Abstract: We analyze torture by learning from history, and even animals. We use the most severe definition of torture, to shred the reigning, obscuring hypocrisy. By our definition, some forms of torture are unfortunately necessary, others should be totally discouraged. Some forms of torture are more “human” than other practices that have not been questioned as much (and debates about torture have been organized to hide much more troubling practices). The historical argument against torture-to-extract-information is valid: civilization has made extracting information by torture relatively inefficient and very counterproductive (that was known in the Middle Ages, and apparently in republican Rome!). This is particularly the case when fighting homicidal martyrs. They want to be tortured, so they can torture too. We should not extend to them that invitation, and give them that pleasure.

Torture so as to extract information, should stay completely unconstitutional, contrarily to the Bush administration’s practice. This official prohibition is a showcase of a general will to improve morality, that the top civilization should maintain as long as possible. But ticking time bomb scenarios will always occur, in urban counterinsurgency, and people should remember that secret services are secret for good reasons (one of them being that you do not want to know what they are doing).

Inflicting pain as a vengeance or to terrorize miscreants is another form of torture entirely. That sort of torture is still practiced massively, because civilization needs repression (many legal sanctions involve suffering, and, in this essay, we call that torture, by logical coherence). Pseudo naive occupiers like the USA should remember that occupying someone’s else country, per se, is mass torture. (Sometimes such torture can be justified, as the occupations of Germany and Japan in 1945 were; sometimes not, and then it is unjustifiable mass torture).

In general torture avoidance should be viewed as a challenge, one of the engines of improving civilization: how can we improve people by persuading and modifying behaviors rather than using brute force and horror, treating people as vicious beasts?

There is no better illustration of the devolution of the USA than the attempt to make torture legal. A few years back, the Bush administration and its employee, UC Berkeley professor, John Yoo, bellowed that torture was necessary. In their stupidity, they tried to make it a new constitutional right, the Right to Torture. Never mind that torture is forbidden by international law.

We will thereafter use the most general definition of torture we can think of: TORTURE IS ANY SEVERE PAIN OR SUFFERING INTENTIONALLY INFLICTED ON A PERSON (this toughens up the UN definition). Our reason for being so general is that major infliction of pain and suffering is often allowed, on the ground that it is not torture (according to the United Nations). In our sense, carpet bombing of German cities by the RAF during WWII was torture. Similarly the demolition of terrorists’ houses by Israel is torture. But, from our point of view, torture does not have to be avoided at all and any cost. There are worse things than inflicting torture. For example one could inflict death. Or lose civilization outright.

With our severe definition of torture, clearly torture has been central to civilization. Just as the threat of being shot may hold back some criminals, the threat of torture-as-punishment can work wonders to instill the respect of the law. All major civilizations used deliberate, severe punishment. The USA has several millions people deprived of freedom, many thousands on so called “death row” awaiting execution. China executed criminals with the method of the 1,000 cuts all the way into the twentieth century (photographic documentation of this activity exists). The Roman republic used torture extensively. Just as some firms specialized in the capture of escaped slaves, other Roman firms specialized in providing with private torture. In Rome torture was viewed as entertainment, and particularly ingeniously cruel methods of executions were devised. With sometimes a large proportion of the population in slavery, Rome had to maintain legal terror: “Dura lex, sed lex” (The law is hard, but it’s the law). On the positive side, under Roman terror, a quarter of mankind lived in a state of law. The enforcement of law is the core of what makes civilization possible.

The modern, “politically correct”, attitude, relative to such horrors as Roman crucifixion, is to disregard the Roman experience as irrelevant to our times. But such is not the case. It was torture that made Roman law tough. And thus effective. Oh, by the way, torture could not be used against Roman citizens. It was a terrible offense, very severely punished.


The Christian catastrophe called the “Dark Ages” demonstrated the importance of punishment. First, of course, the Christians burned all the books, killed all the intellectuals, and killed all the non “Catholic Orthodox”, except for a few Jews. But still some of the old order had resisted. So the Christians changed tactics. Maybe tired and bored after all of these exertions, they proclaimed loud and clear they did not want to live in the world anymore. According to Augustine’, there were two cities, one on the ground (bad), and one in the clouds (good). Eight hundred years earlier, Aristophane had used that imagery in a comedy to make fun of Athens’ colonization policies. But Augustine was not joking: Christians wanted the world destroyed in a process called the Apocalypse (then, and only then, their superhero, God and son of God, would come back). To destroy the world more thoroughly, the Christians decided to destroy law enforcement.

So super rich Christian bishops decided it was non Christian to torture or kill bandits and the like. This way they would make sure that whatever was left of society would crash and burn. Criminality became highly profitable and so high that the society of the later Roman empire totally broke down. For a while, the bishops, who formed a governing plutocracy, did not mind; they were living off their vast estates, fed by armies of slaves, protected by armies of mercenaries. But, in the end, it became unbearable, the hypocritical campaign of the bishops against torture and legal violence aggravated the collapse of civilization. Even the bishops understood that morality needed a sword. They found it in the double bladed giant battle ax of the Pagan Franks.

When the Franks took power, they reestablished severe punishment, in other words, torture. An example: counterfeit currency had been a very severe problem of the later Roman empire (it created huge inflation and destruction of the respect for the state). Frankish justice solved this difficulty by instituting a standard punishment for this offense: slowly boiling the counterfeiters alive. The Franks were men of wealth and taste, so, sometimes, the boiling was in wine.

Interestingly, once the Muslims had been thrown out, and the frontiers pushed way back into Eastern Europe, the Imperium Francorum, the empire of the Francs, became very quiet (until the next waves of invasion). Severe punishment worked.

The European Middle Ages kept on going along those lines. Respect for the law was encouraged by imposing punishments as severe as those of Rome. This had nothing to do with “Dark Ages” and fascism, quite the opposite. The more ferocious the repression of the ultimate crimes, the more advanced the society. A few examples:

A fanatical Catholic (paid by the eminent fascist, the Spanish emperor Philip II) assassinated William (“The Silent”) of Orange, founder of the republic of the Netherlands. The assassin was executed by “execrable” tortures over several days (1584 CE). As the Dutch republic gained ascendency, the first powerful republic since Rome, it became ever more severe, following the republican Roman legal model, sometimes more ferociously. Corrupt Dutch officials were separated from their entire skin, before leaving this world, giving them time to fully recognize the disposable nature of their superficial ways. Something similar happened in 1610 CE, after the assassination of the good King Henri IV of France (a Protestant turned Catholic that had put an end to the religious wars, and instituted deep social reforms). The assassin, the giant Ravaillac, resisted quartering, the horses got exhausted, so the public came forth, and succeeded, all pulling together, where the animals had failed. (According to the contemporary UN, such examples do not constitute torture, since they were fully legal executions).

Thus LOCAL morally correct posturing is not necessarily GLOBALLY correct moral posturing. Many people, such as many Christian bishops around 400 CE, or people who take positions of principle against severe punishment, do not examine carefully enough the fact that “homo homini lupus est” (man is a wolf for man) as the Roman playwright Plautus put it shortly after the Second Punic War (~ 200 BCE).


Let’s come back to the present for a moment. According to Amnesty International, 75% of states use torture. Now it is true that, in some circumstances, torture can be very effective, be it to extract information quick, or for punishment on the side.

Torture is much more ubiquitous than is generally believed. The advancement of technology has allowed for the advancement of torture. New forms of torture have appeared (not just electricity, but sleep deprivation, various forms of exposure, from cold to loud noises, to uncomfortable positions, all very delicately controlled). Using them allows modern torturers to claim they are not torturing because the new forms of torture are not on the official list of recognized historical tortures. Many states can now imprison people in an extra judicial way for more than a few days if they are suspected of terrorism (this assists the police, but sometimes suffering maybe the real objective).

Terrorist networks have been dismantled by torture. Torture was used as an efficient counter insurrection technique by French paratroopers in the Battle of Algiers. With time very limited to find the next bomb maker, once one had been caught, and with very soft (non fanatical) culprits (who typically transported bomb elements), torture allowed to expose terrorist cells before senior terrorists could flee. This is a general observation; if police catches someone with a hidden ticking time bomb somewhere, and they know that the bomber will probably not resist to torture, they may be derelict not to use it. The police is indeed faced with a choice between violating one law protecting the criminal, and civilization, and an other law, somewhat opposite, protecting the innocent, and civilization. Not a nice choice, and a good reason for the legal systems to close their eyes SOMETIMES.

On the negative side, though, the usage of torture by the French military became an excuse by the general French opinion (that did not want to have anything to do with Algeria!) to turn against attempts of preserving some sort of French-Algerian commonwealth (although the Algerian population had voted massively for it in a referendum!).

So the public opinion struggle was lost by the very methods that won the military struggle. This case was thoroughly studied by the Pentagon and Israel. The Pentagon used torture lightly in Iraq, keeping the French example in mind. Israel uses a careful mix of scrupulous law abiding with extremely severe punishment akin to torture by association (such as the immediate demolition of terrorists’ houses). But the Israeli tactics make sense, to insure the survival of Israel. The family of the assassin of William of Orange was ennobled by the fascist Philippe II of Burgundy and Spain, and became instantaneously rich. Having the family dwelling demolished, probably makes the Qur’an theses about going to heavens by killing, significantly less attractive. Whereas the Dutch republic had an immensely powerful ally in France, also perpetually fighting Spain and Burgundy, Israel does not have anybody (sending weapons and money is one thing, sending soldiers, another).

At first sight, it’s an argument that is hard to make. The present world is, globally, at peace, but in no small measure because of the IMPLICIT TERROR exerted by the five permanent member states of the United Nation Security Council. Each of them have the means of killing hundreds of millions of people, and have exhibited, as an alliance during WWII, their readiness to use the most severe methods to crush the enemy, without consideration for the squeamish side. So peace, quiet, and civilization are blossoming, but under the threat that any significant deviation will be corrected by Armageddon. The USA has declared it reserves for itself the right of first use of nuclear weapons. France has explicitly announced that, besides this, she reserves the right of replying to mass terrorism with nukes (so like the Israelis with the demolition of the houses, but on a somewhat more exalted scale). Iran took that French warning personally, for some reason. Russia, China and Israel don’t need to issue warnings (Israel is loudly deploying a second (nuclear) strike capability).

But of course the point is that, when fighting for survival, democracies will do whatever it takes (some French politicians called for a cease fire in June 1940, because France was fighting at the same time Nazi Germany, the USSR, and, basically, the USA; it was a bit too much, even for the French, so they decided to take a vacation from it all, while the USA figured out who it was that they wanted to be allied with). THE ULTIMATE MORALITY IS THAT OF SURVIVAL (Iran should contemplate this as it bellows for the destruction of Israel; Indeed, Israel may have noticed one of the lessons of Nazism: bellowing criminal idiots should be taken seriously in a timely manner).

So democracies or civilizations (China) fighting for survival NEED TO BE ATROCIOUS sometimes. But that means that if they are not fighting for survival, they do not need to be atrocious. Being more advanced in their human interactions than the (less democratic and less civilized) rest of the planet, they need to keep their moral superiority, so they have a good reason to eschew the unsophisticated tortures more primitive places have to use.

As we said there are two main types of governmental torture: torture to enforce the law, and torture to extract information. The first sort of torture can be more or less extensive, depending how demanding and twisted the law is. For example Allah encouraged slavery and torture (as confirmed by reading a non watered down version of the Qur’an). These are situations that are unnatural to animals, and the more unnatural, the more severe the violence. So there were laws in North Africa, up to the nineteenth century, to punish severely slaves who tried to escape. Impaling was standard. It’s severe torture: the condemned could survive days.

When the Turkish army marched into Europe, it was helped by impaling. After seeing victims squirm around a pole, the public was much more outwardly respectful of anything Turkish. This non sense stopped when Vlad (“the Impaler”) started to use impaling just as well, and various tortures, to discourage Turkish invaders and their collaborators. The Turkish army was thrown out by its own methods.

In eight century Spain (revered by bin Laden), many people who had converted to Islam by convenience tried to convert back to Catholicism, once they figured out that Islam was not nice (at the time Catholicism, broken by the Franks, was totally relax). Many were executed by horrible means, such as crucifixion upside down (the official line of some Islamist scholars, to this day, is that those Christians wanted to be tortured). In Islam, being an apostate (somebody one feels is renouncing Islam) is subject to the death penalty (the idea, as most things Islamist, comes from old Judaism). By contrast in Carolingian Francia, people could convert back and forth into whatever. Christians would become Jews, and thousands of Muslims were quietly left to do whatever (we know there were huge numbers of these, from blood and genetic analyses).

To understand what is wrong with using torture, for extracting information, one should look at what happened during the Middle Ages. By 1300 CE, the kingdom of France had the best torturers who ever were. The information they obtained were confirmed in excess of 90%.

Nevertheless, a suspect’s statements under torture could NOT be used in judicial discovery; any admission had to be reconfirmed in front of the judge, without torture being applied. Justice knew people would say whatever to get the torture to stop, and that whatever was useless in serious judicial proceedings. So, as far as justice was concerned, torture was a loss of time. Moreover it corrupted the image justice wanted to give of itself. When Joan of Arc was interrogated (1431), the judges decided to avoid using any torture to make the judicial process more believable.

By 1600 CE, though, the ratio of confirmation under judicial inquiry of facts admitted under torture had fallen close to zero. The tortures had become too nice to persuade hard core criminals to talk.

But what did torture in was that the judges did not need the hints torture would provide with. Why? Simply because, by 1300 CE, under Philippe IV, Le Bel, the modern police state had been created, with methods of inquiry and arrest much more advanced than the best imperial Rome ever had (examples: the Templar monks were arrested all over at the same exact time; when the French judicial system decided to arrest the Pope, it sent a commando to Rome). Torture-to-extract-information had become irrelevant.

Well, it sure does: few things real martyrs love as much as torture. That is why one has to laugh when the Bushmen thought torture would cure Islamist fascism. It is said all over the Qur’an that the best way to insure the good graces of Allah (the great fascist in the sky) is to kill and suffer in His name. So, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, “the main architect of 9/11”, was approached with a wet towel for his “water boarding”, if he was the genuine thing, all he probably regretted was the absence of something more spectacular, like red hot pincers. Ever since the  Bush administration had been busy to proclaim that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed talked really a lot after being “water boarded”, thus arguing torture worked.

That sounded strange: history is full of serious terrorists who resisted splendidly to terrible tortures (the assassin of William of Orange stayed calm over the days of terrible tortures he endured). As it turned out, this was more than strange, it was disinformation: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed succumbed not to torture, but to the sort of friendly interviewing methods already used during Joan of Arc’s trial.

Hard core terrorists have determined that their moral cause is so important that pain can be inflicted to the totally innocent (it’s the same moral reasoning that allowed carpet and nuclear bombings by the democratic allies over German and Japanese, or French cities during WWII). Terrorism overrides basic instincts. To make such people give valuable information, one has to taunt the moral gymnastics they have indulged in first. Those moral contortions are central to their cause, and they will defend, hence expose them, as they desperately try to justify themselves. That, in turn, is bound to reveal the mental networks behind them.


Animals come equipped with ethics. Hungry monkeys, or even rats would refuse to eat (at least for a while) if another of their fellow got shocked with electricity, each time they went for a bite. Morality is not just human, it’s deeper than that. Monkeys don’t need the rewards of God to be good. So man is not THE moral animal. All social advanced animals are moral.

Animals actually come equipped with a hierarchy of ethical systems. In ultimate circumstances, they switch to the morality of survival. Not necessarily the survival of the individual; it’s often the survival of the group. Human beings are different in degree; their switch to the group survival mode is much more ferocious. When a human being is fully persuaded of total moral righteousness, NO PAIN IS HIGH ENOUGH (this comes from humans being the most carnivorous of primates, so they ally primate care with predatory ferocity). There are examples of Roman officers calmly putting one of their own fists in a brazier until it got totally consumed, to impress enemies with their moral superiority.

The ultimate human group is civilization itself. For its survival, it’s crucial to produce ever more gentle human beings, because the technology of mass destruction is getting ever better (the ultimate one at this point being the greenhouse weapon). In that sense, it would be better if everyone acted to completely avoid deliberately inflicting pain and suffering on people. This is not an option, though, so all what’s left, as usual, is to mitigate.

Carefully observing what one is doing, and the others are doing, is a first step.

It would seem that people who let practice carpet bombing on children in their name, to fill up their truck with oil, are in a difficult situation, arguing for the immorality of bothering a terrorist with pliers. Still, many people who did not object that much against the “shock and awe” destruction of Iraq, are shrill about torture. In other words, when it’s deemed advantageous to them to use lethal cruelty and massive mayhem on millions, it’s OK. Then, in a nice ethical pirouette, to proclaim to the world they are good people nevertheless, they squeal when, “the main architect of 9/11”, is approached with a wet towel. In other words, a lot of the left (including the democrats) are hiding behind words and carefully nurtured obsessions, what they are truly doing. As soon as they allowed the invasion of Iraq, and, unbelievably, its destruction, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, American people allowed mass torture to be used in their name, and for their wasteful way of life.

The torture question is difficult. Still, one wants civilization to progress. The police state replaced torture, but it cannot work with too primitive a population (that is why Rome allowed torture of the presumably more primitive slaves, but not of citizens). That goes inside countries, but also between countries. Civilization has to cling to the official line, and the practice, of doing as little torture as possible. It is unlawful for a pilot to crash a plane. Nevertheless, sometimes, a pilot, having encountered some technical difficulty, may have to crash it, because that’s the best option left.

Torture is sometimes unavoidable, but it should be officially discouraged always, and should not be allowed to hide in plain sight, by calling it by other names. If people deny that what is happening is happening, one cannot change it.

Posturing is fun, but it’s not moral.

Patrice Ayme.

Technical Addenda:
1) According to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, torture is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” to extract information. Torture, so defined, exclude lawful punishment (so slowly burning alive at the stake is OK, if decided by judicial process, according to the UN). The definition used by the UN also forgets that, people (are made to) love to hurt people (that happens in conflicts, but also out of the blue, from raw psychobiology unchained). That is why we used the more general definition above. It gives logical coherence.

2) Why did the USA revert to torture? Why such a reversion to the past? Because, in the last few years, the US mood has been to go back, clinging to the hope of reliving the past, the future slipping out of reach of the “American Dream” … As soon as the USA threatened to destroy Iraq, it was engaging in torture. Abu Graib and Guantanamo are just minuscule, but telling, details.

3) The American reversal to the past is general. In June 2008, the US Supreme Court found that US citizens had a Constitutional Right to shoot each other (guns are mostly used to kill family members). New York has had a ban on guns for nearly a century. But never mind, it’s morning in America. The Supreme Court decision was the first on the subject in seventy years. Reverting to the distant past has become fashionable in the USA, in a desperate attempt to believe that the “American Dream” and its associated benevolent plutocracy, make the world all it could be.  Thus California hopes to soon be the state with the lowest educational budget per child, of the entire 50 states (now it’s only 49th).

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