John Schiemann, left, and Robert Houle, right, discuss Schiemann’s book, “Does Torture Work?”

John Schiemann, left, and Robert Houle, right, discuss Schiemann’s book, “Does Torture Work?”


Senior Editor

The utility and morality of CIA interrogation techniques has been a subject of debate in America for years. John Schiemann, associate professor of political science at FDU’s Florham Campus, has contributed to the conversation through the publication of his book, “Does Torture Work?”

Using game theory, which is a mathematical way to analyze the decisions of two or more rational people with conflicting interests, Schiemann’s book addresses whether torture really is effective.

On March 2, students and community members gathered in the Orangerie for a discussion about the book with Schiemann and Robert Houle, associate professor of history.

The event began with Houle clarifying that he actually disagrees with the use of torture, but would be playing the role of “devil’s advocate” during their discussion.

Schiemann opened by briefly explaining the premise of his book. He described his systematic analysis of torture’s outcomes, which depend on the choices and motivations of the people involved. He also explained that the book was written for a particular audience.

“I wanted to address people who sincerely believe that torture’s bad, but there are some cases where we have to do it because it works – and if it doesn’t work, then they wouldn’t approve of it,” he said.

When Houle spoke of the Bush administration’s use of torture, Schiemann explained that he was motivated to research the topic both because of an academic paper he read and because of what was going on in America at the time.

“I wasn’t sure myself (about the use of torture),” Schiemann said. “From the Mansion, I could see the smoke from the Twin Towers on 9/11. I felt the same impulse for revenge and the same sense of fear … When it started to come out that we were torturing people, I started wondering why we were doing this and if it was necessary.”

As the discussion continued, Houle questioned the validity of game theory’s premise and whether the people involved are rational decision-makers. Schiemann disagreed with Houle’s belief that human beings are “inherently irrational.”

When Houle argued that game theory could not account for everything in real life, since “there’s a whole host of factors at play that impact decisions,” Schiemann responded by saying that “models simplify reality … so it’s going to miss some parts of the world,” but that it still accurately captures the general outcome of situations.

They also spoke of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is one example of game theory, and whether or not the model was relevant to all cultures. After a bit of banter and debate over the validity of game theory, the discussion turned towards how the model could be applied to torture.

Schiemann explained that in an interrogation situation, the detainee “makes the first move,” by deciding whether or not to provide information to their interrogator. He said that there are three types of detainees: those with information who are willing to share, those with information who are unwilling to share, and those who don’t know anything (essentially, innocent prisoners).

The interrogator then has to decide if he or she believes the detainee is telling the truth and whether or not he or she needs to torture the detainee anyway.

Schiemann noted that most people, including law enforcement officers, are not actually that accurate when trying to determine whether someone is lying to them.

Factoring in those variables, including uncertainty about what the detainee really knows and is sharing, game theory plays out what the logical consequences and possibilities are.

Throughout the conversation, Schiemann cited several real-life examples of torture and its outcomes. He described one example of unsuccessful intelligence gathering, when the CIA tortured a man named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who claimed that he had sent someone to Montana to try to recruit African-American Muslim converts.

“It was absolutely ludicrous and yet the FBI went out and investigated it,” Schiemann said. “It’s astounding how little they actually knew.”

He went on to criticize the psychologists who claimed to be knowledgeable in torture, and described their claims as pseudo-scientific.

He also debunked the idea of the “ticking time bomb” scenario where an interrogator knows every detail except the location of the bomb/an imminent attack. Schiemman said that in real life, interrogators themselves say they need several weeks, or more, in order to get the detainee vulnerable enough to potentially divulge information.

Houle raised the point that even if torture is ineffective for getting information out of detainees, perhaps its utility comes from making the citizens feel better that their enemy is being punished. Schiemann refuted that idea by saying that Bush would have announced the CIA’s actions to the public, rather than keep it a secret for years, if the point was to make Americans feel better.

After their conversation, the floor opened to questions. One student asked Schiemann to clarify if torture does or does not work, to which he definitively replied that it does not.

Schiemann and various audience members spoke about the outcomes of America’s use of torture, such as the reduced cooperation of allies once they heard what was going on in Guantanamo Bay.

One audience member mentioned the danger in letting tortured detainees go, since they now have animosity towards America as a result of their treatment.

Schiemann agreed with the idea that torture turns people against you and said that even if it were effective in getting information, there are “enormous costs associated with torture.”

Other alternatives to torture were also discussed.

When asked if the threat of torture was more effective than the actual act of torture itself, Schiemann agreed that it seemed to be the case, but also said that threatening to harm the detainee (or their families) still falls under the category of torture. He said that a seemingly more effective information-gathering technique is to build a rapport with the detainee, as has been done in the past by the FBI.

Schiemann compared the use of torture to putting out a fire with gasoline; it may be effective if done right, but it is extremely difficult to do and can cause more harm than good. He said the only way to make torture credible is to torture anyone who does not talk, which includes a percentage of people who are innocent and don’t have any information.

Houle concluded the event by encouraging everyone to read Schiemann’s book, and by saying that he thinks America is “worse off as a nation” for having used torture.

Audience member Robert Santiago, a junior creative writing QUEST major, said that he found the event informative.

“I think Dr. Schiemann raised valid and interesting points,” Santiago said. He went on to discuss torture and how “it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around people being willing to do things that end negatively for both parties, when they could just cooperate and get something that is more positive out of it for both of them.”

Schiemann said that he has plans to write another book about torture and the prominent questions and issues surrounding it.

In the meantime, he hopes people will read his current book and learn from it.

“I hope that the average person reading this will change their mind about torture,” Schiemann said, adding that he hopes politicians will also read his book and that it will influence debates and policies on the matter.

Anyone interested in reading “Does Torture Work?” can find copies in the bookstore and at the FDU library.

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