Robert Morris researcher Annette Förster weighs in on the torture debate | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Robert Morris researcher Annette Förster weighs in on the torture debate

“There are cases where it is effective but I think for most of the cases you can say no, it’s not effective.”

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During a Republican presidential primary debate in New Hampshire this past February, Republican candidate Donald Trump said he supported the use of torture.

“I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” Trump said.

Many chalk up Trump’s comments as just one of many outrageous statements he’s made during the campaign. But Trump’s opinion isn’t so different from that of many Americans, according to a Pew Research Center study released this year. The study found that 58 percent of Americans believe the use of torture can be justified against people suspected of terrorism. 

This month, researcher Annette Förster will give a lecture at Robert Morris University on the use of torture in democracies like the United States. Förster teaches at RMU, where she is the Rooney International Scholar.

City Paper talked to Förster about what she’s learned from her research about torture.

How did you first become interested in the subject of torture?

I was doing my master’s degree when 9/11 happened, in 2001. And then in 2002, there was a discussion on torture in Germany which started with a kidnapping case. A boy was kidnapped, and the police threatened the kidnapper with inflicting pain so that he would tell where they could find the child. There was a big discussion of whether or not the police were justified in threatening the guy, and 60 percent of the German public said they were in favor of what the police did. There was a big discussion in the scientific community about that. I was shocked that this case could make people question the very fundamental principles of the German constitution: that you should not touch human dignity. 

Is there a consensus on whether torture is an effective method for interrogation? 

There are cases where it is effective but I think for most of the cases you can say no, it’s not effective. That’s what the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture by the CIA found, that it’s not effective. They couldn’t find cases where it was really effective. But basically Aristotle in ancient Greece already said — when they used torture in court trials — that it’s not reliable; you don’t know if the information is true because basically people you torture might tell you everything they think you want to hear. 

Why do you think we continue to turn to torture when we’ve continuously been told it’s ineffective?

In some cases or scenarios you want to do whatever it takes to — for example in the German case — save the child. Usually the people who get tortured are dehumanized. You don’t really consider the person you want to torture as a human being whose dignity should be honored. You want to do whatever it takes to get the information to save lives. This question of whether it works or not, may not be as important. Also, torture can be very effective as a means of repression, or to punish people or to threaten people, to make an example to stop others from following those people.

What do you think about Trump’s comment: “Don't tell me it doesn't work — torture works”?

I found that shocking that a candidate for president would actually use something like that in a campaign because up till that point the [consensus] was clear that no state representative would say, “Yes we torture people and we’re OK with it,” even regimes that we know use torture. So this was really surprising. 

What do you think about the way torture is portrayed in the media and entertainment?

I think the problem is usually you sympathize with — in those portrayals — the people inflicting torture. There might be exceptions to that rule, but I think the fact you see it quite often on TV might give people the impression that it’s a normal thing, that it’s not as bad, and if they do it, they do it to the bad guys. 

When you read reports of people who have actually been involved with torture, you get a really different impression than you get from watching it in movies. I think it’s harmful to depict this as something that is normal and that happens only to the bad guys and never to innocent victims.


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