Torture and Political Science

Amazing how few political scientists responded to the last 5 years of revelations about torture by the U.S. government.

But perhaps this merely continues that profession’s perennial habit of ignoring the dark side of Leviathan.

British historian Thomas Macaulay noted in his 1837 essay on Francis Bacon that “he who first treated legislation as a science was among the last Englishmen who used the rack.” When Bacon was serving as legal henchman for King James, Bacon had an aged clergyman tortured in the Tower of London to coerce a confession that he had publicly given a sermon discovered in his study. (The sermon had a few passages Bacon considered treasonous). But the geezer refused to confess.

Macaulay notes that, in the early 1600s England, “the practice of torturing prisoners was then generally acknowledged by lawyers to be illegal, and was execrated by the public as barbarous.” Though Bacon was a great writer and a great philosopher, “he was employed in perverting the law to the vilest purposes of tyranny.”

I first read and annotated this essay in the early 1980s. I did not pay much attention to the discussion of Bacon and torture – since I considered that a medieval relic of little concern to modern times.


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3 Responses to Torture and Political Science

  1. Dirk W. Sabin July 17, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    One mans Medievalism is another’s “Post-Modernism”. In his new book “Forgotten Patriots”, historian Edwin Burroughs recounts the horrifying events surrounding the British Prison ships in occupied New York during the Revolutionary War. Though hotly discussed until the 20th century, the memory of sordid British Actions, including the suspension of Habeas Corpus has been little noted and now even less noted for its uncomfortable proximity to our conduct in the War on Terror.

    These prisons , where more people died than any other engagement in the war provided an enormous galvanizing effect upon the colonists, proving that one cannot win a war of occupation by brutalizing the enemy. An interesting sidebar is that sometime at the turn of the last century,a film maker created an epic film of somewhere around 16 reels entitled the “Spirit of 76” and it illustrated the depravity of occupation. In the run-up to WW I Woodrow Wilson, of course, suppressed it and the director was tried and convicted to 12 years in prison for “engendering animosities”

    The only science to torture and wartime prisoners is that one can count on the forces of Empire exercising a methodical depravity reinforced by indifference when the Empire’s war lust is indulged.

  2. Jim July 17, 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    That’s an excellent point on the British barbarism.

    Is the “Spirit of 76” film available on DVD?

    I’m glad they don’t imprison people for “engendering animosities” these days, otherwise I might be sent someplace with zilch good brew.

  3. Dirk W. Sabin July 18, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    You and I would both be bunking in a deep sludge pit.

    Nope, according to the author Every Last one of the reels vanished under the house-cleaning of the “Wilson Let’s All Get Along For The Sake Of Empire crusade”