Sunday, December 07, 2008

The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix

The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix

Fascinating. For a book about such a morbid subject, this was hard to put down once I started it. From roughly 2 B.C. through World War II (this was written in 1964 and so none of the more recent incidents are discussed), Mannix gives an overview of both the techniques of torture and the reasons why it was used. Clearly well researched, the descriptions of some of the horrors are meticulous and explicit; I got the idea more than once that the author was a bit of a sadist and taking glee in the more grisly sections. The biggest drawback to me was that it was very Euro-centric; China, India, and the pre-1492 Americas get mentions but nothing like the detail found in the bulk of the book.

Without references or a bibliography it is hard to consider this a scholarly effort, but I still learned quite a bit. For instance, starting in roughly the 6th century the use of torture to obtain information or a confession virtually disappeared in Europe. Centuries later its return occurred when the Church started to be seriously challenged by new ideas and reform; it turned to torture to get heretics to “confess,” and the institution has been utilized somewhere in the world nearly continuously every since. Something else I found interesting was the back story of the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill. In Germany adulterous men and women were once fastened together by the neck with a heavy yoke and then forced to carry buckets of water up a steep hill to the castle in the center of town. They would often fall and get seriously hurt; somehow this led to the sing-song fable our kids sing today. Another good anecdote is the history of the phrase, “third degree.” Referring to the stages of torture, the First Degree was the questioning of the prisoner, the Second Degree was showing the accused the instruments, and the Third Degree was the actual infliction of pain. Today the term has been watered down to mean simply intensive interrogation, but the etymology is much darker.

Mannix closes by drawing analogies between today’s corporal punishment and yesterday’s torture, but the summary is ambiguous and he doesn’t take a strong stand for either side. “No set formula can be used in the treatment of a criminal, and it is impossible to say that corporal punishment is never effective or that it is always effective. Too much depends on the individual’s emotional state, the reasons for his acts, the era, and the manner and method of inflicting (or withholding) the punishment. Formerly corporal punishment was regarded as a panacea for all problems; today many people consider it too terrible to ever be used. Yet in certain cases it would seem to be not only effective but justifiable.” I find it telling that nearly 50 years after this book was written we continue to have this debate; clearly there are no moral absolutes when it comes to corporal punishment—or torture.

First Sentence:
Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, did not like Jews.

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