The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA detention and interrogation program quickly stirred up a white-hot debate on the use of torture to extract information from our enemies. Though there is great passion on both sides, this is not a new topic to be argued.
In the late 16th century, some 200 years before the formation of our republic, the French nobleman Michel de Montaigne shifted the centuries-old debate about the use of torture from the question of its effectiveness to the question of its inhumanity. While earlier writers had worried above all about the reliability of testimony extracted from tortured suspects, Montaigne was horrified that a civilized society would make use of such a barbaric practice.
Montaigne’s new perspective would come to exercise considerable influence over the ways in which intellectuals and political elites viewed torture down to our own time.
However, it was a thin volume titled “Of Crimes and Punishments,” first published anonymously in 1764, that served as the clarion call for the abolition of torture. The secret of the author’s identity was not held for long. The Milanese philosopher Cesare Beccaria had completed this revolutionary work at the age of 26.
Beccaria’s text would have a cascading influence. Its translation into many languages paralleled an era that saw regime after regime dismantle the use of torture: Prussia in 1754, Denmark in 1770, Poland in 1776, France in 1789, the Netherlands in 1798 and Portugal in 1826.
Beccaria was influential in the U.S. as well. Thomas Jefferson read him with appreciation, as did James Madison and John Adams. When the Founders crafter the Bill of Rights, Beccaria’s ideas made themselves palpable. We see this in the Eighth Amendment, which prohibited the use of “cruel and unusual punishments” – one of the enduring bases to the principle that neither the courts nor the federal government may use torture.
But the Fifth Amendment, with its stipulation that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” was perhaps an even clearer constitutional obstacle to the use of torture. If a person suspected of a crime could not testify against himself, then torture could really play no role, because one of the key aims of torturers is to extricate self-incriminating evidence from a suspect, whether a common criminal or a terrorist.
Historians are right, therefore, to stress that the period running from the Renaissance (the age of Montaigne) to the Enlightenment (the age of Beccaria) witnessed the emergence of new ideas about the person. These ideas would shape many contemporary values, as reformers drew on them to end not only torture but also slavery and religious repression.
These same ideas were, not incidentally, fundamental to shaping democratic and open institutions. This doesn’t mean the ideas were always successful or without contradictions, but they unquestionably enabled a new notion of the human person and the political community to emerge. It is within this cluster of new ideas that men and women came to see torture not merely as ineffective but as fundamentally wrong. Torture degrades both the victim and its perpetrator. It strips both of their dignity and their humanity. The ends cannot justify the means
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report has already divided those who defend the CIA’s program because it produced “actionable intelligence” and those who refute this claim based on a careful examination of the agency’s own internal correspondence.
This debate will no doubt continue, but the question of torture’s effectiveness should have little purchase on our ethical and political imaginations in the centuries after Montaigne and Beccaria. For these two writers, along with many others, including those who crafted our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, opened up a wider view of what it means to be human. On the question of torture specifically, they made it possible to object to its use not merely because it is often not effective but also because it is barbarous and violates our basic humanity.
This is why I find myself applauding both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain for denouncing not the report but the behavior the report describes. The use of torture, as McCain and Obama have both asserted, does run against our values – and there is absolutely no defense for its use by any government, especially one that would like to portray itself as a champion of human rights.
John Jeffries Martin, professor and chair of history at Duke University, is writing a book on the history of torture in early modern Europe.