The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

2. The perverted ingenuity of man

A grimly sincere sounding American chap on the Today program the other morning was making a very forceful argument in support of the American legal system legislating for the use of torture. What if a terrorist in your custody has the information to prevent an imminent and devastating attack on the White House, the gravelly-voiced gentleman posited, should security forces not have the right to stick nails under the prisoner's fingernails?

"Torture" has its entry in Volume 23 of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the essay is the work of one James Williams.

At the outset Mr Williams disappoints the salacious reader by declaring his interest to be the role of torture in legal processes ancient and modern, rather than providing a catalogue of "the innumerable modes of inflicting pain which have been from time to time devised by the perverted ingenuity of man [...]."

"The whole subject is now one of only historical interest as far as Europe is concerned."

A comprehensive history is given of the role of torture in Greek and Roman law, and how it has been applied in Europe throughout the centuries.

Of the United States there is little for Williams to say. "One instance of the peine forte et dure is known. It was inflicted in 1692 on Giles Cory of Salem, who refused to plead when arraigned for witchcraft." One recorded instance, an admirable record. Williams earlier explains that peine forte et dure was the only torture that had been legislated for in England, to be applied where a person refused to plead either guilty or not guilty. Boards would be placed across the prostrate form of the recalcitrant accused, and heavy weights added until they either were persuaded to enter a plea, or in agony expired. Giles Cory is probably most familiar to us today thanks to the gruesome scene in The Crucible, which powerfully portrays this pre-Constitutional equivalent of 'pleading the Fifth.'

Other than this instance it only remains for the 9th to round up by quoting the Constitution's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishment', before returning to the more fertile ground of the varied brutalities practised in continental Europe.

James Williams would doubtless provoke even more of a disdainful sneer from Mr Pins-under-the-nails than the average namby-pamby liberal Radio 4 listener of today. He provides a colourful-sounding list of tortures permitteded in 17th - 18th century Scottish Law including "...the rack, the pilniewinkis, the boot, the caschie-laws, the lang irnis, the narrow-bore..." and concludes somberly with the "worst of all, the waking, or artificial prevention of sleep." What, no water-boarding? Of course, Mr Williams was writing in simpler times, and so too unsophisticated to appreciate the distinction between torture and enhanced interrogation techniques.

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