What were you gonna do? Hawkins:
To get the truth? Less than you would have. You see, I've done—I've done enough, Jake, to know better. It's the fear of torture that gets results. Actual torture...only works in the movies.
Torture is shown or said to be ineffective.
In some media works, torture is effective
in obtaining information or extracting truthful confessions. In others, it isn't. This may be because the creators want to deliver An Aesop
about the wrongness or evils of torture. Or it may simply be that the plot requires that torture not work this time around.
If it's meant to be an Aesop, the ineffectiveness of torture will generally be directly stated by a protagonist or other "good guy" character. (If an antagonistic character says it, they're usually a Strawman Political
figure and this trope will not be in effect.)
Plot-related reasons why torture might not be effective include:
- The character being tortured is so Badass or pain-resistant that they're able to hold out until rescued or the torturer gives up.
- The torturee is Too Kinky to Torture (all examples of this go on that page.)
- The character being tortured has a prepared lie that will take just enough time to check out that the real plan can go ahead while the torturer is distracted.
- The torturer is inept and asks the wrong questions, or allows Exact Words to mask the truth.
- The victim of the torture is an innocent person who doesn't know anything, and only tells the torturer what they want to hear to make the pain stop. Note that this is not an instance of ineffective torture if the torturers simply want someone to confess.
Contrast Torture Always Works
, where the techniques are effective; Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique
, where torture is effective enough
and justified by time pressures; Torture First, Ask Questions Later
where the ineffectiveness of the torture is down to an overeager torturer rather than the methodology; and Torture for Fun and Information
where the effectiveness of the torture is secondary to the torturer's enjoyment of the procedure
Live Action TV
- In Raiders of Gor the city-state of Port Kar is attacked. They capture some of the attackers and torture them for information, as is common on Gor. After interviewing one captive, who "confesses" that a whole series of other city-states are in on it, it's explicitly stated by the protagonist that the torturees will say anything the torturers want in order for the torture to stop.
- In Terry Pratchett's Discworld: Night Watch, Sam Vimes, a man pathologically opposed to actual physical torture, gets results by subjecting captured members of the secret police to psychological warfare: he plays on their imagination, their knowledge, and their guilty consciences about torture to terrify them into confessing. (They are led to believe by sound and play-acting that one of their number is being tortured, unseen but definitely heard, in a cell round the corner.)
- In Iain Banks' Transition, a torturer/narrator explains that the worst torture of all is just describing what will happen. Later in the same book, torture fails to work, but only because the character being tortured teleports out of his body first.
- The Dark Ones in Murderess fail to get any information from their prisoner Aucasis about her brother Hallwad’s whereabouts. While it’s likely she has no idea herself, she doesn’t even give them false information to get them to leave her alone.
- Warehouse 13: When Mrs. Frederick resorts to "Enhanced Interrogation" to get information out of Sally on how to prevent the destruction of a building the Regents are trapped within, Agent Jinks pauses to remind Mrs. F that is has been statistically proven that torture never yields viable information. Jinks apparently forgot the fact that the only reason Sally is in that situation to begin is that she successfully tortured one Regent until said Regent revealed the location of the others. Or he said that deliberately as part of a plan to infiltrate the enemy group.
- Burn Notice: Series protagonist Michael Westen narrates on the futility of torture or enhanced interrogation very frequently, ignoring his own succesful use of torture in the past. He has even gone so far as to let himself be tortured as a means of feeding false information to his adversary.
Michael: A lot of people's first instinct when they need information out of a captive is to grab a baseball bat or a gun. The fact is, torture is for sadists and thugs. It's like getting groceries with a flamethrower; it doesn't work, and it makes a mess.
- Jericho: When an interrogation gets a bit too intense for Jake, Hawkins reveals he was bluffing about the extent to which he was willing to go because he knows from personal experience that real torture only works in movies.
- LOST featured many torture scenes, most of which featured ex-torturer Sayid as the victim. In a few cases, the victim knew nothing. In others, the victim simply didn't break down. In one, Sayid eventually broke down, but he responded to the interrogator's attempts to attract sympathy rather than the torture.
- In an episode of Get Smart a retired spy living at an Old Spy Home is tortured for the whereabouts of his diary, in which he has written down many secret things, but he successfully resists.
- In an episode of Bones the Victim of the Week was a Salary Man paper-pusher at the CIA who investigates a diamond smuggling operation on his own after his superiors didn't think there was anything to it. He is killed by torture but never gives up the info they were after. CIA agents point out that even most well-trained field agents would crack under what he was subjected to. After the crime is solved, he is given a star on the CIA "Killed in Action" wall even though his position didn't qualify for that honor.
- Played with in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Chain of Command." Picard tells his captor that torture has historically been an ineffective way of obtaining information. However, at the end of the episode, Picard confesses to Troi that he had indeed been broken by the end of his imprisonment: only being informed of his freedom at the last second brought him back to his senses long enough to shout defiance at his captor.