Thursday, April 30, 2009


I've been following the torture issue pretty closely for awhile now. That we are even having a debate about using torture to gather information is absolutely appalling, but even given my moral revulsion, it's still remained an abstract concept.

At the same time I've been writing my Honors History paper on English revenge tragedies and what they reveal about the Elizabethan atitude towards the gruesome public executions carried out at the time, especially with regards to traitors. I've taken issue with scholars who follow Foucault's interpretation of the public execution as a means of underscoring and reinforcing the assymetrical power of the sovereign and terrifying the populace. Essentially, my argument goes that the same elements that make the plays dramatically satisfying are present in the executions and would therefore lead them to condone such treatment. That they did is not even in dispute; public executions were social events, and the only time the people complained is if they thought that a particular person did not deserve to be hung, cut down alive, disemboweled, drawn and quartered.

Throughout the writing process I've maintained a pretty neutral stance on the grim details of the execution process. I suppose on the one hand I thought the tactics were self-evidently wrong and did not need any lily-guilding. But I had been arguing about the symbolic significance attached to these specific punishments, and the rationalizations the Tudor state made rather reservedly. I was today looking for illustrations to go with my presentation of the project, and came across this,

and was frankly shocked and appalled. There really is a difference between reading about medieval capital punishment, especially in the bland language of Holinshed, and actually seeing it, even if only in the form of an engraving. It's the difference between learning something by memorization versus experience, I suppose. My professor had commented on the populist aspect of it, which I guess was the point of my paper all along, but I hadn't quite seen in that light. My thesis was more correct than I realized: these practices are indeed reprehensible--though I might add the proper moral framework to opposing torture was not as developed as it is now--but the English people loved it, except, of course, when a specific person "didn't" deserve it.

What does any of this have to do with the current torture debate? Only that Jay Bybee's dry legalese does much to obscure the abhorrent nature of the tactics we employed, and while the news and blogosphere reaction has been heated on either side, I haven't heard much talk amongst the people I know. The Obama administration will release several torture photos to the ACLU next month; short of videotapes of the interrogations in question (the Bush administration shamelessly destroyed key footage of Jose Padilla's interrogations), coming face to face with photographic evidence of what we did is probably the best hope we have of genuine popular outrage developing far enough to nudge Eric Holder into opening an investigation and trying the officials of both parties for implementing the program.

And yet, we've already seen Abu Ghraib. How much worse can it get?

We'll have to see.

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