Why do we inflict torture on each other so much? We have been doing it from the earliest of times. In Syria rival groups are inflicting the most indescribable and barbaric pain on each other (and let us not forget that Assad’s sub-humans started torturing and castrating children). If the reason for this cruelty were to try to get information that might lead to saving lives, this might arguably leave some room for mitigation. But all I see is primitive sadism and barbarism regardless of what the victims themselves may have inflicted on others. I am completely opposed to any torture. It says something very disturbing about those who inflict it.
Torture is not just the inflicting of pain. We can do that to ourselves in the gym. Military training often forces recruits to undergo deprivation and pain. Endurance athletes willingly drive themselves to suffer. Some sports, such as boxing and extreme fighting, are calculated to cause pain. What we mean by torture is the intentional inflicting of pain by one human on another simply out of sadism or because a state or power has authorized it. There is a nuance. Torture that will inevitably lead to death where there is nothing one can do to stop or reduce the suffering as opposed to torture that might be ended if certain goals are achieved. But they are both evil.
In the ancient times, if you conquered a king or tribe, inflicting pain was both an incentive for victory and an expression of superiority. It gave the victors total control over the vanquished. The more pain you inflicted the happier were your gods. I won’t go into the psychological pathology of this sort of cruelty. Sometimes it was payback for resisting and avenging your own losses. But the most common aim of such torture (other than human sadism, something that has been replicated in recent scientific experiments) was to so terrorize one’s opponents that they would capitulate without a fight. Romans impaled, and left to agonizing and prolonged death, hundreds of thousands of their captives in order to discourage revolt. Genghis Khan inflicted incredible agony on conquered cities to deter others from resisting. There was no escape, nothing one could do to stop the long, drawn-out agony.
Medieval monarchs would hang traitors, then while they were still alive, take them down and castrate them. Then slice open their torsos and pull out their organs for public display. King Edward I, who expelled the Jews, was very keen on hanging, drawing, and quartering. Perhaps there is a connection between being an anti-Semite and being a sadist! They were still burning traitors in the early nineteenth century in England. Twenty thousand spectators witnessed the last one. Impose a terrible death on traitors and others will be less likely to try. That’s what Germans under Hitler did, as well as every other hell associated with that infamous era.
Just as barbaric was the torture used as part of the judicial process. If a suspected criminal survived a ducking in the river or having his body pierced or mangled, this would prove he was in either forgiven by God or in league with the devil. While if he died that was atonement or punishment. You could not win. There is a recognizable change in a victim’s state when he knows he will die regardless. Judicial torture was only banned in England and the USA towards the end of seventeenth century. Confessions achieved through torture were, and sadly still are, often accepted throughout the so-called civilized world, although the methods are slightly less gruesome and less visibly degrading. But that’s not because we humans are any less cruel. Just that we fear public exposure. Gangsters, dictators, and ordinary evil people who feel themselves above or beyond the law continue, around the world, to torture to death thousands of ordinary human beings each year.
I suspect the survival of torture for so long owes as much to the Church as to human nature. Early Christians were tortured by the Romans to such an extent it seems they thought it only fair to do the same to their own theological enemies. The “Holy” Inquisition thought torture would eradicate its own heretics. As a sideline, it might encourage someone to convert to Christianity. Torture persists in some because they were founded on the belief not only that they are the possessors of the sole truth, but also that they had a mission to force it on everyone else if they could. Why is it that before they slash and kill, Muslim fanatics yell out “Allahu Akbar”, implying it is the will of their God? I guess if you think nonbelievers will burn in hell forever, aren’t you doing them a favor if a quick burn now or a slit throat is nothing in comparison?
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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