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New Worlds: Torture

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I was originally going to title this essay “We Have Ways of Making You Talk,” but I decided that was too flippant for the subject matter. Because although we have sometimes played torture for laughs in our stories, it’s honestly a horrifying and grotesque affair. (The obvious content warnings apply.)

We’ve touched on this somewhat already, in the context of physical punishment for crimes (back in Year Four). Since torture is, broadly speaking, the act of deliberately inflicting suffering on another person, punishments fall under that header. (So do, shall we say, more recreational activities . . . but those aren’t what we’re discussing here today.) When we use the word “torture,” though, we often mean it in a context where it’s designed to produce a more directed result, such as information or a confession, or as a display designed to elicit information or confession from some observer. There are three problems with this:

  1. It’s morally reprehensible.
  2. It’s not very reliable.
  3. It’s morally reprehensible.

As you can probably guess from my list there, I have strong feelings about this subject. Discussions of the topic in the last few decades (where we’ve rebranded torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques”) have tended to revolve around utility arguments, with proponents falling back on the stereotypical “ticking time bomb” scenario and opponents hammering the question of how often torture produces bad intel rather than solid, trustworthy information. Both of these abandon the moral terrain, which disturbs me.

Because the thing about torture is, it tends to rely on the torturer — both the person actually performing the acts of cruelty and the person ordering them, if separate — dehumanizing the victim. Whether for reasons of race, nationality, status, religion, criminal activity, or some other reason, you decide it is not only acceptable but desirable to reduce that person to an animalistic state, so desperate to make the pain stop that they will do whatever you want them to do. To me, the question of whether this produces good results is secondary to the sheer wrongness of treating someone that way in the first place, and focusing on the question of whether it works or not tends to divert attention from all the things that might have been done differently before matters reached that pass.

Which does not mean the utility argument lacks all force, of course. One look at, say, the Salem witch trials shows the problem: torture an accused witch for long enough, and they will eventually accuse more witches, just like you want them to. Or confess to the crime you’ve already decided they’re guilty of, because you won’t take any protestation of ignorance or innocence as a valid answer. Torture tends to produce exactly the results the torturers are looking for — which, unfortunately, is not always seen as a downside by the people who order it done. They may care far more about those results than they do about the truth. Or they may sincerely believe that it produces reliable information — consider, for example, the Roman belief that the only way to get reliable testimony out of slaves was to extract it with pain.

What makes events like the witch trials example especially twisted is the extent to which the torturer may sincerely believe this is for the good of the victim as well as society. If you’ve committed the sin of witchcraft, then you must confess or be damned to hell. Better to torture you here and now than let you be tortured after you die, right? I even know of one weird secular counterpart to this, which is the unsolicited confession of Robert Hubert to starting the Great Fire of London in 1666. The authorities were pretty sure it was an accident and that Hubert was mentally unsound, but the public was too eager for someone to blame for them to just ignore his confession . . . so they actually tortured Hubert in an attempt to get him to recant his admission of guilt. He stood his ground, and so in the end they hanged him after all.

But most of the time, torture lacks even that thin veneer of “mercy.” For a long time, English common law courts didn’t actually have jurisdiction over a defendant until said defendant entered some kind of plea, be it of innocence or guilt, so torture was used to extract a plea. You might wonder why someone would remain silent; the answer is that the government could confiscate the property of a condemned criminal. In the Salem trials, Giles Corey let himself pressed to death without ever entering a plea so that his heirs could receive his estate rather than being left destitute. Not everyone breaks under torture — and those who can withstand it may not be the ones who think they will do so.

I’m not going to attempt to catalogue all the different methods used for torture, because they are as endless as the human capacity for creative sadism. I do want to say, though, that you should treat with care the usual lineup of tools seen on websites that purport to discuss “medieval torture.” For example, the “pear of anguish” — a metal object supposedly inserted into some orifice and then expanded to block or mutilate it — is of dubious historical authenticity, and there are no reliable records of anything resembling an “iron maiden” (a coffin-like cabinet sometimes lined with spikes) before about the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t exist in fiction, of course, but there might be a certain laziness in rehashing those old assumptions.

How people get tortured is also going to depend on what you expect to happen when you’re done. Much historical torture inflicted a great deal of permanent physical harm (to say nothing of the mental trauma), e.g. by shattering bones with thumbscrews and similar devices or destroying the connective tissue of joints by stretching a victim on the rack. From a pragmatic standpoint, it hardly mattered if there was a functional body left at the end, because in many cases the victim was just going to be executed anyway; as long as they could still talk to give information or maybe sign the confession you’d written for them, that was good enough. Or if they were indeed released, the state (often the perpetrator of the torture) had no particular obligation to worry about their ability to make a living afterward. By contrast, modern “enhanced interrogation techniques” are much more concerned with avoiding visible scars, because modern states have to be more concerned with public opinion. If the victim’s limbs still work, it looks much less like torture to the casual eye.

But torture need not maim the body to be horrific. Whether it’s flogging, slivers of wood under the fingernails, stress positions, or waterboarding, cruelty of this kind can scar you for life.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Torture”

  1. Torture was never a standard component of the English legal system & those derived from it — but it was baked into Roman law from the earliest days & was SOP for criminal interrogations in all the legal systems derived from that until the 18-19c. The forms of torture used in French courts, for example, were very regulated — there was a strict progression from the very mild (show someone the instruments of torture) to using those that could inflict severe & permanent damage to the body, with multiple stages in between, with a lot of detailed regulations about when & how an interrogation under torture was to be conducted. The bureaucratic nature of it was part of the intimidation: if you were accused of certain types of crime, you WOULD be tortured in a particular way unless you confessed straight up (and sometimes even then, because confessions were considered more reliable if given under torture). But cruelty for its own sake was never the point, it was always considered instrumental to the goal of criminal justice.

    There were also many punishments, however, where cruelty & inflicting pain were in fact the goal. All those floggings and brandings and hangings and amputations and elaborate forms of execution like breaking on the wheel or being quartered by horses were commonplace and terrible in the early modern era.

    1. Yes, there’s something of a spectrum between physical punishments as a result of a guilty verdict (the stuff I covered in an earlier essay) and physical punishments in pursuit of that guilty verdict — plus of course the way torture got worked into some forms of execution, per this week’s essay. Altogether, it makes for really gruesome reading.

      The point about being shown the implements and so forth is one of the things I meant to mention in this essay and then forgot, so I will add that in for the book version!

  2. Besides torture for a purpose, and “recreational” torture there is a spectrum of behaviors in between.

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