I want to introduce an obscure figure who can serve as a heroic example in today's fight against the scourge of torture. His full name is Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld (1591-1635) and he was a 17th century German Jesuit priest during the dark days of the 30 Years War that ravaged Europe from 1618 to 1648, resulting in the death of about one third of the population of Germany. Friedrich von Spee, as he is often called, was stationed at various universities and monasteries in the Rhineland. He was also one of the prominent poets of the Baroque period of German literature.
The princes of the region were not only engaged in fighting for the Catholic cause against Protestant forces (primarily the Swedish armies under King Gustavus Adolphus); they were also actively combating what they perceived to be the plague of witchcraft.
At that time, witchcraft was taken as a serious threat to society equivalent to the present fear of terrorism. In this case, however, the threat of witchcraft was entirely fictional. Nonetheless, it was taken seriously by the powers of the day--and was ruthlessly persecuted. Confessions were routinely extracted by means of torture and upon confession, the accused witch was irrevocably condemned to death at the stake. In fact, the way the process worked, for a practical matter simply being accused of witchcraft set the accused on an irreversible path to death by fire.
Friedrich von Spee witnessed many such trials and by virtue of his Jesuit training concluded that the process of denunciation, interrogation, torture, confession and execution were unjust. He was, of course, very cautious about expressing his opinions because he knew that opposition could be fatal for him as well. Nonetheless, his superiors strongly suspected him of disloyalty. In fact, at one point as a vindictive move he was appointed to be the confessor to women who had been condemned to the stake and to hear their last confessions. Someone once said to him, "It must be terrible to accompany someone to the stake." He replied, "It is not nearly as terrible as coming back alone."
Spee in 1631 finally anonymously published a book titled, "Cautio Criminalis" or "A Book on Witch Trials." While he does not deny the possibility that witchcraft could exist (this was the 17th century), he points out that the methods used to root it out were intrinsically and profoundly unjust. It contains a systematic critique of the entire process of prosecuting witchcraft, but there are some compelling passages dealing with torture that could have been written today.
For one thing, today we often hear defenders of "harsh interrogation" claim that these detainees are such vile terrorists that such methods are justified. Witness the recent blather fest between Bill O'Reilly and Christopher Hitchens. To this Spee replies:
To immediately presume that the prisoners are just guilty, and therefore one may do to them those things which it has been said some priests do do to them, is completely intolerable.
Somehow, the idea that anyone accused could possibly be innocent was completely foreign to the powers of the day--just as it appears that some prisoners swept up and deposited in Guantanamo could possibly be innocent, yet they continue to be kept there wihtout charges and with no indication as to how they will be processed. Some of them were innocent victims of denunciation by neighbors in exchange for the $5,000 bounty the US was offering. In just the same way, innocent women, once denounced by a jealous or vintictive neighbor, found themselves in a system with no way out. Spee echoes the assessment of current experts on the efficacy of torture:
The tortures customary everywhere are by their very nature great and cause grievous suffering beyond measure. However, it is the nature of the greatest suffering that we do not fear meeting even death itself in order to avoid it. Therefore there is the danger that many women, in order to extricate themselves from the agony of the rack, might confess to crimes they have not committed and fabricate any crimes for themselves, either whatever the inquisitors suggest or what they themselves have previously planned to confess.
It was known by a thinking person in the mid-17th century that torture does not work, that it is inhumanly cruel. But the scourge went further. Once a woman had confessed under torture to the crime of witchcraft, she was compelled to reveal her accomplices. Under torture, she would inevitably blurt out names. These women would then be arrested and find themselves in the same implacable apparatus of condemnation and eventual execution as their predecessors. Spee again:
Therefore if, as I have seen happen more than once, a woman must enter prison and undergo torture because of this one denunciation combined with her disrepute, and then once subjected to pain in turn begins to name her accomplices, who cannot see that within a very short time there will be no end to the denouncers and the denounced, especially if the judge is cruel and follows the opinion of those authors who insist that in expected crimes a single or several denunciation by accomplices supported by no other evidence suffices for torture and even for a conviction.
Spee's book was the first glimmer of a coming enlightenment in an age beset by savagery, war and religious hatred, a war that ravaged the continent of Europe. It stands today as an example of rational thought applied to a barbaric practice.
Today's discussion of torture has that savage fiend Dick Cheney defending it on its supposed effectiveness. But that is a perverse argument in itself. Torture is a crime. It has always been a crime and we must cleanse ourselves of its stench by prosecuting those who have perpetrated it in order to restore our status as a civilized nation. There is no useful purpose for torture and even to argue from that perspective is perverse.
Actually, there is one purpose for torture. The purpose of torture is the gratification of the torturers.