On November 12–thirteen years after the onset of George W. Bush’s dirty underground war against “unlawful combatants”–the Obama administration finally told the United Nations Committee Against Torture that the United States believed, in the words of Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, “that torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment are forbidden in all places, at all times, with no exceptions.” Finally! Not so fast.
Torture is as old as human civilization. Assyrians skinned victims alive. Torture was a routine feature of Greek and Roman interrogations. Execution by torture took the form of crucifixion for the Romans, stoning for the Jews, and desert sun death for the Egyptians. Chinese emperors preferred lingchi–the slow slicing–of their prisoners (the infamous “death by a thousand cuts”). The Aztecs favored blood sacrifices that included consumption of the hearts of their victims.
Torture was not the sole preserve of heathens and idolators. The Dominicans, endlessly inventive in the torture of “heretics” and “witches” in Spain, made sexual humiliation of victims their trademark. John Calvin had a fellow early Protestant tortured and beheaded. Guy Fawkes spent time on the rack following his capture during the Gunpowder Plot.
As with slavery and the mass execution of hostages, torture slowly, fitfully came to be seen as barbaric and ineffective, although it took over two millennia for official if hypocritical and imperfect bans to appear. The British outlawed “cruel and unusual” punishment in the Bill of Rights of 1689; the prohibition protected Britons only as American, Boer, Irish, Indian, and Iraqi patriots knew well. The Americans included a similar ban in the Eighth Amendment to their Constitution–which applied only to citizens, not slaves or Natives. And lynching did not of course end following the Reconstruction Amendments. Napoleon forbade the use of torture by his armies in 1798, history forgotten by French troops in Algeria a century and a half later. Pius VII waited until 1816 to overturn the papal bull of 1252 permitting torture during the Inquisition. The Chinese outlawed lingchi in 1905 (which did not stop Nationalists and Communists from torturing one another before and during the Civil War).