Monday, 20 November 2017

A Merciless and Unpredictable Tyrant

The Fragile Thinness of Civilization

English history--like most histories--is replete with tyrants and tyrannies.  Henry VIII was one of the worst.  We acknowledge that he was a creature of his times.  The administration of capital justice was so often based upon witnesses whose testimony, in turn, was based upon confessions extracted under torture.

Our times have seen plenty of this kind of evil malice.  Stalin, for example, wanted in some strange way to dress up his infamy and cruelty with show trials.  Testimonies extracted under torture, or the threat thereof, formed a large part of these trials.  Stalin knew all these confessions were garbage, but the formalities had to be adhered to.  Appearances needed to  be maintained.  Why Stalin persisted in such bizarre arrangements is hard to fathom.  Surely he could not have been trying to convince himself.  Was he trying to keep alive the myth of the New Model Man in the minds of the peasantry?

In Henry's case one driver was the need for a legitimate (male) heir; he had a hard time finding the right queen who would produce the goods.  His second queen, Anne was eventually convicted of multiple adulteries and executed.  Was Anne an adulteress?  It seems not.  The testimony against her was probably extracted under torture.

Anne was accused of an adulterous relationship with a young musician, Mark Smeaton.
When Smeaton was arrested, he confessed to adultery with the queen--perhaps under torture (one account has Cromwell in person twisting a knotted rope around his head), perhaps after promises of mercy, perhaps even through some psychological fantasy.  This single confession was sufficient, though all the others protested their innocence.  Within three weeks, Anne, her brother, Norris, Smeaton and two other courtiers were tried, condemned and executed.  [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 2015),  p.170]
Eleven days after Anne's death, Henry had married Jane Seymour.  Tombs says that what this horror shows is the "perils of being close to a merciless and unpredictable tyrant."

Thankfully, in the West, this kind of injustice is no longer seen (there are plenty of others).  Courts thankfully do not recognize the veracity of testimony extracted by torture.  However, there are signs that torture is making a comeback.  We all know what was waterboarding is about.  It has been strenuously defended by some in the West who believe that the end indeed justifies the means--and there is nothing so sacred and holy than the defence of the Republic, or the State.  Those who argue thusly are kissing cousins of a "merciless and unpredictable tyrant".

Alas, we are not so far removed from the injustices and iniquities of Tudor England as we may like to think.  Or Stalin.  The matter is one of degree, not principle.  If we can murder unborn children without a care--even justify it as a fundamental human right--using torture to extract "evidence" cannot be ruled out, if the provocations were sufficiently pressing.  And so it has proved to be. 

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