Magazine article Commonweal

Bad Evidence: Not Only Is Torture Immoral, It Doesn't Work

Magazine article Commonweal

Bad Evidence: Not Only Is Torture Immoral, It Doesn't Work

Article excerpt

Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1692 must have viewed the threat of witchcraft in much the same way Americans today view the prospect of another attack by Al Qaeda. Witches were, so to speak, supernatural terrorists-They blended into the population and attacked the innocent without warning. In covenant with Satan himself, they aimed to destroy the godly. Witches had to be stopped. In the end, however, the means employed in Salem's life-and-death struggle against the Devil ended by harming the very community they were supposed to preserve. As the historian Perry Miller observed, the witch-craft trials, which led to nineteen deaths by hanging, were a "blot on New England's fame" which, over time, were "enlarged, as much by friends as by foes, into its greatest disgrace." There is a lesson here for our own "war on terror," which has a similar problem with means: the use of torture to obtain information from suspected terrorists.

The Puritans cannot be faulted for believing that witches posed a threat. It was a view held not only in Massachusetts but in the entire Christian West. Consequently, the Puritans acted reasonably in making witch-craft--entering into a covenant with the Devil--a crime. They can, however, be faulted for their reliance on "spectral evidence" in convicting the accused. Under the influence of the presiding judge, Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, the court operated on the assumption that the Devil could not appropriate the shape of a person who did not consent to work with him. Consequently, the court admitted testimony from victims claiming to have seen a defendant's "specter" even though the defendant was physically present elsewhere.

But the Devil is the father of lies. Why wouldn't he take the spectral form of innocent persons in order to destroy godly individuals and communities? Prominent members of the Puritan clergy, such as Increase Mather, expressed theological and practical doubts about the reliability of spectral evidence. But their doubts were not expressed with sufficient force to bring the process to an early conclusion. Historian Francis Bremer suggests that the religious leaders hesitated to bring pressure on the governor to stop the madness for fear of jeopardizing their own political influence in the colony.

What about our own "war on terror"? As the attacks of September 11, 2001, showed, the threat of terrorism is very real. …

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