Scott Horton, in an address to a religious audience, reviews Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali. We have discussed torture as a moral issue in class, Horton’s is a moral argument from a different perspective, but it is also a political argument, and a claim about national identity. It is an interesting piece on what sounds like a good book. The thesis:
Few societies had a more carefully charted system of torture than the Romans. They used torture much as President Bush contemplates its use, namely as a tool for interrogating enemies. They specified permitted techniques and detailed who could use it and under what circumstances. They regulated its admissibility as evidence in legal proceedings. They refrained from negative moral judgments about torture, but while embracing its use, they also noted that it really wasn’t particularly effective or useful in extracting information from subjects. The prime rule they devised is the one that Paul relies upon in Acts–they forbade torture to be used against a citizen who was uncondemned. That is to say, torture could be used as a punishment, but not in connection with interrogation.
But Rejali tells us that the barriers and internal rules could not hold. Once torture emerged as a practice authorized by law in some circumstances it spread very quickly, and ultimately the prohibition against torturing citizens could not be sustained. Moreover, he catalogues the appearance of torture and efforts of states to control it over many centuries and in many societies, with impressive chapters on the French in the waning colonial era, the Nazis through World War II, the Soviets from the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist Chinese, the Iranians from the time of the Shah and after his overthrow, and finally, and most surprisingly, the United States under George W. Bush. There are clear lessons to be drawn from these historical excursions, but the experience of the Romans—the most masterful state-builders of antiquity—really tells us all we need to know. Torture is a virus which cannot be effectively controlled. If permitted at all, it will undermine the integrity and worth of humanity in any society in which it is let loose. It is the ultimate social agent of corrosion.