“There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information – the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified.”  – Noam Chomsky

By: Christopher Sawin

Torture has existed for thousands of years, without much change in technique or even purpose for the torture.  While the list of different methods of torture is vast, recently the most common forms of torture used globally have been waterboarding, physical beatings, and electric shocks.  There has long been the approach that torture is an effective method of acquiring vital information from suspected terrorists.  Another approach is that torture instills fear in individuals thinking of becoming terrorists, therefore acting as a deterrence.  While torture has historically been used on criminals, spies, suspected terrorists, and other similar individuals, recently, torture was a suggested method to use on the families of suspected terrorists in order to acquire information.  However, I think, the real question is not whether torture works but whether torture is even legal under strictly looking at the Geneva Conventions.

Under Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, “torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment” is prohibited.  So upon reading this small excerpt from the Geneva Conventions, one may think that torture is just flat out forbidden.  But what if there was a new form of torture that was not considered inhumane, cruel, or degrading?  Would this particular type of torture be legal under the Geneva Conventions?  Is torture still considered torture if there is no pain involved?  We as a society have generally rejected the use of torture on suspected terrorists because of the spectrum of pain involved in the torture process.  But how would society react to an enhanced form of torture where pain has been erased?  The use of psycho-pharmaceuticals and specialized brain imagining may be the solution society has been looking for.  This could be the “middle ground” that allows very specific forms of torture on suspected terrorists and their families.

The same brain imagining technology used to help treat Alzheimer’s Disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and even brain tumors, may now be used as a form of torture in determining whether information is credible from an individual.  This type of imaging technology would detect certain brain activity and track how an individual’s brain reacts to specific questions, much like the famous lie-detector test.  The sections of the brain responsible for telling the truth and lying would draw additional blood flow from the body.  The additional blood flow would be shown and recorded on the brain imaging scanner, then, by comparing the results, an interrogator could determine whether certain information is credible or if the individual is lying.  Since no pain is involved, would this type of technique be prohibited?

Additionally, the use of psycho-pharmaceuticals could also lead to painless torture as a method of acquiring information.  Back in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) experimented with various form of torture techniques including the well-known “truth serum.”  This particular type of medication would force an individual to tell the truth through a mind controlled substance, however, the side effects were horrible, including increased heart rate, blurred vision, and hallucinations, and thus discontinued.  If the CIA could now create a new hypothetical pill where the only side effects possibly a mild headache or dehydration, would this be seen at a prohibited form of torture?  Assuming that any unwilling participant would be physically forced to take this hypothetical pill, other than this there would be virtually no pain.  This pill would make individuals tell the truth and disclose certain information that would not normally be disclosed voluntarily.  While these two methods of enhanced torture appear to find that “middle ground” society may be looking for, are these methods still considered illegal?  And even if these are not considered illegal, should we use these techniques on the families of suspected terrorists in order to acquire additional information?

These are some tough questions that require a lot of deep thinking, but more importantly self-reflection.  Do we, as a society, really want to be torturing potentially innocent families of suspected terrorists although no pain is involved?  How far are we as a society willing to go to acquire information related to terrorist activity and protect American lives?  While there are arguments for both sides of the issue, if no pain is involved in these two torture techniques, then why not implement them?  If the whole reason behind prohibiting torture is the physical aspect, then we should be using techniques that do not involve physical pain.  There is no doubt that suspected terrorists likely possess information related to other terrorist activities.  There is also a chance that the families of suspected terrorists also possess information related to terrorist activities.  If information can be extracted from suspected terrorists and their families without inflicting physical pain, then we should be exercising these techniques.  While these techniques provide alternatives to traditional methods of torture that are more humane, I also think that there is a small deterrence aspect here.  If a potential terrorist knows that his or her family could be interrogated by methods of torture not involving physical pain, maybe that potential terrorist would think twice about committing the act.  I do no know what the right or wrong answer is of using methods of torture involving families of suspected terrorists.  I just think that if there is no physical pain involved, then the United States military should use these techniques to acquire any relevant information and use that information to help prevent future terror attacks.


Christopher Sawin is currently a 2L at Suffolk University Law School and a Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law.  He holds a B.A. in Criminal Justice from Curry College and is a United States Marine Corps Veteran.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.

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