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Torture, Crime, and Politics

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This month's issue of the prestigious journal Archives of General Psychiatry begins with the lead article,
Torture vs Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment Is the Distinction Real or Apparent?. The abstract beings thusly: "After the reports of human rights abuses by the US military in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and Afghanistan, questions have been raised as to whether certain detention and interrogation procedures amount to torture." It concludes "Ill treatment during captivity, such as psychological manipulations, humiliating treatment, and forced stress positions, does not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the severity of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanism of traumatic stress, and their long-term psychological outcome. Thus, these procedures do amount to torture, thereby lending support to their prohibition by international law." While this article is likely to invoke strong reactions across the political spectrum, it's worth noting some methodological aspects of this study since charges of torture can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court.

The outcome measures used for this study included the Scores on the Semi-structured Interview for Survivors of War, Exposure to Torture Scale, Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV, and Clinician-Administered PTSD. Outside of the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV, most of these measures are almost unheard of. Indeed, in the present study, the authors reference their own study in the Journal of the American Medical Association as supporting the reliability and validity of these measures. But a cursory examination of that study shows no citations to additional studies supporting the psychometric properties of these measures. It's a well known fact in psychometrics that you can't just make-up a measure and say it measures what you say it does. One must conduct complex statistical studies to arrive at the conclusion that the measures actually measure what they say they do (validity) and do so accurately again and again (reliability). These statistical studies need to be peer-reviewed and published in order for them to garner the stamp of approval for the scientific community.


But there's more to look at as well. In Table 1 of the study (sorry, subscription required), the authors list various kinds of torture and psychological distressing events (e.g., rape, verbal abuse) and the ratings given to these events by the participants. The rating is a dichotomous variable of "fairly/extremely distressing" or "slightly/not at all." One doesn't need to be an elite researcher to see the problem here. Few people would consider any psychological distressing event during wartime a "slightly" distressing event. Thus, one wonders if the construction of this dichotomous variable inflates the number of participants claiming extreme distress (it probably does). Moreover, next to this variable is another one called "distress" which is apparently a continuous variable ranging from 1-4 (it's not clear from the article what the range is). Interestingly, according to the table, participants gave rape a distress rating of 3.9, burning of the body parts 3.6, lifting by the hair 3.2, and prevention of urination 3.3. Thus, preventing urination is more distressing than lifting someone by the hair. Of course, the problem is that the numbers are meaningless since the scale has not been shown to be psychometricly sound. They could mean something, but as they stand, they only give the appearance of scientific validity. Finally, the authors linked the psychological distressing events with the diagnosis of PTSD. The authors conclude that their study directly contradicts the U.S. Justice Departments memorandum that concluded that torture requires proof of "prolonged mental harm."


Obviously, torture of any type is a reprehensible act of humanity and it should be condemned in the strongest terms. My point here isn't to pass judgment on U.S. policy in Guantanamo Bay. Rather, in looking at high-profile issues of crime, it strikes me how weak science is so often used to buttress the claims of one side or the other. From drug courts to sexual predators, our science seems weakest when our moral claims are strongest.

1 Comment

The torture debate always strikes me as a fetishism for correctness, rather than a genuine policy debate. Of course, we shouldn't torture. But we also shouldn't hamstring ourselves worrying about it either. When American soldiers summarily executed Germans and Japanese soldiers, America didn't get too worked up about it. (And these things happened.) Now I am not saying that the American Armed Forces should tolerate this behavior--what I am saying is that we should not be paralyzed in prosecuting the war, nor should we get too worked up about it either (except, of course, where truly senseless acts of violence against innocents occur, such as some of the rape/murders we have seen in Iraq). In all wars, there are excesses. Overzealousness, battle fatigue, extreme rage--these things happen. But it is important to remember that sometimes these things deter. Early in the war, some Iraqis feigned surrender and subsequently murdered some American marines--let's say these guys were wounded in the fight, and the surviving American marines simply let them die on the battlefield--would anyone, honestly, care that much? Would anyone want the soldiers put in jail? Would anyone deny that some rough justice was handed down? Would anyone deny that word would get out and that our enemies may think twice about pulling the same nonsense?

War is not a game fought always by the Marquess of Queensbury rules. Just ask the Israelis, who have resorted to simple murder, to deal with terrorists. (I say murder because sometimes their assassinations have gotten the wrong guy.) If some torture happens to the bad guys (and I don't mean 18 year-old Iraqi conscripts, by the way), there's a good part of me that says, "serves them right."

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