There is no other example which better illustrates the deplorable effects of systematic torture than the witch hunts that took place in Europe and America.
The parallels to our modern use of torture in the WOT are pretty clear.
Both were launched in times of a certain heightened public hysteria. Both essentially assume rather than establish the guilt of the victim. Both used/use violence and cuelty to extract information which is not accurate and establish false guilt. Both result in the naming of more and more falsely accused to be rounded up for torture and false accusation of others, providing an ever growing number of suspects. Both by their nature breed additional hysteria as they provide the practicioners an excuse/”need” to expand their “investigations”.
Anyone that believes torture is justified or effective under any circumstances ignores all of the lessons we’ve learned from hunting witches.
The evidence required to convict an alleged witch varied from country to country – but prosecutions everywhere were most frequently sparked off by denunciations, while convictions invariably required a confession. The latter was often obtained by extremely violent methods. Although Europe’s witch-frenzy did not begin until the late 1400s – long after the formal abolition of “ordeal” in 1215 – brutal techniques were routinely used to extract the required admission of guilt. They included hot pincers, the thumbscrew, and the ’swimming’ of suspects (an old superstition whereby innocence was established by immersing the accused in water for a sufficiently long period of time). Investigators were consequently able to establish many fantastic crimes that could never have occurred, even in theory. That said, many judicial procedures of the time required proof of a causative link between the alleged act of witchcraft and an identifiable injury, such as a death or property damage.
There are particularly important differences between the English and continental witch-hunting traditions. The checks and balances inherent in the jury system, which required a 23-strong body (the grand jury) to indict and a 12-strong one (the petit jury) to convict, always had a restraining effect on prosecutions. Another restraining influence was its relatively rare use of torture: the country formally permitted it only when authorised by the monarch, and no more than 81 torture warrants were issued (for all offences) throughout English history. Continental European courts, while varying from region to region, tended to concentrate power in individual judges and place far more reliance on torture. The significance of the institutional difference is most clearly established by a comparison of the witch-hunts of England and Scotland, for the death toll inflicted by the courts north of the border always dwarfed that of England. It is also apparent from an episode of English history during the early 1640s, when the Civil War resulted in the suspension of jury courts for three years. Several freelance witch-hunters emerged during this period, the most notorious of whom was Matthew Hopkins, who emerged out of East Anglia and proclaimed himself “Witchfinder General”. Such men were inquisitors in all but name, proceeding pursuant to denunciations and torture and claiming a mastery of the supposed science of demonology that allowed for identification of the guilty by, for example, the discovery of witches’ marks. Research into the laws and records of the time show that the witchfinders often used peine forte et dure and other torture to extract confessions and condemnations of friends, relatives and neighbors.
The sentence generally was death (as Exodus 22:18 states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”). There were other sentences, the most common to be chained for years to the oars of a ship, or excommunicated then imprisoned.
The most common death sentence was to be burnt at the stake while still alive. In England it was common to hang the person first and then burn the corpse, a practice adopted sometimes in other countries (in many cases the hanging was replaced by strangling). Drowning was sometimes used as a means of execution. England was also the only country in which the accused had the right to appeal the sentence.
The most common methods used to execute alleged witches were burning and hanging.
More generally, the majority of trials have always occurred within “Christian/European/American cultures; they were most often justified there with reference to the Bible‘s prescriptions: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18) and “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones” (Leviticus 20:27).
The measures employed against alleged witches were some of the worst ever to be legally sanctioned in the Western world. In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:
“The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them.”
Number of executions
Assuming 40,000 executions over 250 years in Europe, which had a population of approximately 150 million at the time with a life expectancy of ca. 40 years, we get roughly one execution for witchcraft per 25,000 deaths, ranking about 3.5 times higher as cause of death than death by capital punishment (for any offense) in the USA in the late 20th century, or roughly 5 times lower than death by capital punishment in the People’s Republic of China.
So unless you believe in witches, these numbers tell us some very important things.
There were roughly 40,000 innocent people killed and many more tortured in these episodes. Of those by far the greatest number are concentrated in areas that used methods including torture and did not give the accused trial by jury. In areas where torture was not allowed or used very rarely, there were far more aquittals of the innocents. In areas where a trial jury was allowed, more innocents were saved.
Every terror SUSPECT should be getting exactly what the Supreme Court ruled that they are required to have under the Geneva Conventions and the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, a fair trial in a “regularly constituted court” that does not allow the introduction of information obtained through torture, allows the defendent access to the evidence, allows them a lawyer, and allows them to be present.
Otherwise, you are burning innocent witches.
Just something to keep in mind as you hear Republicans defend “waterboarding”, known during the inquisition as “water torture”, and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”. I’m sure witch hunters thought they were effective and necessesary as well.