Torture Then and Now

Torture, including torture by Americans: Who could have predicted that this would be a live topic here in the twenty-first century? We know how to associate torture with the accused and accusing other, with Inquisitors and witch hunters five centuries ago, or with far-away twentieth century totalitarian regimes and religious terrorists. But today the theological, humanistic, and tactical themes connected with torture have appeared close to home, giving new significance to those distant times, places, and events.

Accordingly, a very distinguished historian, Princeton 's expert on the Renaissance, is speaking up. Not known for ideology or pamphleteering, Anthony Grafton takes pains not to oversell the relevance of his subjects. He favors patient historical work and writes in a moderate mode. Recently he looked up from his Renaissance research to see how things are going today. Alert to contemporary controversies and mildly allusive about events in America, he stops short of issuing indictments. Grafton seems to be writing in the haze of "where there's smoke there's fire," but clearly sees enough to issue cautionary words.

His article in the November 5th New Republic, entitled "Say Anything," refers to what he has learned from the transcripts of those Inquisitors and witch-hunters. He knows enough to say enough about the practical ineffectiveness of torture. Americans, we were always told, do not torture for a number of reasons: Torture violates our moral codes, including those based on religious notions that humans are made in the image of God; religious leadership is almost unanimously against torture, and America is a religious nation; for us to torture is to enter a dangerous game, since if we torture we have no moral claim to demand that "the other," our enemies, should not torture our people when they are captured; and we are a practical people and like to work with things that work. Grafton concentrates on this last piece, the ineffectiveness of torture.

He notes that four centuries ago, as now, the tortured will "say anything" to get the pain to stop, which means anything that the tortured thinks the torturer wants to hear. And what the torturer hears is almost never right or useful. Grafton reports on the work of younger historians who are finding that "torture—as inflicted in the past—was anything but a sure way of arriving at the truth." He tells how, in unimaginable pain, some tortured Jews were broken and finally "filled in every detail that Christians wanted." Nowadays, he says, "no competent historian trusts confessions wrung by torture that confirms the strange and fixed ideas of the torturer." Grafton's conclusion: "Torture does not obtain truth…it can make most ordinary people…say anything their examiners want." Moral: "it is not an instrument that a decent society has any business applying…Anyone who claims otherwise…stands with the torturers" of long ago. And that, Grafton has made quite clear, is not a good place to stand.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

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