Mohandas K. Gandhi: "They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body—not my obedience." (1)
To write a comprehensive history of all the times and places in which torture has been used, and all the reasons given to justify it, would be to write a history of humanity itself.
The practice of torture has been used by governments, religions, soldiers, rebels, criminals, and judicial courts. The word 'torture' is derived from the Latin torquere
, which means 'to twist'. This is an excellent reference to early machines of torture, like the wheel or the rack.
Even the methods of torture comprise a catalogue far too long to be shown here. This small word covers a universe of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual agony, whose only common quality is the purposeful infliction of pain, often to the final physical harm, death.
Yet examples of this field of atrocities persist. Caligula, the mad emperor of Rome, who banished or murdered most of his relatives, had people tortured and killed while he dined. (2) The Crusades. The Inquisitions. The Witchcraft Persecutions. The Spanish Conquest of Central America. The Great Purge of Soviet Russia. The Holocaust. The Khmer Rouge.
The questions posed for this debate are huge, and have been debated for ages. Although the Old Testament of the Bible lists over thirty capital crimes, the Book of Deuteronomy states boundaries to be observed even during time of war, and forbids the killing of women and children. (3) This may have been influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known written code of justice, which protects the rights of women, children, the weak and the poor, and even slaves, from abuse at the hands of the rich and powerful. (4)
In the 13'th century, the Roman Catholic Church began to apply the law of treason to the crime of heresy, naming it crimen laesae majestatis Divinae
, or "crime of injury to the Divine majesty". (5) Pope Innocent IV decreed that those accused of heresy should be tortured, in order to elicit confessions and to implicate others, and Pope Alexander IV expanded that doctrine to include all forms of 'sorcery'. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII released the Summis Desiderantes, a bull against Witches, which was followed two years later by the infamous Malleus Maleficarum
, "The Witch Hammer".
Written by a pair of German monks, the book provides detailed instructions on the prosecution and persecution of those suspected of Witchcraft. The entire text is rife with explicit sexual imagery and mysogyny, and created a hysterical paranoia that lasted nearly three centuries. In villages where one or two Witches were suspected of living, the entire population was often tortured and killed to the cry "Destroy them all...the Lord will know His own!" (6) In 1586, blaming Witches for the harsh winter, the Archbishop of Treves tortured and burned to death one hundred and twenty men and women.
One method used to test a person's innocence of sorcery was by 'dunking'. The accused was thrown into a body of water, or sometimes strapped to a specially-made chair which could be lowered or raised by means of a long lever. If she did not drown, she was declared guilty of Witchcraft, and put to death. If she did drown, she was ruled innocent...oops (7).
It wasn't until 1816 that the Church, through a Papal Bull, finally banned the use of torture. By then, an estimated nine million people had been burned, hanged or tortured to death on the charge of practicing Witchcraft. (8)
By this time, most of Europe and America had entered into the Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason
. The architects of the Enlightenment believed that human intellect and science were forces that could displace the tyranny of religion gone mad. They believed that this was the path to peace, knowledge, and respect for all humanity. Based largely on the writings of John Locke, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Voltaire, it was a serious attempt to move forward into a new age in which individual experience and inspiration could replace fear and superstition as the driving forces behind society.
France, the home of much of this new philosophy, so longed for that equality that it finally reached a boiling point at which it could no longer bear the oppression and callousness of its own aristocracy. The French Revolution was inspired in part by the American Revolution, in both of which the French-born Major General Gibert Motier de Lafayette played a major role
But in France, the rebels went beyond what had happened in America, and instigated the Reign of Terror
. Between 1793 and 1794, roughly eleven thousand people, declared enemies of the Revolution, were put to a gruesome death at the guillotine…which, ironically, had been designed
as a supposedly painless and merciful tool of execution.
In all of human history, however, it wasn’t until the 20’th century that the twin horrors of warfare and torture reached a whole new level never seen before.
If the Age of Enlightenment was a time of reason, vision and optimism, the 20’th century was its utter failure. World War I was a devastating blow to all of these ideals, as the world saw soldiers from what were perceived to be the most enlightened nations on the planet massacre one another in the millions. Optimism turned to sardonicism as men returned from the war maimed and crippled, or did not return at all. Women had moved into the work force during their absence, redefining gender roles and the definition of family, and most of the nations involved were left deeply in debt.
Adolf Hitler seized this opportunity. Much of Europe felt that the Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh toward Germany (9). Hitler used this sentiment, plus an almost universal desire to avoid another large-scale war at any cost, to assume power in Germany and begin rebuilding its military. What followed was worse than anyone at the time could imagine.
Hitler’s first moves against the Jewish population of Germany were through legislation. As Chancellor, he passed laws
against kosher butchering, then depriving Jews of German citizenship, then barring Jews from the electoral process. By using this strategy, stripping the Jews of one legal protection after another, Hitler’s government created a dehumanizing effect. The fewer rights Jews had, the easier it was to think of them as second-class citizens, increasingly, if vaguely, less important than other people. In 1939, Jews in Germany began being forced to carry identification cards. By the end of the year arrests were being made, and ‘relocation camps’ set up along the border with Poland.
When the son of a Polish family of Jews thus exiled retaliated by assassinating a German Embassy official in France, Hitler responded. His Chief of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, painted a picture of a widespread Jewish conspiracy. The people were whipped up into a hysteria of fear and paranoia, which broke open on what has now become known as the Kristallnacht…"The Night of Broken Glass."
Enraged by fear, mobs boiled through
the streets of Germany and its territories, burning synagogues and Jewish businesses, desecrating cemeteries and schools, killing nearly 100 Jews and injuring hundreds more. Afterward, roughly 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
In the Holocaust that followed, the Nazi rulership of Germany was responsible for the torture and murder of six million Jews
, as well as Poles, Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, tens of thousands of Roma, over three million Russians, at least 200,000 physically and mentally disabled, and an estimated 2 million gays
In its retaliation against the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during that war, the United States became the first power in the world to use atomic bombs during warfare. Estimates put the total casualties
for the initial blast in Hiroshima at 135,000, in Nagasaki at 64,000.
Unfortunately World War II was far from the last time the world would see the use of torture. Cuba, Uruguay, Cambodia, Greece, Panama, Nicaragua, Iraq, Haiti, Algeria, Ethiopia, China, Chile, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, the United States of America…the practice continues to this day.
The questions posed by the Chairman, taken as a group, would seem to point to a specific topic of torture in relation, primarily, to military intelligence. In this Opening Statement, I have taken a much wider view, in order to provide some background to the debate. Before we can qualify torture as a ‘necessary evil’, I feel it necessary to explore to just what extent that evil can be taken, and also how very easy it is for a ‘just cause’ to become a bloody slaughter. Torture has been used many times toward what seemed to be a positive end, but, as a quick review of history proves, the ends can be forgotten and the torture become an end of itself almost in an instant.
History also shows that, under torture, people will, eventually, confess to anything they believe their tormenter wishes to hear, whether it be conspiracy, heresy, or a romantic moonlit walk with the Devil. Though there have been some cases in which people were able to avoid or even endure torture, the vast majority cannot. And even when torture is used, initially, to glean such information, it is seductively easy to become addicted to sadism. The information obtained through torture is unreliable, and torture itself is unreliable as a tool.
Human rights…do the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few…or the one? These are questions with which philosophers have struggled for thousands of years. They are not easily answered; perhaps they are not answerable.
Distilled down to its simplest form, maybe the question should be, is the price of torture worth the cost? To torment, to injure, to maim, to kill…there is something dark in human nature that, once given a taste of these things, often finds itself thirsting for more. Is it worth torturing one person, to prevent a Holocaust?
How can it, when the torture of one person may very well be the event that sets a Holocaust in motion?
My thanks…and peace to us all.
R. G. Pratt, Iron Blogger Green
Mohandas K. Gandhi: "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." (10)
(1-5, 7, 9-10) Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2002. © 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation.
(6, 8) Buckland’s Complete Book on Witchcraft, by Raymond Buckland, Llewellyn Publications, 1993.