Belfast Telegraph

Robert Fisk: Torture does not work, as history shows

An American special forces major - now, needless to say, a colonel - once boasted that "torture works" to a colleague of mine a couple of years ago. It seems that the CIA and its hired thugs in Afghanistan and Iraq still believe this.

There is no evidence that rendition and beatings and waterboarding and the insertion of metal pipes into men's anuses - and, of course, the occasional torturing to death of detainees - has ended. Why else would the CIA admit in January that it had destroyed videotapes of prisoners being almost drowned - the 'waterboarding' technique - before they could be seen by US investigators?

Yet only a few days ago, I came across a medieval print in which a prisoner has been strapped to a wooden chair, a leather hosepipe pushed down his throat and a primitive pump fitted at the top of the hose where an ill-clad torturer is hard at work squirting water down the hose. The prisoner's eyes bulge with terror as he feels himself drowning, all the while watched by Spanish inquisitors who betray not the slightest feelings of sympathy with the prisoner. Who said 'waterboarding' was new? The Americans are just apeing their predecessors in the inquisition.

Anthony Grafton, who has been working on a book about magic in Renaissance Europe, says that in the 16th and 17th centuries, torture was systematically used against anyone suspected of witchcraft, his or her statements taken down by sworn notaries - the equivalent, I suppose, of the CIA's interrogation officers - and witnessed by officials who made no pretence that this was anything other than torture; no talk of 'enhanced interrogation' from the lads who turned the wheel to the fire.

As Grafton recounts: "The pioneering medievalist Henry Charles Lea ... wrote at length about the ways in which inquisitors had used torture to make prisoners confess heretical views and actions."

There were professionals in the Middle Ages who were trained to use pain as a method of enquiry as well as an ultimate punishment before death. Men who were to be " hanged, drawn and quartered" in medieval London, for example, would be shown the "instruments" before their final suffering began with the withdrawal of their intestines in front of vast crowds of onlookers. Most of those tortured for information in medieval times were anyway executed after they had provided the necessary information to their interrogators. These inquisitions - with details of the torture that accompanied them - were published and disseminated widely so that the public should understand the threat that the prisoners had represented and the power of those who inflicted such pain upon them. No destroying of videotapes here. Illustrated pamphlets and songs, according to Grafton, were added to the repertory of publicity.

As Grafton describes horrifyingly, once the prisoner's answers no longer satisfied the podestà, a city official, the torturer tied the man's or woman's arms behind their back and the prisoner would be lifted by a pulley. "Then, on orders of the podestà, the torturer would make the accused 'jump' or 'dance' - pulling him or her up, then releasing the rope, dislocating limbs and inflicting stunning pain."

Grafton's conclusion is unanswerable. Torture does not obtain truth. It will make most ordinary people say anything the torturer wants. Why, who knows if the men under the CIA's 'waterboarding' did not confess that they could fly to meet the devil. And who knows if the CIA did not end up believing him.

Belfast Telegraph


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