Torture, the infliction of intense physical suffering or of mental suffering to obtain a confession or information, to punish, or to avenge a wrong. Governments and organizations have used torture to extract information, punish criminals or enemies, or to keep the members of a group under their check. Torture may also be used by terrorists to set an example for those whom they are trying to intimidate. Sometimes it has no purpose other than to give sadistic pleasure to the torturer.

Examples of physical torture are burning, stretching, cutting, flogging, beating the body, suffocating a person with water, and depriving a person of food and water. Victims have often been tortured to death. Mental torture, used generally to bring compliance, sometimes causes insanity. Solitary confinement, prolonged interrogation, and threats of physical violence are kinds of mental torture. Electric shocks, pain-causing drugs, and other psychological techniques are also used. The use of torture has been opposed by human-rights organizations and most democracies.

Self-torture is or has been practiced in various religions as a demonstration of spiritual strength or an act of penance. Christians, for example, have fasted almost to the point of starvation, worn uncomfortable hair shirts, and scourged themselves. Hindu holy men may sleep on a bed of nails or stare into the sun until blinded. Among American Indians, self-torture was practiced to prove manliness.

Torture is illegal in most parts of the world and most countries support treaties or agreements that ban torture. Nevertheless, it is used in warfare and espionage to obtain information and terrorize enemies. Police in a number of countries, including the United States, are sometimes accused of using mental and physical tortures, known as the “third degree,” to extract confessions or information from suspects, particularly those who are suspected of terrorist activities. Many countries with military regimes or dictators still use torture. Wherever torture has been legally sanctioned, enlightened people have opposed it—on the grounds that a person may say anything to escape pain or that cruel punishments do not act as a deterrent to crime, or on humanitarian principles.