In a poorly-lit room, a half naked man is being stuffed into a small plywood box.  The interrogator, a disheveled PhD student, barks, “You lie to me, I hurt you.”

So begins the film Zero Dark Thirty, and with it, the debate about director Kathryn Bigelow’s jarring depictions of torture. But how did we get here?

In this inaugural edition of Hippo Reads, we bring you four pieces, each a lens through which to examine “enhanced interrogation.” Taken together they paint a nuanced landscape against which the torture question is defined.

We begin with a 2003 Atlantic article, The Dark Art of Interrogation by Mark Bowden. Published a year before the now infamous Abu Ghraib, Bowden reminds us of the American psychology that developed in the post-9/11 world. Initially, the article is a detached and objective survey of torture, exploring the ways in which first-world nations (such as Israel and Germany) treat the matter. But in the last few sentences, it takes a sudden about-face, blindsiding the reader with blanket support for Bush’s wartime policies. The torture question, Bowden asserts, should be “handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy.”  It’s an eerie harbinger of what the future holds.

Reexamining Bowden’s assertions becomes more interesting when his article is paired with John Tierney’s 2011 New York Times article, Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

This second piece begins where our first leaves off — in a prison. Judges are reviewing parole requests of three prisoners.  As the piece demonstrates, it’s not case facts nor the demeanor of prisoners that alter a judge’s decision: it’s the time of day.  With this gripping introduction, we’re launched into a survey of comparable studies that show how decision-making is mentally exhausting, and how we, as fair-minded humans, try to compensate.  (Obama may have glommed this fact intuitively – Michael Lewis’ famous profile of the president reports that in an effort to cut down on decisions, he only wears blue or gray suits.)

When we return to Bowden’s piece armed with this information, we’re struck by how much he exults in each interrogator’s discretion, trusting their mastery of this “dark” art.  As he loses journalistic distance the language surrounding their endeavors becomes mythic: interrogator Michael Koubi is described as “sensing a lie”, having a “knack for reading body language” and “orchestrating [a prisoner’s] emotional surrender.”  Jerry Giorgio, a legendary NYPD interrogator, is described as a “wizard” by his colleagues.  Examining Bowden’s work through the insight of “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” is eye-opening: “Good decision making is not a trait of the person,” Tierney explains. “It’s a state that fluctuates.”

As additional reading, there’s another piece of the puzzle, a fascinating study on the ability of humans to determine whether others are lying.  It turns out normal people can tell a lie roughly 53% of the time, a track record slightly better than a coin toss. For those formally trained in lie detection, accuracy actually declines while confidence in their abilities increases.  That’s why, as Techniques and Controversies in the Interrogation of Suspects argues, when an interrogator begins with a presumption of guilt, he will often find evidence to back that up.  Coupled with intensive interrogation, this can – and has – led to false confessions, even without the presence of torture.

The last selection to round out our week is a creative piece – translated from the Arabic, an excerpt from the book Biography of Ash by Khadija Marouazi, a human rights activist and professor of modern literature in Morocco. In her depictions of a man undergoing torture, what resonates is the impact his revelations have upon interrogators.

Image credit: Paul Kehrer via flickr

About The Author

Avatar photo

Anna Redmond is the author of The Golden Arrow, a fantasy political thriller which draws on historical traditions of holy sex to create a society where women use sex for magic and power. She is also curator and co-founder of Hippo Reads.