Torture Is Ineffective YKTTW Discussion

Torture Is Ineffective
When torture doesn't work
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(permanent link) added: 2012-09-06 12:08:47 sponsor: TheRedFear edited by: StarSword (last reply: 2014-12-12 08:09:40)

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"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."
Michael Westen, "Comrades", Burn Notice

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.


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    Fan Works 
  • In "Frostbite" Dalsh Ruul, a Breen captain, tries to get Commander Tess Phohl to talk by first threatening to kill one of her noncoms, then by using a painstick. Neither has any effect whatsoever: The only thing of substance Tess says the whole time apart from name, rank, and serial number is that if Dalsh Ruul kills said noncom, Tess' captain will personally strangle him with his own intestines. None of the other captured members of the away team say anything, either, apart from Specialist Atti calling the Breen's mother a whore.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The Mad Scientist Duran Duran tries to wrangle the secrets from the titular Barbarella using a machine called the Orgasmotron. After banging off the equivalent of a Beethoven piano concerto on the machine's controls, it falls apart from overuse. The madman is astonished that a woman can endure multiple orgasms. Surprise, surprise.
  • In The Dark Knight Batman pummels the Joker in the police interrogation room, but Joker who laughs it off because torture would never make him talk. He only tells Batman what Batman wants to hear because it amuses him to.
  • In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, an Imperial officer warns Darth Vader that Princess Leia will die before telling him anything. In subsequent scenes Leia withstands both a session with a torture droid and a mind probe with the Force without cracking. Even when Grand Moff Tarkin threatens to destroy her homeworld with the Death Star if she won't give up the Rebels' headquarters, she instead gives him information on a base they'd already abandoned.

  • 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.
  • In Ciaphas Cain: The Traitor's Hand, The Rival Commissar Tomas Beije attempts to torture information out of a Slaanashi cultist, only to get spontaneously kissed for his trouble. Cain comments in his Internal Monologue that trying to torture information out of Slaaneshi is about as ineffective as torture gets, and he's able to get a captured smuggler to talk with a simple Good Cop/Bad Cop routine.
  • In the Tom Clancy novel The Sum of All Fears, the terrorists who nuked the Super Bowl are captured by Clark and Chavez. Clark uses some Fingore on them to get information on their backer, and after holding out for a while, the terrorists finger the nation of Iran. The catch is that they had planned this as an attempted Xanatos Gambit: if the US does retaliate against Iran, they will have "made an enemy out of all Islam".
  • 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.

     Live-Action TV 
  • 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. He has even gone so far as to let himself be tortured as a means of feeding false information to his adversary. Other successful techniques have been a High-Altitude Interrogation (dropping a guy out of a window with a cable to arrest his fall, in order to get the other prisoner to talk from the screams), and Madeline Westen very calmly and sweetly talking the information out of a prisoner over a cigarette after a beating from Fiona doesn't work.
    • Defied in the same vein in "Friends Like These" when money-launderer Barry Burkowski suggests using Electric Torture on one of the people who they think stole his records.
      Barry: I heard you can attach them to a car battery, spark it up, and get—
      Michael: Torture just gets you the fastest lie to make the pain stop.
  • 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.
    Jake: 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.
  • 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, and in this case it also helped that he didn't know the specific information they wanted (Federation defense plans for a disputed planet). 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.
  • In the Stargate SG-1 episode "Talion", Teal'c tortures a man involved in several bombings against the Free Jaffa Nation but gets little useful information. In prior episodes his technique of sitting across the table from the prisoner and simply glaring at them until they talk was a hell of a lot more effective.

    Video Games 
  • Knights of the Old Republic:
    • When the Ebon Hawk is captured by Sith Admiral Saul Karath's flagship after the acquisition of the third Plot Coupon, the Player Character, Carth Onasi, and Bastila Shan are tortured by electrocution. It's only as effective as the player wants it to be, since the PC is the only one being questioned (it's a "talk and I'll stop hurting your friends, too" thing), and the scene is formatted mechanically as a conversation with options to say nothing, lie, or tell the truth.
    • Subverted when Darth Malak takes Bastila prisoner. In a cutscene he tortures her with Force Lightning not to get information, but to break her spirit and allow him to turn her to the Dark Side. He succeeds, and Bastila becomes your opponent in a Mini-Boss battle in The Very Definitely Final Dungeon.

  • The Order of the Stick: Redcloak and Xykon torture the captured Azure City paladin O'Chul for weeks to try and get information on the Snarl from him. O'Chul sincerely doesn't know squat, and despite the torture he retains the presence of mind to memorize Xykon's entire spell list, which he passes on to the Order of the Stick after he's freed.

    Real Life 
  • During the Salem witch trials in American history, Giles Corey was accused of witchcraft. He refused to plead guilty or not guilty, and according to the laws of the time, someone who did not plead could not be tried. The solution was to torture the accused until they would plead, and the authorities began to place heavy boulders on Giles Corey, slowly crushing him to death. According to legend, he was in great pain for hours under the weight of several boulders, but the only words he would utter were, "more weight!" In the end, he died, but his refusal to plead meant the state could not take possession of Corey's property, allowing his children to inherit his estate. Dramatized in Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible.
  • In December 2014 the United States Senate published part of a report on the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" under the George W. Bush administration, which Barack Obama promptly banned after taking office in 2009. They came to the conclusion that the CIA drastically overstated how effective the techniques were at getting information out of prisoners. The CIA disagreed. More from National Public Radio here.

Indexes: A Tortured Index,

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