Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Torture and the Truth

John Bedell

Every day lately I am shocked and disgusted again by something I read in the debate over how to treat captured terrorist suspects. Today it was a series of comments by right-wing Christian ministers criticizing Senator McCain for his stand against torture. Men who sign themselves “Pastor” or “the Reverend”, who head organizations whose names are full of words like Values, Family, Christian, and Faith, are aghast that a man who was tortured should speak out against the evil he suffered. This is insane.

It seems a lost cause to speak up for mercy now in America, where wrath and vengeance still rule. So I will speak instead against the premise that torturing people ever actually does any good.

Bush insists that the “harsh treatment” of our “high value detainees” has prevented terrorist attacks, but he has produced no evidence to support this claim, and what we do know tells against it. Nobody has been arrested because of tips extracted under torture. All those high-value suspects were caught by the usual combination of police work and luck, along with the $25 million rewards we have been offering. Terrorist rings have been broken up, but not because torture victims have betrayed them. We routed the Taliban from power by the ancient combination of money, diplomacy, and war. Torture, so far as we know, had nothing to do with any of this.

Americans seem captivated by the notion that if we caught terrorists on the verge of carrying out a major attack, we could torture them into revealing the plot and thereby prevent it. But torture doesn’t work that way. A tortured man will not tell you the truth. A tortured man will tell you what he thinks will get you to stop torturing him. Suppose you torture a terrorist until he tells you that the plot involves anthrax spores sprayed into the New York Subway during the World Series. What have you learned? Unless you already know something about the attack, you have no way of evaluating his claim. You might think that you could keep torturing until you get a story that matches all of the other intelligence you have, but, again, intelligence doesn’t work that way. The information available on plots and terrorist organizations always includes much that is contradictory. Some of it may be lies spread deliberately by your enemies, others just mistakes. So no matter how much you torture, you will never get a completely consistent and clear story. Torture is not a shortcut to the truth, however much some people want it to be.

In America torture is the subject of an institutional dispute between the FBI and the CIA. The FBI has always maintained that torture is a waste of time because it never tells you anything you couldn’t get by patient and skillful questioning. The CIA, on the other hand, has regularly been attracted to “harsh methods.” This recently showed up in the press in an argument about Khalid Sheik Muhammad, who was first questioned by the FBI and then by the CIA. FBI agents now assert that everything we learned from him was learned by their investigators before any torture was employed, while the CIA asserts that nothing was learned until their operatives stepped up the pressure. But one thing have learned from this round of bureaucratic infighting via news leaks is that the reason the CIA got permission to rough up Muhammad was that they were sure he was concealing operational details about an upcoming attack. If he did know any such details, he never revealed them.

How does anyone know that torture works better than clever questioning? Has there ever been a double-blind study that would pass the standards of the National Science Foundation? The very idea is absurd. I submit that there is no evidence at all that torture is an effective way to gather information. Anybody who supports torture, therefore, must have another agenda. People who want to torture terrorists just like the idea of torturing their enemies. They want to cause pain, pure and simple. There is no other reason to torture.

I suppose an intelligence aficionado might be able to produce anecdotal evidence for the good uses of torture, but then I have anecdotes of my own. Consider the most famous episode in western history in which the suspected agents of a diabolical plot were tortured until they revealed its details: the persecution of the witches. Between 1300 and 1700, somewhere between 35,000 and 200,000 people were executed in Europe for the crime of witchcraft. Many of them were killed in what we call “panics”, episodes in which fearful cities or regions discovered great Satanic plots in their midst and took extraordinary measures to expose and defeat them.

A witch panic developed like this: a suspected witch was turned in to the authorities, often by neighbors who thought she had put a spell on their children or poisoned their sheep. The authorities questioned her. If she quickly confessed, that might be the end of it. But is she refused to confess, she might be put to torture.

Renaissance magistrates and inquisitors had certain ideas about witches that they brought with them into the interrogation chamber. They believed that witches obtained their powers by making a deal with the devil, who used them as his foot soldiers in his war against God and Christendom. And they believed that witches did not act alone, but worked in groups called covens. Each suspected witch was tortured until she confessed her Satanic pact and named her co-conspirators. These confessions were recorded in minute detail, so that the authorities might have a clearer understanding of Satan and his ways. The witches again and again told the same stories of flying by night to the Sabbath where they and thousands of others feasted, danced, fornicated, sacrificed Christian babies and worshipped Satan in the form of a goat or a black man. The torturers noted that the confessions matched the descriptions of witchcraft that they had read in books or heard in sermons and felt certain that all they had heard was true. It never seems to have occurred to any of them that the witches had heard the same sermons and so were easily guided to confess to exactly what the torturers expected. These judges inflicted pain until their victims said exactly what they wanted to hear, then congratulated themselves on their foresight.

The real horror, though, was the insistence on the naming of accomplices. The witches were never let down from the wrack until they had condemned, not just themselves, but their relatives and neighbors as well. Sometimes there would be a small group of suspected witches in town who would be the focus of all the charges, and so the damage would be limited to a few innocent lives. But other times the victims cried out whatever names came to them in their agony. Those named were brought to the torture chamber in turn and given the same treatment, until they also confessed and added more names to the list. Damnation spiraled out from the first victim to claim more and more, until whole villages were depopulated. Most of the initial suspects were poor, elderly women, but torture revealed that the witches included many others, including men, young children, and even persons of wealth and power. We read of panics in which 500 victims were killed, 600, 750. We read of isolated instances of heroism, like the man who brought one panic to a halt by claiming to have seen all of his questioners at the Sabbath; he could not save himself, but his lesson on the dangers of accepting testimonies like his own may have saved many others. One of the most poignant documents we possess is a letter found in the case file of Johannes Junius, mayor of Bamberg, Germany, burned as a witch in 1628:

Many hundred thousand good-nights beloved daughter Veronica.  Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die.  For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and--God pity him--bethinks him of something.  I will tell you how it has gone with me.  When I was the first time put to the torture, Dr. Braun, Dr. Kötzendorffer, and two strange doctors were there.  Then Dr. Braun asks me, "Kinsman, how come you here?"  I answer, "Through falsehood, through misfortune."  "Hear you," he says, "you are a witch; will you confess it voluntarily?  If not, we'll bring witnesses and the executioner for you."  I said, "I am not witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I'll gladly hear the witnesses."  Now the chancellor's son was set before me... and afterward Hoppfens Elsse.  She had seen me dance on Haupts-moor....  I answered:  "I have never renounced God, and will never do it--God graciously keep me from it.  I'll rather bear whatever I must."  And then came also--God in highest Heaven have mercy--the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing....  Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the strappado.  Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony....

And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God's help I bore the torture.  When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me:  "Sir, I beg you, for God's sake confess something, whether it be true or not.  Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture to which you will be put; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were a great nobleman, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch.  Not before that," he said, "will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another...."

And so I begged, since I was in a wretched plight, to be given one day for thought and a priest.  The priest was refused me, but the time for thought was given.  Now, my dear child, see in what hazard I stood and still stand.  I must say that I am a witch, though I am not; must not renounce God, though I have never done it before. Day and night I was deeply troubled, but at last there came to me a new idea.  I would not be anxious, but, since I had been given no priest with whom I could take counsel, I would myself think of something and say it.  It were surely better that I just say it with mouth and words, even though I had not really done it; and afterwards I would confess it to the priest, and let those answer for it who compel me to do it.... And so I made my confession, in order to escape the great pain and bitter torture, which it was impossible for me longer to bear; but it was all a lie....

Then I had to tell what people I had seen [at the witch sabbath].  I said that I had not recognized them.  "You old rascal, I must set the executioner at you.  Say--was not the Chancellor there?"  So I said yes.  "Who besides?"  I had not recognized anybody.  So he said:  "Take one street after another; begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next."  I had to name several persons there.  Then came the long street.  I knew nobody....  And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more.  So they gave me to the executioner, told him to strip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture.  "The rascal knows one on the market place, is with him daily, and yet won't name him."  By that they meant Dietmayer; so I had to name him too....

Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die.  And they are sheer lies and made up things, so help me God.  For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture which was threatened beyond what I had already endured.  For they never leave off with the torture till one confessed something; be he never so good, he must be a witch.  Nobody escapes though he were an earl....

Dear child, keep this letter secret so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded.  So strictly is it forbidden to have any contact with those outside the witch prison.  Dear child, pay this man a dollar....  I have taken several days to write this:  my hands are both lame, my plight is sad....

Good night, for you father Johannes Junius will never see you more.

July 24, 1628

Since this letter was found in the court documents, it was presumably intercepted and never delivered.

No matter how many were burned, the witch hunters were never satisfied. On the contrary, the more they tortured into confessing, the greater the threat of the conspiracy seemed to be. The confession of hundreds seemed to prove that there were thousands more waiting to be uncovered. If half the people in one town were witches, what did that mean about the other towns where “harsh methods” had not yet been employed? Christendom was besieged by a vast army of witches working constantly to destroy God and his works. How else to explain floods, famines, wars, and all the other disasters that afflicted Europe? The war for the universe was raging, and the faithful of God must harden their hearts for battle. The front lines of that battle were the interrogation room, where witches were exposed, and the fires in which they were burned.

But it was all imaginary. There was no army of Satan. There were no great Sabbaths where witches met by the thousand. There were no deadly spells, no orgies, no mass poisonings. No children were sacrificed. If Christendom was besieged, it was by the all too real armies of the Turks; the other woes of the times had all the usual causes, from human folly to the weather. The cannibal fires burned for nothing. Thousands of innocents were slaughtered to no end. It all happened because men caught up in fear and rage believed the confessions of the poor wretches they put to torture. Because they sought truth and justice in the infliction of pain, they were deceived.

If there is a Devil, then surely he laughed long and loud at the slaughter of his supposed servants, just as he is laughing now at godly ministers who think that Jesus taught violence to prisoners, and politicians who think cruel and unusual punishment is the American way.

September 18, 2006

From the 
Commonplace Book

Any people, given over to the power of contagious passion, may be swept by desolation, and plunged into ruin.

--Charles Upham


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Torture and the Truth

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As for the objections and arguments that worthy men have brought up against me, both on this subject [witchcraft] and often on others, I have not felt any that are binding and that do not admit of a solution more likely than their conclusions....  After all, it is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.