Torture that doesn’t sound like torture

I was reading this excellent hilzoy post and it occurred to me that it’s probably worthwhile to point out, once again, that the popular conception of torture is often quite different from the reality. For example, I recently read some piece — I don’t even remember what it was — that was dismissive of sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation as torture. And within the experience of most people, those things don’t seem, at first glance, like terrible things.

For anybody who doesn’t know much about torture and/or interrogations (which I sort of hope is most of y’all), it’s really worth noting that sensory deprivation produces psychosis within hours. It’s shockingly fast, and can have severe long-term effects after just a day or two. All you have to do is strap somebody down, put on a blindfold, sound-proof earmuffs, and gloves that reduce tactile sensation, and full-blown hallucinations begin in less than a day. Psychosis is day two.

And sleep deprivation is reliably reported as pretty much the worst feeling in the world — far worse than starvation, severe dehydration, isolation, etc. Keep somebody up for 72 hours (which isn’t that hard), and again with the hallucinations and psychosis. So if anybody defends this stuff with anything along the lines of “Oh, it’s only for a day or two, what could be the harm?” they’re being profoundly misleading. It’s tough to explain to people because it’s not intuitive, but it’s true nonetheless.

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