Torture In History

The notion that "torture" has never meant forms of coercive interrogation short of electrocuting someone's balls or tearing their fingernails out (this seems to be Bush's and Bret Stephens' comic book position) is simply disproved by history. I've proved beyond any doubt or rebuttal that the United States itself treated Bush's torture techniques as torture and prosecuted them as war crimes during the Second World War. But the understanding that torture is indeed the precise term for hypothermia, stress positions, confinement, extreme isolation and the like goes back a long, long way. A reader writes:

I've been doing some research on Elizabethan torture warrants lately (don't ask). Elizabeth I was the most prolific user of royal torture warrants in English history, issuing (or having issued) 53 of the 81 warrants that have survived. (There were almost certainly more, though not that many, but the details of that story don't affect the point. If you want to check it out, Torture and the Law of Proof by John H. Langbein has all you need to know.)

Among the things John Yoo would not have considered torture but the Elizabethan torture commissioners at the tower did include confinement in a dungeon with rats (Thomas Sherwood, 17  Nov. 1577, during an investigation of one of the plots against Elizabeth); manacles -- essentially a stress position, as the manacled prisoner is lifted to the point where his feet do not support his weight, all of which pulls on the suspended wrists of the victim (several times through Elizabeth's reign); whipping (Humfrey "a boy" for burglary in 1580 --  note that Jesus too would have had some knowledge of Humfrey's suffering) and "Little Ease" -- confinement in a cell so small that the inhabitant could not sit, nor stand, nor move.  This was used on several occasions including the case of George Beesley, a priest in violation of the Anglican acts in 1591.

The most common techniques in the warrants are either the rack, or else simply "torture" unspecified -- once "such torture as is usual,"  a chilling legal statement if ever there was one.

But the key to all this litany of pain is that the English stopped torturing, at least officially.  The last torture warrant dates from 1642, just before the start of the Civil War.  Several reasons have been advanced for the forgoing of torture as a tool of investigation or the discovery of evidence.  But the two most pertinent were the recognition that information under torture was not reliable, and even more significant, that the English jury system allowed for juries to find fact, thus eliminating the need to have a confession to prove guilt.  In other words:  if you trust the rule of law, you don't need to act in ways that would make Jesus weep.