Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Going mediaeval

One strand of the torture debate in the US at the moment is the debate over efficacy. By efficacy I mean the probability that a tortured suspect provides more or better information than a non-tortured suspect. Ex-vice president Dick Cheney recently alluded to the efficacy of torture as a justification for it. Even if we leave aside the fact that torture might be effective in this regard (my murdering the next guy I see on the street is a pretty effective way of getting his wallet), I find it hard to believe that people, the public, regular folks, anyone out there actually holds this position in the face of its obvious implausibility. A simple example of the problems with the efficacy position comes from a book I am currently reading. John Felton, in prison after having murdered the Duke of Buckingham in the summer of 1628, insisted that he had acted alone. The Bishop of London William Laud, anxious to bust a nest of Puritans, threatened him with the rack if he did not reveal his accomplices. Felton's reply is instructive:

he could not tell whom he might nominate in the extremity of torture, and if what he should say then must go for truth, he could not tell whether his Lordship (meaning the Bishop of London) or which of their Lordships he might name, for torture might draw unexpected things from him.

Apparently, "After this there were no more questions for the prisoner".

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