander of a city. However, I do know that I am one of those who stand up, make calls, be it at a cost for others or for their own salvation.



Tor"ture (?), n. [F.,fr.L. tortura, fr. torquere, tortum, to twist, rack, torture; probably akin to Gr. tre`pein to turn, G. drechsein to turn on a lathe, and perhaps to E. queer. Cf. Contort, Distort, Extort, Retort, Tart, n., Torch, Torment, Tortion, Tort, Trope.]


Extreme pain; anguish of body or mind; pang; agony; torment; as, torture of mind. Shak.

Ghastly spasm or racking torture.


Especially, severe pain inflicted judicially, either as punishment for a crime, or for the purpose of extorting a confession from an accused person, as by water or fire, by the boot or thumbkin, or by the rack or wheel.


The act or process of torturing.

Torture, whitch had always been deciared illegal, and which had recently been declared illegal even by the servile judges of that age, was inflicted for the last time in England in the month of May, 1640.


© Webster 1913

Tor"ture, v. t. [imp. & p. p. Tortured (&?;; 135); p. pr. & vb. n. Torturing.] [Cf. F. Torturer. ]


To put to torture; to pain extremely; to harass; to vex.


To punish with torture; to put to the rack; as, to torture an accused person. Shak.


To wrest from the proper meaning; to distort. Jar. Taylor.


To keep on the stretch, as a bow. [Obs.]

The bow tortureth the string.


© Webster 1913

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