A Fictional Account of Torture that Illuminates Politics

I knew locking a man up in a dark room was meant to arouse fear before torture; hoping they’d begin with the bastinado, I thought about the lies I could tell to save my hide.

That is Black, a character in Orhan Pamuk‘s 1998 novel My Name is Red  (pp. 246-7).  The passage, which I continue below, offers a useful window into the central claim Steven Pinker makes in his book about the centuries long decline in homicide produced by government’s assertion to a monopoly over the legitimate exercise of coercion, and development of courts and police to enforce the claim.


Bastinado (aka foot whipping); demonstration using a cane.  Source: Wikimedia

Pamuk’s novel is set in Istanbul during the 1590s.  And though it is not widely know, but torture was widely used in courts and other judicial proceedings as the means to establish the innocence/guilt of accused throughout human societies up to the 18th Century.  As Radley Balko explains in his Rise of the Warrior Cop, police as we know them today are a 19th Century development, spreading globally from London.  Criminal courts that relied on forensic evidence are a post-1920 development (think “Perry Mason,” “Adam 12,” “Law & Order,” “CSI,” etc.).

Thus, as far as the living memory of our species is concerned, the use of torture as legitimate means to investigate and adjudicate charges is completely foreign.  Pamuk’s fictional account packs in a brief scene a wonderful antidote.  Though it was not his intention to do so,[1] the Sultan’s use of torture to investigate the murders that are at the core of the novel illustrate not only Pinker’s process–generalized beyond homicide to human cruelty–at work, but also reflect nicely on the moral claims that accompany the focus on the monopoly on violence.

We begin with more of a glimpse inside the detainee’s head as he is removed from the room and the process begins.

In the hands of my torturers, I had nothing in which to take refuge.

I didn’t even notice that tears began to fall from eyes.  I wanted to beg, but as in a dream, no sound issued from my mouth.  I knew from wars, deaths and political assassination and torture (which I’d witnessed from afar) that life could be extinguished instantaneously, but I’d never experienced it this closely.  They were going to strip me from this world just as they’d stripped off my garments.

They took off my vest and shirt.  One of the executioners sat on me, driving his knees into my shoulders.  Another placed a cage over my head with all the practiced elegance of a woman preparing food and began slowly turning the screw at its front.  Nay, it wasn’t a cage, but rather a vise that slowly squeezed my head.

I screamed at the top of my lings.  I begged, but incoherently.  I cried, mostly because my nerves had given out.

They stopped momentarily and asked: “Were you the one who killed Enishte Effendi?”

You see, it is a judicial inquiry.  The Sultan has directed his staff to interrogate the detainee, Black, because a murder has taken place and no police force exists to investigate, nor prosecutor, nor judges.  In medieval Europe this process was known as Trial by Ordeal (aka, Trial by Fire).  The Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials are widely known events that featured trial by ordeal, but few realize that trial by ordeal was the standard judicial process practice throughout Europe for centuries.  Those events were not in the least exceptional.

Let us return to Black’s trial by ordeal.

I took a deep breath. “Nay.”

They began to tighten the vise again.  It was excruciating.

They asked again.


“Who then?”

I don’t know!”

I wondered if I should just tell them I’d killed him.  The world spun unpleasantly about my head.  I was overcome with reluctance.  I asked myself if I were growing accustomed to the pain.  My executioners and I stayed still for a moment.  I felt no pain, I was simply terrified.

Just as I decided from the silver coin in my pocket that they weren’t going to kill me, they suddenly released me.

Why was Black released?  He had passed the ordeal: the practice worked such that a suspect was subjected to predetermined level of pain, known only to the torturers.  If s/he did not confess, she was deemed not guilty, and another suspect would be subjected to trial by ordeal.

Here is how that unfolds in My Name is Red.

They removed the viselike contraption that had actually done little damage to my head.  The executioner who had pinned me down stood up without even a hint of apology.  I donned my shirt and vest.

There passed a long silence.

At the other end of the room, I saw Head Illuminator Osman Effendi.  I went to him and kissed his hand.

“Don’t be concerned, my child,” he said to me.  “They were just testing you.”  …

“Our Sultan has ordered that you not be tortured at this time,” said the Commander.  “He deemed it more appropriate for you to help the Head Illuminator Master Osman find the rogue who’s been killing His miniaturists and they loyal servants preparing His manuscripts.”

You see, Black was one of several painters (miniaturists) working in a shop on book projects commissioned by the Sultan.  Two members of the shop, one a Master, had been murdered, and the Sultan was, in effect, deputizing Master Osman and Black to conduct an inquiry to determine who was the guilty party.  The Commander continues.

You have three days in which to interrogate the miniaturists, scrutinize the illuminated pages they’ve made and find the sly culprit.  The Sovereign is quite appalled by the rumors being spread by mischief makers about His miniaturists and illuminated manuscripts.

Why?  Because the government had no police force and no prosecutor/court, murder investigations and prosecutions took place on an ad hoc basis.  Given the absence of modern institutional solutions to homicide alternative systems were necessary.  The ubiquity of trial by ordeal–in some times and places conducted under ad hoc authority, and in others, under an institutionalized court–in the absence of modern police and courts is fascinating.

Equally interesting, I expect you will agree, is the rest of Sultan’s solution to the homicide problem in his polity.

Within three days, if you fail to produce the swine along with the missing page he stole–about which much gossip is flying–it is Our Just Sultan’s express desire that you, my child Black Effendi, be the first to undergo torture and interrogation.  Afterward, let there be no doubt, each of the other miniaturists will have his turn.

Everybody knows that when a crime is committed with Our Sultan’s wards, regiments and divisions, the entire group is considered guilty until one morning one among them is identified and turned in.  A section that fails to name the murderer in its midst goes down in the judicial records as a ‘division of murderers,’ including its office or master, and is punished accordingly.

To summarize, in the Sultan’s realm the problem of homicide was addressed via a mixture of ad hoc investigations, trial by ordeal, and self policing motivated by collective punishment.  One need only have been a tweenager (middle schooler), not a rational institutional theorist, to understand why such a system is more brutal, and a less effective deterrent, than the flawed, but superior, “monopoly” alternative.

Pamuk’s scene wonderfully captures why, as Pinker explains, the government’s claim on a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion, enforced via the creation of professional police and courts, has dramatically reduced the homicide rate in our species.


[1] Pamuk wrote the novel well before Pinker even thought of pursuing the project that produced his book.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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1 Response to A Fictional Account of Torture that Illuminates Politics

  1. Pingback: Novel Illuminates Torture | Political Violence @ a Glance

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