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May. 7 2009 - 5:26 pm | 57 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

A Torture-Terror Correlation?

A new study (PDF) by James Walsh and James Piazza of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, coming out in Comparative Political Studies, analyzes the influence of human rights abuses on terrorism.

In short: Does torture correlate with terror?

The paper’s answer: Yes:

We hypothesize that abuse of the subset of rights known as physical integrity rights fuels terrorism by making it more difficult for government authorities to collect intelligence on terrorists and by undermining domestic and international support for their counterterrorism efforts. We test this hypothesis using a dataset that includes measures of both domestic and transnational terrorist attacks, and find that respect for physical integrity rights is consistently associated with fewer terrorist attacks. This suggests that those interested in curtailing terrorism should press governments to more carefully respect physical integrity rights.

Now, the paper’s conclusions deal not just with torture, but with a broader category of “physical integrity rights” which “protect individuals from the extrajudicial murder, disappearance, torture, or political imprisonment by the authorities.” What it finds is that more respect for physical integrity rights, represented on the x-axis below, leads to less terrorism, represented on the y-axis:

terror vs. physical integrity

So, what about torture specifically?

Jim Walsh tackles that on his blog:

Torture has a negative and statistically significant relationship to terrorism in all three models. In other words, countries that engage in more torture (and thus have a lower score on the torture variable) consistenly experience more, not less, of both domestic and transnational terrorism. This mirrors the more general finding reported in the paper that respect for human rights is associated with less terror as well.

Now, correlation doesn’t prove causation. While Walsh and Piazza put forward a theory of causation (that violating physical integrity rights spurs terrorism, as mentioned above), it’s not conclusively proven by the paper.

More study is needed.

And, of course, there’s the question of whether the causation might be the other way around. As in: Do countries that experience more terror tend to adopt torture? Walsh answers this possibility in this comment on his blog:

This is an important point. I think it’s unlikely to be the case, but it’s not a open and shut case. The best way to address this with statistical data would be to use a two stage least squares or instrumental variable model. We’ve tried this but had difficulty coming up with an appropriate instrument. In the paper that’s referenced in the initial post we used a second best strategy of lagging terrorism by a few years. Our main findings held up, which suggests that the abuse is driving the terror and not the other way around. But this is a question that’s begging for a more definitive answer.

At the very least, this has to give supporters of torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) some pause. The proof that overly harsh tactics are counterproductive in a struggle like our is far from trivial. This is important work adding to that debate.

HT: The Monkey Cage (increasingly one of my favorite blogs)


3 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 8 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Doesn’t this fall into the “well duh” cataloger? Violence is one of the few forms of political expression in an oppressive society.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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