Trump (and Cicero) on torture
Mr Trump’s confidence that torture works (and Mr Nuttall’s suggestion that he would be ‘OK’ with waterboarding) brings to mind Greco-Roman practice.
Leaving aside the issue of torture as punishment (and the most gruesome ‘executions’ in amphitheatres amounted to that), the most striking and disconcerting use of torture in both Athens and Rome was that applied to slaves – in particular the apparent insistence that slaves could only give evidence in judicial cases under torture (that is: not that it was allowed to torture them, but that torture was obligatory).
There has been all kind of modern debate on this. Was the rule, if rule it was, really applied consistently? Did it loosen up over time (in Rome the answer to that is both yes and no)? How was it limited (it was not allowed, for example, to torture a slave to death – if only because it deprived the owner of his or her property)? What forms of torture were applied? The answer to that, so far as I know, does not include waterboarding. Various forms of ‘racking’ seem to have been popular. And indeed, in a way that might awfully appeal to some of today’s supporters of the practice, some of the violence appears to have been privatised or contracted out. There is a Roman inscription from Puteoli that outlines the contractual duties of the torturing company (who doubled as undertakers), including that they should provide their own equipment. (It’s L’Année Epigraphique 1971, 88 if you want to look it up.)
But perhaps more interesting is the fact that many ancient commenters who talk about this, Cicero included, questioned exactly what we question. How reliable is the evidence that you extract in this way? It seems to have widely accepted that it really wasn’t reliable at all. Indeed what must underlie this is not a desire to get to the facts, but to demonstrate physically the power relations within ancient society, and to make absolutely clear under what conditions different people had a right to speak.
Which presumably is what underlies Mr Trump’s enthusiasm for it, in addition to an inability to think things through.
To ignore the ethics of it for a moment, I find the standard pro-torture argument completely fuddled. You find it commonly said that, awful as it might be, if it saves the life of one innocent US/UK citizen, then it is worth it. BUT hang on. If torture, as many of the ancients realised, produces unreliable information (or, just as bad, a mixture of reliable and unreliable information that you cannot tell apart) then it is likely to put the lives of those innocent US/UK citizens at risk, not save them. It sends the authorities scuttling off to pursue the wrong people, while taking their eyes off the ones who are planning something. It directs the limited resources we have (and however much cash you invest, they always will be limited) to the wrong targets.
In the attempts to combat the threat of terrorism, wrong information is deadly.
Photo Larry Downing
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