An old, sad story of torture

Through Hullabaloo, I was reminded of an amazing and incredibly tragic correspondence from Germany in the year 1628. Burgomaster Johannes Junius was tried and convicted of witchcraft, and eventually burned at the stake for these crimes. Before his execution, however, he managed to smuggle a letter to his daughter. Some ‘highlights’ of said letter after the fold:

Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and–God pity him–bethinks him of something. I will tell you how it has gone with me. When I was the first time put to the torture, Dr. Braun, Dr. Kotzendorffer, and two strange doctors were there. Then Dr. Braun asks me, “Kinsman, how come you here?” I answer, “Through falsehood, through misfortune.” “Hear, you,” he says, “you are a witch; will you confess it voluntarily? If not, we’ll bring in witnesses and the executioner for you.” I said “I am no witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I’ll gladly hear the witnesses.” Now the chancellor’s son was set before me . . . and afterward Hoppfen Elss. She had seen me dance on Haupts-moor. . . . I answered: “I have never renounced God, and will never do it–God graciously keep me from it. I’ll rather bear whatever I must.” And then came also–God in highest Heaven have mercy–the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing. . . . Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture.

Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die. And they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture which was threatened beyond what I had already endured. For they never leave off with the torture till one confesses something; be he never so good, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes, though he were an earl…

. . .

Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more. July 24, 1628.

Dear child, six have confessed against me at once: the Chancellor, his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Ursel, and Hoppfen Els–all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed. . . . They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was. . . .

The whole letter, and the ‘official’ transcript of the torture and confession of Johannes, is worth reading. I first read this horrifying and truly sad correspondence in an old Time-Life book on witchcraft about twenty years ago, and it angers me just as much now as it did back then.

It is especially relevant in the current ‘torture-mania’ that is ongoing in U.S. politics, where numerous people on the right are completely happy to endorse waterboarding and other methods of torture as a technique for gaining information and keeping people safe. Look, for instance, at this old post on Carpetbagger where a number of right-wing posters argue how great it is as a technique for keeping people safe, “but there is no permanent damage.” Such people fail to realize that this doesn’t make it not torture – quite the contrary, a similar technique was developed during the Spanish Inquisition, presumably in part because if you don’t do permanent damage to a subject, you can torture them all the more.

So many things are wrong with the pro-torture arguments, and I want to address them all at once, which would lead to a massive and muddled post. But let’s return to the case of Johannes Junius, which illustrates three specific fallacies of the pro-torture crowd:

  1. Torture provides useful information. How do you know? Johannes was willing to say anything to avoid more pain; how does one judge information acquired to be truthful or convenient fictions? Note that Johannes implicated anyone else he could, in order to get the torturers to stop. I’m guessing that terrorist operatives are now, or soon will be, ‘seeded’ with false, plausible stories and fake terrorists to keep the torturers running around in circles. All they need to do is visit a couple of mosques, get a few names of innocent people, and they’ve got ‘actionable intelligence’ to feed the torturers.
  2. Torturers’ only motives are to protect Americans from terrorists. Sure, and the only motives of the witch-hunters were to protect people from those evil (nonexistent) witches. There’s a reason the term ‘witch-hunt’ is a pejorative. In the case of the witch-hunters, there were political and financial motivations to obtain confessions: often the property of the ‘witch’ would be claimed by the church. What possible motivation could U.S. interrogators have for their actions, outside of saving the country? Political reasons come to mind, again: every captured and confessed terrorist is ‘proof’ that the administration is doing a good job fighting terrorism. If you think that nobody could be so sociopathic as to torture just to make themselves look better, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
  3. Only the bad guys get tortured. This one goes hand-in-hand with number one and two above. I’m sure Johannes thought similar things until his name came before the court. Once you’ve decided that torture is acceptable to prevent ‘really bad things’ from happening, there’s hardly any reason to not do it to U.S. citizens. After all, they can cause as much carnage as the rest of the world. People who are against torture aren’t being ‘weak on terrorism’ as much as being strong on basic human rights. I’m strongly against the principle of torture, but I’m equally against a government policy that would eventually allow me to end up on the rack. If you think that your own government would never take harsh actions against its own innocent citizenry, I’ve got another bridge for you.

There’s so much to say about this, but I’ll stop here for now. I was tripped off by being reminded of Johannes’ tragic correspondence. Maybe I’ll come back to this later.

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1 Response to An old, sad story of torture

  1. Pingback: The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot (1584) | Skulls in the Stars

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