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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 4 | Apr. 3, 2003

Torturing the Taliban not the Answer

They’ll talk but it may not be the truth

By Erica Smishek

The U.S. government’s recent capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the operational head of al-Qaeda, and its continued pursuit of terrorists have provoked an international debate on torture. If nothing else works, should torture be used to obtain information that could prevent future terrorist acts?

Not according to UBC Psychology Prof. John Yuille.

“This is a political, social, philosophical issue. I’m just opposed to it,” he says. “What we know from the history of the use of torture is yes, you can get good information you might not otherwise get but you’ll also get a lot of bad information and it’s so difficult to tease it apart.

“For example, we know there weren’t any witches in the 16th century but that didn’t stop the witch prickers and other torturers from getting all kinds of people to confess to being witches.”

In the case of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he says, treating them with a great deal of respect, and thereby violating the expectations these terrorists have of Americans, might actually have better results.

As a specialist in forensic psychology, Yuille has spent years researching interviewing techniques. He developed the Step-Wise Interviewing Protocol for victims of child abuse, designed to maximize accurate information from the child, minimize contamination of that information and provide a safe, non-threatening environment for the child. Step-Wise is the standard used in British Columbia and is also used in other Canadian provinces, some American states and other countries.

“It’s an attempt to provide a framework for people interviewing children so that they’ll do the right thing, and maybe more importantly, not do the wrong thing,” he explains.

In cases of child sexual abuse, where there is rarely other evidence (medical evidence, other witnesses), the statement of the child is often all that the investigator has. The quality of that statement, therefore, is critical.

Yuille joined the UBC Dept. of Psychology as an assistant professor in 1968 and helped create UBC’s graduate program in forensic psychology. Now a part-time faculty member, he teaches, conducts research and oversees the work of graduate students. He also serves as a consultant to law enforcement, child protection agencies, prosecutors and defence lawyers and has testified as an expert in various courts.

In the early 1980s, Yuille began field studies of eyewitness memory in actual crimes, the first research of its kind ever done. Previously most research on memory had been conducted in a lab setting, with students “pretending” to be witnesses to a crime they had seen on video or in a staged event.

Yuille’s research focuses on memory -- that of victims, witnesses and suspects - as well as the effect of trauma on memory. It has taken him and his team to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to interview prostitutes and to B.C.’s correctional institutions to interview men convicted of acts of extreme violence.

“The part of human nature that I’m most curious about is the evil, problematic, violent side of us,” Yuille explains.

“There are a lot of crimes I can empathize with. I can see myself stealing in the right circumstances or the wrong circumstances. But there are certain things related to violence, to sadism, to sexual exploitation, to the use of children, the abuse of children that are still a puzzle to me.

“Because the people who do that are so fundamentally different than I am, I want to understand them better and I want to find ways of finding them earlier and successfully lessening the likelihood they’ll repeat it.”

His lab, for example, is currently conducting survey research on sexual fantasies and personality characteristics to determine the base rate and types of sexual fantasies (normal, deviant, violent, etc.) in the general population. Base rates are necessary to distinguish those who eventually engage in sexual violence and those who merely fantasize about it.

The study grew from a Colorado murder case for which Yuille was a consultant. A woman’s body was found naked, with no evidence of sexual assault, but with parts of her body, including a nipple, removed. The only suspect was a 14-year-old boy who lived near where the body was found and had kept scrapbooks of drawings and writings detailing his violent sexual fantasies. The case went unsolved for 20 years until a detective on the verge of retirement re-opened the case and got a conviction against the original suspect.

Yuille also conducts training workshops on interviewing, credibility assessment and memory for law enforcement officials and child protection agencies. As a member of the U.S.-based Institute of Analytic Interviewing (IAI), he has helped the group develop a program for educating law enforcement officials around the world in the techniques of interviewing.

“It’s what used to be called ‘interrogation,’” he explains. “We don’t use that term anymore. It carries with it the notion that the purpose of the interview is to get that person to confess, which we think is the wrong attitude.

“We think the attitude ought to be you’re going to create the circumstances in which someone who wants to confess will, but you don’t want to coerce someone.”

The IAI has also assisted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. in counter-terrorism training. In conjunction with member Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, IAI is also researching ways people can read other’s thoughts by looking at their faces.

As Yuille speaks, one gets the sense of the limitless potential of -- and the endless fascination with -- forensic psychology.

“It’s funny. This is a field of great popular interest but after awhile you get so inured at working with this that you sometimes forget that talking about slicing off body parts is upsetting or disturbing.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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