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The Politics of Pain | The Nation

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The Politics of Pain

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Friedenthal, in his recent book on Luther, refers to a description of the burning of the Hussite heretic Hieronymus, of Prague, a man of strong build who struggled and screamed in the flames for a long time. He goes on to speak of the multiplied horrors of that age of the wars of religion, and ends briefly: "There were many who screamed." There are many today. Shakespeare lived then, and sometimes made jokes about the rack, or even appeared, as at the end of Othello, to approve of torture. A kind of myopia makes us wonder how such a man, or Erasmus, could have lived, could have eaten and slept and drawn daily breath in a Europe reeking with such things. We fail to notice that our own world is infested with them, even if they are now kept under cover. It is only a generation since the Gestapo went out of business, and its disciples or imitators are still active. The list of countries that have been alleged within the last twelve months, with more or less evidence or proof, to practice torture on political prisoners is terribly long. In the case of some--Greece, South Africa, South Vietnam, Guatemala, Brazil--there seems little room for doubt about the truth of the charges.

About the Author

V.G. Kiernan
V.G. Kiernan (1913-2009) was a professor of modern history at the University of Edinburgh. His books include The Lords...

On a million happier planets other nervous systems may have developed a different warning device, but on ours evolution has made physical pain, for all conscious life, far the most intense of sensations. Whether or not Browning's organist was right to call God the great C-major of this life, its great C-minor is pain. Our race grew up under this fatality, and has only lately begun learning to counter it with science; it has lurked obsessively in all our instincts, imprinting on nerve and brain the fear of cruelty, and also perverse craving for it. They would seem to have generated very early in human history an impulse to ritualize pain in one form or another, to invest it, since it was irremediable, with meaning; to turn it into ceremony, or act of faith, or even entertainment, and thereby reinforce the individual by binding him closer to a group of sharers.

Throughout history there has been a great deal of self-inflicted pain, and men have been almost as willing to torment themselves as one another. This lingered on in the shape of religious austerities, the Hindu expiating his sins by suspending himself in full view from an iron hook run through his flesh, processions of Christian penitents flogging themselves amid public admiration. Or the individual may welcome pain inflicted by his fellows. The initiation ceremonies of many primitive communities, including England's "public schools," have included ordeals, even mutilations; a man's induction into a world of pain must itself be painful. Thesiger describes barbarous forms of adult circumcision performed publicly among modern Arabs, which must have descended from older initiation ordeals. In the ritual of Red Indian torture the same severity was turned outward, against an enemy of the tribe, and strengthened the tribe's collective will and self-confidence by enabling it to perform what in common life would be monstrous, and exposing every member of it to the same fate, if ever captured. It was part of the spice of life; children were sometimes given training for it, at the expense of animals.

When, after the long twilight of prehistory, state and religion, wealth and class division arose, they inherited not only the many material inventions of the dim past but also its shadowy ideas or instincts, and built some of the most barbarous of these into their own foundations. To an extent that textbooks of political theory have never recognized, men learned to dominate one another, as they learned to dominate serviceable animals, by exploiting their sensitiveness to pain. Often torture and painful modes of killing sprouted from the wars of conquest that accompanied the rise of the state, the rational purpose being to strike terror and shorten resistance. Inscriptions of Assyrian kings boast of how they mutilated, impaled, or burned hosts of war captives. Conquest also brought in regiments of slaves, whom it was necessary to keep in physical fear; in Rome a man's slaves were tortured as a matter of course if he died and there was any doubt as to the cause. War has always revived ancient barbarities. The memoirs of a Mughal officer in command of an expedition against Assam in the early 17th century narrate how he ordered wounded prisoners to be trampled under elephants; Nazis in Yugoslavia drove their tanks over wounded prisoners. Methods of terror were also a part of the building up of discipline in the armed rabbles that were gradually transformed into armies. Elizabethan generals drew up their own military regulations, and death by torture, was likely to be the penalty for all the gravest offenses.

The way in which a military state treated its enemies conditioned its treatment not only of its own soldiers but of the rest of its subjects. From earliest times, horrific acts perpetrated abroad and proclaimed at home would gain credit and renown for a ruler; but they would also serve notice on his people of what any malcontents among them might expect. A spectacular death sentence was the ultima ratio regum: hanging, drawing and quartering in medieval England, for instance, for high treason. (A woman who murdered her husband was guilty of petty treason, for which the penalty was burning alive. It is always worth recalling that one cause of man's equivocal attitude to willful pain is the use he made of it to subjugate woman, as the state has used it to subjugate him.) In medieval India flaying alive was in vogue, and the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta was unpleasantly struck by the sight of rebels' skins stuffed with straw and hung up as an example. Muhamad Tughlaq, then Sultan of Delhi, an intelligent and well read man, kept his myrmidons busy day by day at torturings and mutilations, in the effort to hold his dominions together by brute force; but while he was cutting human beings in pieces the empire was already falling to pieces. The more artificial a polity, the more it goes against the grain of history, the more likely it is to fall back on terror. A later Sultan in northern India, faced with disloyalty among his nobles, tried to intimidate one of them by summoning him to his capital and showing him the chamber of horrors where his prisoners were held. The effect was the same--to accelerate the collapse of a realm that lacked organic unity.

Where on the other hand some kind of genuine society existed, public executions could serve as an occasion for the multitude to express its loyal support, to identify itself with its rulers. In the Roman circus, or at the Spanish auto da fe and the burnings that followed it, the public were spectators, instead of participators as in a Red Indian festival of cruelty, but the character of a ritual expression of the collective will remained. Active participation could linger on in milder forms, as when offenders were set in the stocks and right-thinking men invited to pelt them with mud or stones. In a lighter vein, men nursed their group consciousness, and found compensation for their own aches and pains, by gathering to watch animals being tormented or made to fight one another.

Another important branch of statecraft that called for use of physical pressure in various regions was the collection of taxes. In Mughal India the money used, among other things, to build the Taj Mahal was extorted from the peasantry by beatings, or by more extreme suasion. It was much the same in Egypt down into the 19th century: the fellaheen made it a point of honor not to pay the heavy land tax until they had held out to the limit of endurance against flogging. Tax gatherers were emulated and outstripped by private practitioners, like the Norman baron Front de Boeuf in Ivanhoe with his red-hot grill ready to induce Isaac the Jew to disgorge his wealth, or the chauffeurs of old France who earned their name by scorching their victims' feet. Private property, injury to which was one more species of treason, retaliated as savagely.

Physical coercion to extract information, rather than money, developed along with judicial procedures, and is the most direct ancestor of torture as practiced today. In both Europe and Asia, judges resorted to torture with a good conscience, as part of their duty. They had few more refined means at their disposal for arriving at the truth. A Muslim governor of Lahore could earn esteem by unraveling a difficult criminal case after employing torture on a woman; and there is an anecdote from 19th-century China of a magistrate who felt conscientiously obliged to be present himself during an inquisition, and gave up only when a piece of flesh flew through the air into the dish from which he was eating. (In the last days of the old China a visitor saw a surviving member of the guild of professional torturers, an old man of pallid skin and spectral eye.) It went against legal self-respect in medieval Europe to execute a deferidant before he confessed his guilt, even if a confession could be got from him only by force. This scruple bears a bizarre likeness to the insistence on confessions, some of which must have been got by similar means, in the Soviet treason trials.

Inquisitorial arts would seem to have flourished more in Europe than in Asia, and paradoxically to have reflected a higher European respect for individual life and rights. These were to some extent protected by regular courts and laws, which required production of evidence, however obtained. In most parts of the East there were no systematic law codes or trained lawyers (though India, ancient and medieval as well as British, had sophisticated systems of espionage), and it was often simpler to execute suspects out of hand, even wholesale. From another point of view, the elaboration of torture went with the growth of Europe's mechanical ingenuity, and was part of the prelude to modern technology, like cannon or musket, or the invention of printing: Europe was discovering simultaneously more potent means than had yet been known to influence both mind and body. The Red Indian had to make do with knife and fire; a whole array of implements filled the cells of the Tower of London and the vaults of Nuremberg town hall, and precise distinctions came to be drawn between first, second and third degrees of pressure--the last including hot irons.

This was in the epoch of the wars of religion, which were also the climax of the late medieval crisis of feudal society, an immense collision of class interests and national ambitions. All these could find an outlet in religious conflict; and no religion has been so intolerant as Christianity, largely because no priesthood has ever been so highly organized and powerful as the Catholic. No other religion has resorted to torture on such a scale. Its prime function was detection of heresy, but it helped also to deter others from indulging in heretical thoughts, and the striking ceremonial that enveloped the condemnation and punishment of the guilty was well calculated to fortify orthodoxy and renew social bonds imperiled by class tensions. The crowd round the stake had an idealized counterpart in the theologians' vision of the blessed souls in heaven looking down with enjoyment on the pains of the damned in hell. Hell was the most intense of all expressions of human preoccupation with pain. Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, each invented his own vivid picture of a divine chamber of horrors. Half of Europe's churches showed paintings on their walls of Last Judgments, of lost souls borne off by demons to endless misery; and this familiarizing and sanctifying of torture must have helped to make it a matter of use and wont here below. After all, nothing that men could do to one another was, as Shelley said, more than "a faint foretaste of damnation."

For obdurate heretics burning alive remained the standard punishment. It had a symbolic value, and was not, Lord Acton thought, chosen for the sake of cruelty. He cited an experiment at Utrecht of boiling, which the presiding bishop stopped as being too frightful. Vindictive judges might, however, order a slow fire, or a repeated withdrawal and reimmersion in the flames. What can on the whole be said is that the Reformation, which with all its shortcomings stood for progress, was less brutal with religious dissidents (not with witches, unhappily) than the Counter-Reformation, which stood for feudal reaction. As in medieval India and again in the present-day world, it was the archaic regime that tried to prolong its existence by terror. The French Revolution declared a reign of terror, but this was a matter of painless though summary executions, and surprisingly little torture is charged against it. When Napoleon came to power things may have changed.

After the 17th century there was a lull, a time when torture seemed to be vanishing from civilized lands, never to return. Abolition of judicial torture was one of the watchwords of the Enlightenment. In Prussia, it was carried out early in his reign by Frederick the Great, whether or not because this flute-playing militarist felt a desire to atone for the vast amount of physical suffering entailed by his wars. Several reasons can be suggested for the more humane spirit of the age, among them that in countries that were moving forward, men were ceasing to believe in witchcraft, or in hell. They had faith in progress, in persuasion by reason, and in human nature's capacity for improvement. Class conflicts were in general less fundamental than they had been earlier, or were to be again. The police forces that were being built up were taught to protect law and order and property without unnecessary violence. In the liberal 19th century, colonial administration too became milder, and slavery was being abolished. It is not mere coincidence that the preceding epoch of savagery in Europe was also the first and worst epoch of colonial conquest by Europe, when the new slave trade was created. In Manila, Goa, Java, the white man had introduced his own fashions of torture, and picked up fresh hints from Asia.

Implements of torture gathered dust in museums, and seemed to have no place left them other than in tales like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, or Conan Doyle's The Leather Funnel. Torture could even come to be a topic for humor, as with the "something lingering, with boiling oil in it," of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. But it was known that in latitudes as far off as Titipu it might still be anything but a joke, and this contributed not a little to the Western sense of superiority to the barbarous regions beyond the white man's pale. It had a special meaning for England, which took pride in being able to claim that torture had never been fully admitted into its legal procedure, and was early renounced as a political weapon. England was now the pacemaker of imperialism, but in all Western countries empire received a sanction from reports of inhumanities in the dark continents which only civilized rule could stop--things as gruesome as cannibalism and much more, widespread: tortures practiced by pirates in the China Sea, or by benighted despots in Central Asia, as witnessed, and nearly shared, by Vambéry; or death in Zululand by a vile form of impaling; or Red Indian demon revels luridly depicted in illustrations of books like Dunn's Massacres of the Mountains. Annexation did put an end to the more macabre of these customs, though imperialism fell far short of either suppressing or abandoning torture altogether.

Enlightenment proved brief and precarious. As always, wars brought relapses, both in and out of Europe: the Carlist War of 1833-39 in Spain, or the struggle with the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The softening of manners came late, or only very imperfectly, in sundry areas of Europe. There was a fashionable as well as popular audience in Paris in 1757 for the execution by torture of Louis XV's attacker. The Spanish Inquisition lingered well into the 19th century. In spite of the English connection, torture was not formally abolished in Hanover until 1840; in Naples, not until after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy in 1860. In Russia, at least down to the late 18th century, landowners could torture their serfs with impunity. In the 19th century the death penalty, surprisingly, did not exist there, but fatal scourgings with the knout were frequent. Also common, in Nicholas I's time, was the military punishment of running the gantlet, an artificial resurrection of the old tribalistic, collective tormenting of the outcast. And while North America lamented the savagery of its aborigines, ill-treatment of prisoners amounting to torture in convict camps was brought to light in Powell's book, American Siberia.

There were in fact gaps and dilutions in the civilization even of the best countries, and an arbitrary marking off of some types and degrees of painfulness as more or less pardonable, or even commendable. Just as most of us are unwilling to recognize alcohol as one of the drugs, many have refused to regard beating as a form of torture, though it may have as serious effects as certain others. Until very lately, education has everywhere depended on it. British soldiers and sailors were flogged for years after Prussia had given up the institution. Hardly anyone in the England of this century can have wished to appear an advocate of torture; but in Sapper's popular novels of the 1920s, while a foreign villain employs a thumbscrew, the British hero and his well-bom companions kidnap labor agitators and thrash them. To this day, nothing arouses so much enthusiasm at Conservative Party conferences as a call to "bring back the birch" into prison discipline--as if property feels by instinct that it must have physical intimidation in reserve to defend it. It is similar with empire, which is property blown up larger than life. At Cambridge before the last war there lived a benevolent old man who had retired to his college after a lifetime of service in India. Pressed about allegations by Indian nationalists that the police were sometimes guilty of torturing suspects, he denied torture, but was scarcely concerned to deny beatings. Detective novels and gangster films have made the British public familiar with the "third degree," in its new and less bloodcurdling American sense. It may be supposed to have its roots, in rough-and-ready Southern methods of handling Negroes, police methods of handling masses of poor white trash from Europe, with many criminals and some anarchists among them; and possibly some memories among Irish policemen of English police proceedings in Ireland. For novel readers and cinema-goers it has had a mostly comic flavor, along with its French parallel the passage du tabac. Both are vestigial relics, but capable of blossoming afresh when transplanted to Vietnam or Algeria.

Retrogression to physical torture as an instrument of rule has been one of the marks of our age. True, there have been at least two salient differences from the past. Use of torture is seldom if ever openly advertised or acknowledged; and it is mostly reserved for political prisoners. But its raison d'état is at bottom the same thing as defense of big-property interests, exposed now not to vulgar pickpockets or highwaymen but to organized hostile movements. In other words, the underlying fact is that the conflicts of our age have been concerned with fundamentals, of property and power, and, civilized principles have come under correspondingly heavy strain.

There was an ugly overture to the new dispensation in Spanish events of 1893 that shocked Europe a good deal more than similar Greek events have shocked it in 1970--the arrest of 120 anarchists and their brutal torturing by a new special force of ruffians in the Montjuich fortress at Barcelona. In the Spain of the liberal age, backward and full of civil strife as the century still was, and nightmarish as were some happenings of the Carlist War, torture by official order had seldom been heard of, though opponents were frequently shot with little or no trial. But clericalism and political reaction were reviving in close alliance, and bringing back much of the bitterness of the Counter-Reformation. Fascism grew up in the old Catholic south of Europe, including southern Germany. These lands had been overlaid since the 17th century by foreign rule or foreign influence, but a great deal of the past remained, and was now returning to sight; history had put far less distance between them and medievalism than was the case of England or France. None of them had experienced a true revolution.

For decades the Spanish army had fought to keep its hold on Cuba, and the art of war as studied there by its generals was hampered by few moral niceties. Spain was now further poisoned by the imperialist adventure it was starting in Morocco, where Franco and other leaders of the Fascist rising were to get their training. Colonial wars in this century have provoked imperialism to greater and greater violence, because resistance movements have been arming themselves with modern weapons, tactics and ideas, and can no longer be dispersed by a Napoleonic whiff of grapeshot. Torture of prisoners was reported during the American conquest of the Philippines. From the colonies it came home to roost in Europe, where also warfare, especially during World War II, was broadening to include popular guerrilla movements. More information is to be extracted from guerrillas than from regular soldiers; there is more chance of breaking resistance by terror, less danger of massive retaliation. "In my cells even dead men talk," the SS commander in north Italy is said to have boasted in 1944.

Torture is still prevalent "in the despotisrns of the East," an encyclopedia stated complacently in 1927, six years before Hitler and the Gestapo came to power. The student generation of the 1930s in England, about which two young Americans (P. Stansky and W. Abrahams) have lately written an illuminating book, lived under the shadow of Continental fascism, and knowledge or rumors of what was going on in the dungeons were among the influences that were radicalizing it. A random recollection of Cambridge is of Guy Burgess, who was to end as an emigrant to the USSR, talking of something that had made a painful impression on him; a Hungarian refugee he had got to know, once "a terrific fellow," was now, after beatings on the soles of the feet, a shadow of himself. It is proper to add a recollection of a left-wing discussion during which it was far too casually remarked and tacitly agreed that Stalin must have found it necessary to let his intelligence agents use heavy-handed methods, since otherwise the capitalist countries would be left with an advantage. There is a testimony here to the truth in Tolstoy's and Gandhi's warning that hatred, even of brutality, brutalizes. More excusably, a Russian in the civil war, who had been trampled on all his life by the gentry, when found tormenting a captive White explained that he wanted to see what a gentleman's soul looked like.

In modern conditions it is more than ever true that a ruler or ruling class, nation or race, obliged to resort to torture, is one nearing the end of its term, and falling into desperation. It betrays a morbid sense of isolation by being unable to count on its subjects to tell it the truth without compulsion. (It also very often betrays the professional poverty and stupidity of its police force.) When, as with many usurping governments, usually military like those of Brazil and Greece, men in power have to fear for their lives as well as their positions, in case of defeat, fear will harden their hearts still further. They may represent (though they are more likely to be a clique of adventurers seeking support by pretending to represent) an entire social system with its back to the wall. Or they may represent a whole dominant race fearful for its privileges, as in South Africa. And all this has come to be mixed up with the rivalry of the great powers, which has induced these to sponsor, or to give aid and comfort to, governments guilty of atrocities like those in Poland before Gomulka, or in Hungary under Rakoczi, or in a whole flock of Latin American countries--in several of which they continue.

Recent public hangings in Iraq had a bad reception nearly everywhere, and anything like torture publicly exhibited or avowed meets with very strong censure. That is one reason why even the most ruthless regimes may distinguish between prisoners of name or position, whose ill-treatment could less easily be hushed up, and the humble and obscure whose fate few will hear or care about. In Fascist Spain the police have been said to divide men and women in their custody into two categories, those who can safely be subjected to physical ill usage and those who cannot. In Brazil even now social position gives some degree of immunity from torture. For the same kind of reason sufferers are no longer turned loose with hands cut off or eyes put out, or, as in the England of Charles I and Laud, with cropped ears. Still profiting by the march of technology, tyrants have found a valuable ally in electricity, and one of the qualities that has endeared it to them is that it can be employed without leaving any trace. One can only guess at the degree of pain undergone by today's martyrs, compared with the suffering of former days when a victim's, family would sometimes bribe an executioner to pile gunpowder round him at the stake so that the fire would finish him quickly, or, in Czarist Russia, to kill him early in a long flogging: an expert with the knout could break his man's backbone at the first stroke.

The most cultured of the Mughal emperors, when still a young prince, had a man flayed alive before his eyes, and for nothing to do with the foundations of man's universe--state, heaven, hell, property--but an affair of a favorite eunuch eloping with a rival. His father, a man of many battlefields, wrote to him, protestingly, that he himself could not bear to watch a dead goat flayed. We may hope that Prince Salim was fuddled, as he often was, with drink or opium. We may wonder how many of our rulers or power addicts would be able to look on at what has come to be known by that sinister euphemism, an interrogation, or how much they really know of what has occurred in the underworld below their well-carpeted floors. It may be fairly generally the case that bad governments which rest on distortions of movements in themselves healthy will allow themselves to benefit surreptitiously from, the results of torture, whereas those of the type of Guatemala or South Vietnam, which are and know themselves to be intrinsically anti-progressive, will depend on it essentially and deliberately. It seems clear that some of the highly placed men in Rakoczi's Hungary who found themselves in their turn in the cells of the A.V.O. were astonished by what they met there. In any regime under severe stress, a number of sadists are likely to find their way to where they can indulge their tastes unchecked, and the system will breed others; and rulers not themselves depraved will order information to be brought them, much as the customer in a restaurant orders a beefsteak without turning his thoughts toward the abattoir.

In the more comfortable countries nowadays, the public displays something of the same spirit, the same willingness to be tranquilized into a conspiracy of silence. We have lost a great deal of our pleasure in cruelty, but have acquired a faculty for shutting our eyes to it. Urban slave owners in the Old South would often send their slaves to the police station to be given so many strokes of the whip, rather than have them whipped at home. Modern Americans would rather trust special police cadres in Latin America to do whatever the safeguarding of their investments may require. It is indeed one of the recommendations of neocolonialism, by contrast with direct imperial control, that a civilized country is not compelled to do the uncivilized part of its work itself. Easygoing people everywhere fall back on the maxim that there is nothing they can do to help; or that for their representatives to denounce governments accused of these crimes would be bad for trade. Trade has now acquired for all classes in the West the sacredness, the divine right, that it had for the Victorian bourgeoisie. At every stage of history ordinary men are under heavy pressure from their managers to agree to a package deal--a combination of rewards, fleshpots of Egypt, with penalties for asking questions. Acceptance means a sort of crippling, a moral equivalent of the well-fed Chinese lady's bound feet.

We may hope to see. some of the worst regimes--the magna latrocinia or large thieves' kitchens as St. Augustine would have called them--overthrown by revolution, and in the meantime some of their worst agents got rid of by reprisals which will deserve, if they will not receive, universal approval. Outside opinion may possibly, if protests and initiatives like the recent one by "Amnesty" are maintained, stir and move with unexpected quickness. This has happened lately over some other issues, notably that of pollution of the environment; and though each such awakening is by itself limited, each helps to give a push forward to progress in general. All mankind has been guilty of adding to the pollution of the planet, and all of it is itself polluted by a hereditary taint of cruelty, that in most individuals at most times may be dormant, but that all peoples have indulged actively at some time, and some of them, including all the greater nations, in very recent times, if they are not doing so today. No government is likely to admit that anything of the sort is being done now, and denials are meaningless unless accompanied by offers of free inspection of a country's own prisons and those of any country financially or militarily dependent on it, or where its advisers have any hand in police conduct. No government with such entanglements will permit such inspection immediately, but some, and then others, might agree to submit to it at the end of a term of years, during which they could put their houses in order. Some small countries with nothing to hide might set a good example early. Indignation about hijacking of airplanes has produced calls for international action, and the much greater scandal of torture provides obvious grounds for the United Nations to be given rights, at any rate, of visitation. About Brazil and Greece, in particular, much evidence has already been collected by international bodies; the statement by, seven imprisoned Dominican priests, of which a translation appeared in the December 1970 issue of the English Dominican Review, New Blackfriars, speaks of the employment of torture by the Brazilian military regime as deliberate and systematic. One Brazilian establishment urgently in need of scrutiny is the Linhares prison in the province of Minas Gerais, where, according to a long document purporting to have been smuggled out from it last year, many inmates have died or gone mad.

An inquiry has been set up in Washington into allegations that U.S. agents in Latin America have been giving instruction in the arts of torture. This is a charge that America's real well-wishers--few of whom receive money from the American treasury--cannot, very regrettably, disbelieve without proof to the contrary. That the United States, above all, should have a change of heart on this matter is vital, because it is paramount in one large region of the globe where the evil is flagrant, and because of its moral tradition, never entirely submerged, and the unique openness and publicity of its doings, good or bad. A decade ago, Crane Brinton wrote in History of Western Morals that although "whole groups of men can be as cruel in the twentieth century as in the first century," such behavior might now be viewed, even in "that classic land of violence" the United States, as only an occasional lapse from a trend of improvement sheltered by "institutional and legal restraints with good roots in the Western conscience." Whatever excess of optimism there may be in these words, it is not unreasonable to hope that there really has been a profound change for the better in our attitude to the infliction of pain, and that it will lead us to a conviction that what cannot be protected without such aid cannot be worth protecting. Failing this, it is not out of the question that torture will go on spreading underground until it is strong enough to break out once more and redouble the embitterments of classes and of races. If so, mankind is lost.

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