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Torture increases terrorist attacks, political scientists find

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Daurius Rejali, in his book "Torture and Democracy," argued that the efficacy of torture was incorrectly argued at the level of the individual torture victim. The tortured will talk, and some of what they say may be true, just with the non-tortured, he argued. The right level to discuss this issue is at the level of entire torture programs.

Thus, Rejali argued that the historical record is that countries that torture in the course of counterinsurgencies usually lost, as they alienated the population, thus making it harder to cultivate intelligence sources in that population.

Now a new study provides evidence that torture is counterproductive in fighting terrorism. Examining a transnational database, political scientist James Walsh and his collegaue James Piazza have studied the relationship between torture and terrorism. Using lagged regression models in which current levels of torture in a country are used to predict future levels of terrorist attacks, Walsh and Piazza have shown that the use of torture predicts the future level of terrorism.

Here is Walsh discussing the study on his blog Back Channels:

[D]o countries that practice torture heavily experience less terrorism? The answer is pretty clearly "no." Here's how I arrived at this conclusion:

My colleague Jim Piazza and I have a paper coming out in Comparative Political Studies that analyzes the influence of human rights abuses on terrorism. We find that, for a wide range of data sources, control variables, and statistical specifications that governments that abuse rights actually experience more terrorism.

But what about torture? Torture is only one of the broader range of human rights we looked at in the paper. Is the relationship of torture to terror different? It might be, since far more countries engage in torture than in other forms of violent human rights abuses. To answer this question, I re-analyzed the data from the paper. Details are in the following paragraph; skip down if you just want the punchline.

I re-estimated the three models described in the paper that use the MIPT measure of terrorism as the dependent variable. This counts the number of terrorist attacks in each country from 1998 to 2004 committed by domestic and transnational groups, and also combines these into a measure of all terrorism. I used a negative binomial regression with robust standard errors clustered on countries and the same independent variables as those reported in the paper (political participation, constraints in the executive, regime durability, international war, civil war, and the logs of population and GDP per capita). I replaced the independent variable measuring human rights with two new variables. The first is a measure of torture from the CIRI project. The second is the measure of human rights used in the paper minus torture. This is meant to capture the possibility that torture and other human rights abuses are substitutes for each other; a regime might not torture, say, but could still have a bad record of respecting other rights.

Torture has a negative and statistically significant relationship to terrorism in all three models. In other words, countries that engage in more torture (and thus have a lower score on the torture variable) consistently experience more, not less, of both domestic and transnational terrorism. This mirrors the more general finding reported in the paper that respect for human rights is associated with less terror as well.

What are the implications for the debate in the US today? The clearest is that torture does not work, at least in reducing terrorism. It's another nail in the coffin for those who justify torture as a tool of counterterrorism. It also suggests that we don't need to worry about how revealing the details of the US torture program will provide terrorists with the skills to avoid providing information to interrogators. Instead, it suggests that a surprisingly easy and morally unambiguous counterterrorism strategy is to be nice to people. Being mean (like, say, torturing) seems to annoy some victims, who go on to become or serve as examples to new terrorists.

In the comments on this post, Walsh discusses the question of whether the causality could be in the opposite direction: that countries experiencing terrorism are more likely to torture:

This is an important point. I think it's unlikely to be the case, but it's not a open and shut case. The best way to address this with statistical data would be to use a two stage least squares or instrumental variable model. We've tried this but had difficulty coming up with an appropriate instrument. In the paper that's referenced in the initial post we used a second best strategy of lagging terrorism by a few years. Our main findings held up, which suggests that the abuse is driving the terror and not the other way around. But this is a question that's begging for a more definitive answer.

See their paper "Transnatiopnal Terror and Human Rights" available here.

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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