A reader writes:

I'd like to add to your argument on the mental side of torture another note from the history of legal torture.

During the century or so of torture authorized by royal warrants in England, the administration of the technique came in two steps. First, the prisoner would be shown the implements of torture, to see if the horror of the thought of the pain his body would suffer on those devices would induce a confession.  If that psychological coercion failed, the next step was to begin the actual process of imposing physical pain on the prisoner. Both steps were included in the instructions within torture warrants. Thus, in 1642, when the apprentice glover John Archer was to be put to torture to gain information about a riot outside the Archbishop of Canterbury's palace at Lambeth, he was first given time to stare at the rack -- and only if he remained silent, according to the warrant, the last to be issued in England, was he to be bound onto the machine.

Such mental torture was genuinely coercive as well -- though it did not persuade the luckless Archer to betray any of his fellow rioters.

Perhaps most famously, during Galileo's trial before the Holy Office (the Inquisition) for the heresy of proclaiming Copernicus to be correct came to a climax when the old man was shown the implements of torture available to his prosecutors. Finally convinced that he stood in real jeopardy, the frightened old man recanted without the need for any inquisitor to put metal to flesh.

Fear of pain and the terror of plausibly imminent death, have been recognized as elements of torture for a very long time, not to mention the fact -- frequently restated by you -- that such coercion is plainly illegal under US law and the UCMJ.  Those who deny the obvious are, bluntly, teaching themselves to unknow what they know; they are wounding themselves, amputating their own capacity to reason.

Amputating the capacity to reason is the first recourse of fundamentalists and fascists. They both crave the unknowingness of submission to pure authority.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.