First attempt to close in on a challenging topic: Torture

There will be more entries, don’t how how many initially, yet.

Here is how I want to begin:

In 1976, I became a police detective trainee. I was eighteen years old, had just finished High School. Pondering what to do, I had pursued enrolling in University, with a main interest in biochemistry, or, believe it or not, becoming a police officer. My father had recommended to pursue a second career option, in parallel to my interest in sciences. The additional benefit: If I were to become a police officer, it would exempt me from mandatory military service, as police service is considered equivalent in my system.

Well, I had won the job, and had begun just a few months ago, I loved the Police from the first day on, abandoning my other career option as soon as I saw: “This is it”.

I had entered a mixed training that would bring me to an Undergraduate Degree in Public Administration within three years, through a combination of academic studies and practical training on the job.

Meaning, that soon after entering the Police in a large local Police Department, I was assigned to my first practical trainee work. My trainee colleagues and I were were allocated to various functions of investigative policing and patrolling, mentors would show us how they did the various jobs.

Perhaps two months into this exciting new phase of my life, a trainee colleague spoke to my friend and me. The previous night, he had been assigned to shift duty in a 24/7 investigative desk. Over night, several arrests had been made in that department, people were kept in holding cells. My colleague’s mentor took my trainee colleague into one of these holding cells. Inside, a suspect of a crime who had not revealed his identity, no ID card was found on him.

The mentoring detective asked this person: “What’s your name”. “John Doe” (or the German equivalent to it), the person replied. SLAP, BANG, the first slapping into the face of the suspect happened immediately.

The mentoring detective asked the next question: “When were you born?” – “John Doe” was the reply, SLAP BANG was the consequence.

Over the next minutes, this interrogation continued, non-compliance led to physical abuse through slapping the person straight into the face.

I do not remember whether my troubled trainee colleague who told me the story reported whether the slapping led to that the interrogation was “successful”.

What I remember are several other things:

My trainee colleague was deeply, profoundly shocked. He was not sure about what to do, whether to report this, or not, whether to stay in the training, or to quit.

I was profoundly shocked. Realizing how vulnerable the position of my trainee colleague was, I had no idea what to recommend. Recommending to report it? Well, my colleague would have had his word against that of this Old Hand, and he would have likely lost his job. Reporting it myself? How? What would be the consequence? Would I loose my job?

I was eighteen years old, had just, two months earlier, begun to enter into an amazing new world, the shiny surface of this world had just cracked.

At the end of the day, I did nothing. Felt terrible about it. Forgot it at times, but it always came back. It was one of the first defining experiences that form me today, including, that from the moment on that I had a standing in my profession, I began to develop a zero-tolerance against events like these. At no time later in my career I do remember that I would have become complacent, and/or complicit. This one was enough. I would never ever accept this again. I will write about other experiences.

In this blog, my question is less the (extremely important) managerial side of it, and the ethical one. Here, my question is: Was this torture?

Wikipedia defines torture as following: “Torture is the act of deliberately inflicting severe physical or psychological pain and possibly injury to a person (or animal), usually to one who is physically restrained or otherwise under the torturer’s control or custody and unable to defend against what is being done to him or her.” (, accessed Dec 22 2014, 12:55 local time in NYC).

Was the slapping causing severe physical pain? Was the psychological pain severe, like for example that the suspect would not know whether the slapping would be more painful the next time it would happen?

James Mitchell, one of the two chief architects of the CIA program including waterboarding and other horrible forms of torture (I will correctly refer to everything in later blogs on this topic) is quoted In as saying to the news service “Vice”: “It’s like any sort of thing you fear: The closer you get to it the next time, the more you struggle to get out of it and find an escape. So the moment [a detainee] was most susceptible to beginning to provide information was just before the next waterboarding session.”

The same principle, obviously. Was it torture what happened to the suspect in that holding cell 1976? In my view, a definite “Yes”.

In my German Criminal Procedural Law, we name the application of methods like these “Prohibited Methods of Interrogation”. Any action, including cheating, establishing a false belief, tricking the suspect into revealing something he or she would not have decided to do if he or she would have known the intentionally and actively falsified reality, or abuse, including through violence, falls under it. The result is that the Police Officer applying a prohibited method of interrogation can commit a crime, at least if he does what this detective mentor did.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture can be found here:

Article 1 and 2 of this Convention read as follows:

Article 1

  1. For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
  2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.

Article 2

  1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
  2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
  3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

I stop here. In my next blog on this issue, I will give other examples, two that formed my ethical view on torture, and one in which I acted decisively, myself.

To be continued, hang in there!

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