Brainwashed U.S. P.O.W.s in Vietnam. Archive film 97479
Smithsonian: The True Story of Brainwashing and How It Shaped America Fears of Communism during the Cold War spurred psychological research, pop culture hits, and unethical experiments in the CIA
Journalist Edward Hunter was the first to sound the alarm. “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party,” blared his headline in the in September 1950. In the article, and later in a book, Hunter described how Mao Zedong’s Red Army used terrifying ancient techniques to turn the Chinese people into mindless, Communist automatons. He called this hypnotic process “brainwashing,” a word-for-word translation from the Mandarin words for wash () and brain (), and warned about the dangerous applications it could have. The process was meant to “change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet—a human robot—without the atrocity being visible from the outside.”
It wasn’t the first time fears of Communism and mind control had seeped into the American public. In 1946 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was so worried about the spread of Communism that it proposed removing liberals, socialists and communists from places like schools, libraries, newspapers and entertainment. Hunter’s inflammatory rhetoric didn’t immediately have a huge impact—until three years into the Korean War, when American prisoners of war began confessing to outlandish crimes.
Related: Radio Show explanation excerpt: American GIs and the Origins of “Brainwashing”
There’s been a lot of talk about “indoctrination” lately. From “ISIS’s remote control terror attacks” to Dylann Roof’s “self-radicalization” online, much ink has been spilled over the question of how people’s minds can be externally manipulated into committing acts of violence.
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Note: Scientific American: We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work Why torture doesn't work
Still, what if there's a “ticking time bomb” set to detonate in a major city, and we have the terrorist who knows where it is—wouldn't it be moral to torture him to extract that information? Surely the suffering or death of one to save millions is justified, no? Call this the Jack Bauer theory of torture. In the hit television series , Kiefer Sutherland's character is a badass counterterrorism agent whose “ends justify the means” philosophy makes him a modern-day Tomás de Torquemada. In most such scenarios, Bauer (and we the audience) knows that he has in his clutches the terrorist who has accurate information about where and when the next attack is going to occur and that by applying just the right amount of pain, he will extort the correct intelligence just in time to avert disaster. It's a Hollywood fantasy. In reality, the person in captivity may or may not be a terrorist, may or may not have accurate information about a terrorist attack, and may or may not cough up useful intelligence, particularly if his or her motivation is to terminate the torture.
In contrast, a 2014 study in the journal entitled “The Who, What, and Why of Human Intelligence Gathering” surveyed 152 interrogators and found that “rapport and relationship-building techniques were employed most often and perceived as the most effective regardless of context and intended outcome, particularly in comparison to confrontational techniques.” Another 2014 study in the same journal—“Interviewing High Value Detainees”—sampled 64 practitioners and detainees and found that “detainees were more likely to disclose meaningful information ... and earlier in the interview when rapport-building techniques were used.”
Finally, an exhaustive 2014 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzed millions of internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects, concluding that “the CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” It adds that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.”
Terrorists are real. Witches are not. But real or imagined, torture doesn't work.