America vs. Torture Western Civilization Has Opposed Torture for the Last 500 Years, Recounts Duke's John Jeffries Martin

By Martin, John Jeffries | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

America vs. Torture Western Civilization Has Opposed Torture for the Last 500 Years, Recounts Duke's John Jeffries Martin


Martin, John Jeffries, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA detention and interrogation program last week quickly stirred up a white-hot debate on the use of torture to extract information from our enemies.

And though there is great passion on both sides, this is not a new topic to be argued.

In the late 16th century, some 200 years before the formation of our Republic, the French nobleman Michel de Montaigne shifted the centuries-old debate about the use of torture from the question of its effectiveness to the question of its inhumanity. That is, while earlier writers had worried above all about the reliability of testimony extracted from tortured suspects, Montaigne was horrified that a civilized society would make use of such a barbaric practice.

Montaigne's new perspective would come to exercise considerable influence over the ways in which intellectuals and political elites viewed torture down to our own time.

However, it was above all a thin volume titled "Of Crimes and Punishments," first published anonymously in 1764, that served as the clarion call for the abolition of torture. The secret of the author's identity was not held for long. The Milanese philosopher Cesare Beccaria had completed this revolutionary work at the age of 26.

Beccaria's text would have a cascading influence. Its translation into many languages paralleled an era that saw regime after regime dismantle the use of torture: Prussia in 1754, Denmark in 1770, Poland in 1776, France in 1789, the Netherlands in 1798 and Portugal in 1826.

Beccaria was influential in the United States as well. Thomas Jefferson read him with appreciation, as did James Madison and John Adams. When the Founders crafted the Bill of Rights, Beccaria's ideas were made palpable. We see this in the Eighth Amendment, which prohibited the use of "cruel and unusual punishments" - one of the enduring bases to the principle that neither the courts nor the federal government may use torture.

But the Fifth Amendment, with its stipulation that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself," was perhaps an even clearer constitutional obstacle to the use of torture. If a person suspected of a crime could not testify against himself, then torture could really play no role, since one of the key aims of torturers is to extricate self- incriminating evidence from a suspect, whether of a common criminal or a terrorist. …

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