Monday, January 21, 2008

The Aspect I Don't Want to Discuss

by Ken Houghton

The January 25th issues of The Chronicle of Higher Education features an article on democracy:
Americans were shocked at the photographs of tortured Iraqi prisoners incarcerated at Abu Ghraib. They were horrified by the assault on Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant molested with the broken end of a broomstick by New York City police officers in August 1997. A decade earlier, they were horrified by revelations that New York police officers had used stun guns to coerce confessions from young Hispanic and African-American suspects in 1985 and 1986.

Our outrage is predictable because we reject the idea that democracies engage in torture. That's something authoritarian states do — in the words of a World War II poster, "the method of the enemy."

So far, this sounds like a Jonah Goldberg book. But the article has a better grasp of the history of democracies:
[D]emocracies often set the pace in torture innovation. Legalized torture was a standard part of Greek and Roman republics, our ancient models of democracy. Roman judges used various tortures, most famously the short whips, ferula and scutica, to coerce confessions and get information. Torture was also a standard part of Italian republics like Venice and Florence, our other historical models of democracy. Those city-states adopted some of the same techniques as the inquisitors of the Roman Catholic Church. They often used the strappado, a technique in which guards tied a victim's hands behind his back, hoisted him from the ground by means of a hook and pulley, and repeatedly dropped him to the floor. The political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli was subjected to that process thrice. Before World War II, the British, the Americans, and the French all practiced torture: the French in Vietnam, the British in their mandate of Palestine, the Americans in the Philippines, not to mention what our police were doing in cities large and small. Police in democratic states used electrotorture, water torture, painful stress positions, drugs, and beatings. They did so sometimes on their own, sometimes in collusion with local citizens, and sometimes with the quiet approval, if not explicit authorization, of their governments. All this before the Central Intelligence Agency [if not the OSS--kh] ever existed.

As I said, I don't want to discuss torture per se as part of democracy. But the sidebar is too interesting to ignore. Read the whole thing, as they say.

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