Donald Trump has decided to let his Defense Secretary James Mattis set the policy on the use of torture. Mattis does not believe in the tactic.
Mattis is right because one only need to look to history for proof that torture does not work.
In April 1475 in the city of Trent (Trento, Italy), Jews were arrested in the aftermath of the death of a Christian toddler named Simon. Lazarus one of those arrested and tortured asked his interrogators, “Tell me what I should say.”
Moses of Bamberg, another Jew arrested in Trent, told his torturers to “Just make it quick so I can die fast.”
Most initially resisted the tortures, denying the accusation. One man, 22-year-old Seligman, resisted, and the interrogators ordered him to be stripped, bound, and hoisted up.” In pain, Seligman promised to tell “the truth,” eventually confessing.
With one exception, all the Jews of Trent broke under torture, and confessed to killing Simon and collecting his blood.
By the end of the trial in 1478, the tiny Jewish community of Trent was wiped out. After repeated torture, the men were executed, and the women and children, in light of the suffering, converted to Christianity.
Commemorating the Trent tragedy, a 16th-century Jewish chronicler, Joseph Ha-Kohen wrote: “All the Jews were to be seized. Their lives were then embittered. They were tortured with the cord, so that they confessed to what they had not plotted. One very old man named Moshe, and he alone, did not admit to this great lie.”
Jewish history is peppered with such incidents beginning in the medieval period and continuing on to more recent centuries, offering lessons for us today. In 1247, for example, after Jews were accused of killing a Christian girl in the Provencal village of Valreas, and for using her blood, three were arrested and held for seven days. Under torture, the men’s confessions became contradictory. Some denied what was said, some swayed back and forth. They were nonetheless executed.
The incident in Valreas prompted Pope Innocent IV to issue several letters condemning both what happened and, more broadly, accusations that Jews killed Christian children for ritual purposes.
Rebuking Christians “who, covetous of the [Jews’] possessions or thirsting for their blood, despoil, torture, and kill them without legal judgment,” the pontiff expressed concern with the process, a concern that would be voiced in response to other blood accusations during the following centuries: “No one deserves punishment unless he has first committed a crime, nor should anyone be punished for the crime of another.” Torture was a preemptive punishment.
While torture was part of the criminal procedures in the pre-modern European criminal law, it was not universally accepted as efficacious. The third-century Roman jurist, Ulpian, expressed reservations about its use as “weak and dangerous, and inimical for the truth.” Saint Augustine, too, in his City of God, warned about the use of torture. He saw torture as punishment of innocent people “for a crime that is still doubtful” just to “discover whether [the accused] is guilty.” Sometimes “an innocent person is tortured to discover his innocence,” or worse, “put to death without discovering it.”
Torture could not secure certainty because under torture people often lied.
Confessions extorted under torture “hardly have a shadow of truth,” argued defenders of Jews in another libel, this time in 18th-century Poland during the wave of anti-Jewish libels in Poland. Indeed, the use of torture was “dangerous,” because it served more “to impair than to expose the truth.”
This argument has been made repeatedly; Hugo Grotius made it in the 17th century. And in 16th-century Poland, a popular judicial manual urged court officials not to rush to torture: “Because it happens numerous times that one is so resilient and tough that he can suffer the torture and will not tell the truth even if he were tortured most heavily. And others are not as resilient and, fearing torture, confess against themselves and others, and they repeat many times what had never happened.”
By the second half of the 18th century, especially after Cesare Beccaria’s work On Crimes and Punishments was published in 1763, torture—this “lamentable mode of first discovery”—was “coming to an end.” And in the modern world, it has only remained in place in totalitarian, undemocratic regimes, as a tool of terror—not justice.
Donald Trump’s recent assertions about the efficacy of torture are contradicted by historical evidence, and remind us not only of the darker times of long passed centuries, but of a totalitarian, undemocratic regime. As the Trent trial of the Jews shows, torture is efficacious only when it confirms the torturers’ beliefs. It is about endurance of pain, not about truth.