When it was revealed that the U.S. resorted to torture to extract information from prisoners, many people my age must have had a very somber thought for the thousands of young Americans who had given their lives on the beaches of Normandy in a brave effort to rid the world of governments that engaged in such shameful practices. Two other thoughts flashed to mind: the stupidity of giving up the high moral ground at a time when the U.S. had earned so much goodwill thanks to its stand on democracy and human rights; and the pointlessness of such interrogations, often stated by our military experts, since the victims will generally admit to anything in order to stop the pain.
My friend, French Résistance leader Jacques Bergier, who was tortured multiple times by the Gestapo, made the ludicrous "confession" that his network planned to invade Corsica. In reality they were looking for heavy water and for Werner von Braun's rocket base.
As a child of World War Two who remembers its limitless horrors, my revulsion at the practices of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was so great that it took me a while to realize the more positive implications: if our henchmen used waterboarding, a practice so primitive it placed us in the same hateful historical imagery as the caves of the Inquisition and the cellars of the Nazi, this can only mean that all the fancy interrogation drugs developed in classified labs in the 60s and 70s have failed: there is no truth serum. We should be relieved about that.
We already knew that LSD, once hyped as the ultimate key to the mind, did little more than propel you into colorful delusions. But evil doctors had other tricks and claimed to be working in secret on even better, kinder biotech ways to crack open the human soul and read it like a book. Using everything from neurotoxin derivatives to functional MRIs, the State would soon overcome personality defenses, in the interest of our collective safety. It would finally control not only our deeds but our thoughts as well, thus achieving law and order on a grand scale.
Evidently the scheme hasn't quite worked out as predicted: If we could simply slip a little green pill to the bad guys to find out their plans, we wouldn't have to resort to messy medieval practices that don't work. So let's go back to the legal methods of interrogation recommended by the professionals. And let's thank waterboarding for the realization that our intimate thoughts, prayers and dreams, flaky though they may be, will remain safe from chemical violation a little while longer.
Jacques Vallee is a computer scientist, astronomer, venture capitalist, and author of more than a dozen books including Wonders in the Sky, Passport to Magonia, and The Network Revolution.