Physical and psychological torture has similar impact


The New York Times reports on a study that interviewed people who had been either physically or psychologically tortured during the conflict in Yugoslavia and found both groups were equally likely to develop post traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD.

The research was led by Dr Metin Basoglu and has just been published in the medical journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

This is powerful research, not least because the United Nations Convention Against Torture uses the potential for ‘prolonged mental harm’ as a way of distinguishing between physical torture and other coercive interrogation techniques that may be frowned upon but are not considered against international law.

The conclusions appear to contradict a Justice Department memorandum of Dec. 30, 2004. Citing the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the memorandum argued that a broad range of interrogation techniques, among them forced standing, hooding, subjection to loud noises and deprivation of sleep, food and drink, might be inhumane but did not constitute torture unless they resulted in “prolonged mental harm.”

“Until now, both sides of the debate have expressed opinions based on personal impressions,” said Dr. Metin Basoglu, the lead author of the study. “But these data clearly suggest that you cannot make a distinction between physical forms of torture and something else called ‘cruel and degrading treatment.’ “

This is likely to inflame the ongoing debate about the American Psychological Association allowing its members to take part in US Military interrogations while US medical associations have banned physicians and psychiatrists from participating in the same.

Link to NYT article ‘The Line Between Torture and Cruelty’.
Link to abstract of study on PubMed.

2 thoughts on “Physical and psychological torture has similar impact”

  1. So much for the Book of Job. It describes God and Satan having a bet (the stakes are never mentioned) over Job’s faith and God forbidding Satan to harm him physically at first in testing him. When Job is steadfast after seeing his children killed, etc, then God allows him to be afflicted physically. Biblically, being covered with boils and other physical ills were considered to be worse than losing your children. Fortunately for Job, there was no PTSD back then and God restored everything to him in the end(presumably as a hush payment).

  2. I admit this comment is pushing it a little for relevance, but I have been looking for a place to express concern about the overwhelming popularity of a book by another neuroscience student: Sam Harris’s ‘End of Faith’. It is relevant to mention here because he spends a long time justifying torture and making a strong argument that it is really a mind hack (if you will forgive the stretch) that keeps us from accepting torture as reasonable. The thesis of his book is really a call to arms for those who are willing to disapprove of religion and specifically faith. He really gets down to it when he starts to define his ethics in the later chapters and tries to argue that if we can accept collateral damage from typical war scenarios we should be willing to accept torture, if it produces some sort of good. It is simply an argument for the ends justifying the means. He basically wants you to realize the illusion, like a typical mind hack,that keeps you from accepting torture if you are willing to accept war. Interestingly at this point in the book he wants you to try to overcome your intuition against torture and later in the book the strongest argument he can put forth for you to accept his ethics is intuition you might have about ethical acts.
    It is not amazing that some author is able to write such a naive and self-contradicting treatise on ethics what is amazing to me is that it received such uncritical praise and popularity. Obviously it reflects certain feelings and thoughts popular in the world today, however, I wish there was some intelligent criticisms written about the book other than from those who were obviously attacked (i.e Muslim and Christian fundamentalist as well as liberal believers). Does science lead us to a society where the end justifies the means and torture is a tool for those who think they deserve to live (for some reason) to use against those they oppose? I am not advocating against the entire book but I think we should step more slowly into his brave new world before we leave the ideas of other ethical thinkers behind.

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