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Friday, May 09, 2008


Torture and lies

We live in an era where the powerful of the world are going to considerable lengths to convince us that the torture of prisoners is a) completely necessary, because they wouldn't reveal their secrets without being made to suffer, and b) not likely to cause them suffering anyway. There's a lot that can be said about that contradiction, and about the general horror of having people in charge who think torture is okay, but I'd like to produce something from history instead.

Friedrich von Spee was a Jesuit priest who, in 1631, had published a book entitled Cautio Criminalis, or 'precautions for prosecutors', one of the first great arguments against the use of judicial torture. The story is that Spee was a confessor to people tortured into confessing to witchcraft and heard a lot of accounts from people who were shortly to be executed; the grief of this job turned his hair prematurely white (which may or may not be literally true, but he certainly grieved for the tortured) and he went on to write a magnificently humane and sensible attack on the fallacy that torture is any way to get the truth out of anybody. His points are numerous, but one particular case I'd like to draw attention to is this: torturers and prosecutors back then, just like today, had a habit of declaring that torture didn't really hurt the victims anyway. They came up with different excuses, but the denials were the same. Nobody, it seems, really wants to believing they're hurting someone, even when they're standing over them with a stick in their hand.

So, copy-typed below, are some of his arguments against these ridiculous assertions. It was the habit of prosecutors in the day to insist that the Devil prevented victims from feeling pain during the torture, but theology doesn't have to be a part of it. The main point is this: for centuries, torturers have been denying that they hurt their victims. Reading this stuff from the seventeenth century, you can hear how ridiculous it sounds. How will today's torturers sound to future generations?

Spee says...

You will say, but if Titia feels nothing during the torture, if she laughs, if she goes silent, if she falls asleep, if she does not bleed when beaten, are these not sure signs of sorcery and thus new evidence?

I answer that they certainly are not. In order to prove this we should begin a new Question.

Question XXVI. What are usually alleged by the malicious and ignorant to be signs of the sorcery of silence?

Sign I. They say that some feel nothing under torture but merely laugh. I have heard this of course, but I say that it is completely false until they prove it, that is, until sworn witnesses affirm it. I cannot adequately grasp this itch to lie, for they are almost all lying. I say almost all, so that he may know that he is the exception who can swear that he has studiously observed it to be certain and say that it is true - such a witness I have not yet seen. So if any suspect is able to steadfastly endure the pain in mind and body, with his teeth clenched, lips drawn, and breath and voice sucked in, as usually happens in any great effort to resist pain, those savage men shout, with the torturer skilfully leading the way, that he does not feel anything, but is laughing and mocking them with an upturned, grinning mouth. That is the real meaning of the phrase. But woe! What sort of cruelty is this? And they immediately spread this around among the common people quite freely, and finally they bring it before their completely gullible rulers themselves. I know what I am saying and can testify to it, and if the rulers heard me then they would firmly punish such false liars. But they themselves ought to fear that God will punish them someday for not being aware of these and other similar things.

Sign II.
They say some go silent and fall asleep. But that statement is equally trustworthy. Indeed, they can go silent, but I cannot believe that they can fall asleep, unless sworn witnesses testify to it. Once again my opponents lie. I have endeavored to understand their phrases; why have not the prince's counsellors, whose business this is? Particularly since through ignorance of these kinds of things, zeal breeds in everybody's mind which in blind fury carries off the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus I am not at all afraid to say what I have said before, namely that I am very worried that those princes who today are led to move against witches without any caution place their salvation in the most immediate danger. What does it help them if they free the entire world of weeds, as they think they are doing, but at the same time endanger their own souls? But back to the subject at hand.

First of all, I know that many have lost consciousness under torture. Wicked men immediately call this sleeping.

Next, I also know that others, having resolved to hold their tongues completely, struggled for a long time with their eyes squeezed shut with all their strength mustered against the pain. Then finally beaten by their suffering, their heads hung, and with their eyes still closed they gave themselves up as defeated and rested, their energy having been exhausted. But is this sleeping?

Moreover, some doctors and philosophers grant that it can naturally occur that under extreme pain, especially on the rack, a person can be paralyzed so that he appears to be overcome by sleep or even dead. The poets wanted to depict this in the myth of Niobe when they recount that she froze into stone in pain. Our judges want to call this sleeping and feeling nothing? I will add what I recently heard. When he was present at the torture of a suspect, who was hanging with his eyes closed and did not want to or was not able to answer the questions put to him any longer, a certain chaplain suggested a plan to the inquisitors to convince them that the prisoner had fallen asleep and therefore was being helped by the devil. They should finish the business they were conducting, namely interrogating him and encouraging him to confess, and immediately begin to discuss something else among themselves, something funny, dealing with a completely different matter. Once they had done this the hanging suspect noticed that the storm of questions had suddenly stopped and they were discussing something completely different, he gradually opened his eyes in order to see what this change meant and whether he should hope for a release from his suffering. Immediately the priest, as if he had accomplished his goal, said, Look, now we are speaking about other things, he wakes up. When it was a matter of saying he was guilty, he slept. Can we doubt that this is sorcery? This villain could not have endured the pain unless the devil numbed his senses. Therefore we should order some exorcisms and roll the dice again later. Truly a wonderful deed and one worthy of a priest! If it could be done without injury to his estate, that priest should be led off to prison immediately and be exorcized twice with a rod by the torturer, since he is possessed by a double spirit: Ignorance and Cruelty.


Sign III. They say that some, when they are hanging on the rack, do not bleed after they have been cut with the rod. Several people recently spoke this way. But this is not true either. Once again I will deny it until sworn witnesses testify to it or I see it myself. And when I press them, finally I squeeze out of them that they are actually saying that not much blood flowed. Not much, then, is none for them. I think they were hoping for showers of blood!

a) I think I like your history geek side. An upside of the notes at the back of Benighted. (Yes, oddly, I've skimmed the notes while only being two-three chapters in...)

b) I wish more of us (including our leaders) knew how well-trodden all these "new" situations are. All the arguments for why torture is OK and necessary and for the public good have already been made and debunked long, long before the current war, or, heck, the creation of the United States as a country. And yet, "9/11 changed everything." Are we someday going to have people using the War on Terror as a cautionary tale, which other people will shrug off because "This is different, we really need to rough up the bad guys this time, threat X is unprecedented"?

It kind of helps a bit to know that there have been people who saw through it and GOT why it wasn't okay, all along. Makes one feel less crazy. But still. :(((
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