The first visual record of police interrogation we have comes from a XII Dynasty tomb in Egypt, two thousand years before Christ. The image shows a man being held by three others while the fourth one beats him with a bamboo stick and the fifth, who appears to be the one in charge, supervises the procedure. The sight is disheartening, Borislav Pekiå«c comments. In four thousand years not much has changed. Prisoners still get beaten. And that’s not the worst that happens to them, of course. There have been many refinements since the pharaohs in methods of inducing physical and mental pain. We must give credit to the Holy Inquisition, which contributed more than any other institution to the development of the role of the interrogator. The Inquisitors’ techniques of persuasion were especially admired by modern totalitarian states where ideological heresy likewise came to be regarded as a capital crime.
Only educated people conversant with nuances of doctrine and with a talent for abstract speculation could count on becoming inquisitors. Their task was no longer to bash heads and extract fingernails but to have the prisoner comprehend the nature of his transgression and make a public confession. Today, in the name of the war on terror, ill-treatment and torture in all their ancient and modern varieties are again being used more or less openly by some countries, including the United States. These practices, surprisingly, have the approval of a number of distinguished law professors and opinion makers who argue that to defeat evil we may have to do the unthinkable now and then.
Were he alive today, Borislav Pekiå«c would not have been persuaded. His interest in the abuse and torture of prisoners comes from firsthand experience. Unlike his better-known Serbian contemporaries, the novelists Danilo Kis and Aleksandar Tisma, who also wrote extensively about imprisonment, Pekiå«c actually spent time in jail as a political prisoner under the Communists. Born in 1930, he was arrested in 1948 in Belgrade while still in high school, and accused of organizing a conspiracy against the state. He did not deny his guilt. The secret student organization, of which he was one of the founders, planned to engage in sabotage in addition to proselytizing for democratic reforms.
This was an act of bravery akin to starting in Nazi Germany an association to combat the spread of anti-Semitism. He was interrogated, treated roughly, and made to sign a statement in which he admitted plotting against the state because, supposedly, he and his friends could not bear the freedom and happiness his fellow citizens now enjoyed. In other words, he was made to realize that rather than having fought for liberty as he had previously told himself, he had been a mortal enemy of that liberty. He served five years out of a fifteen-year sentence.
Exactly how he was made to confess the opposite of what he believed, Pekiå«c describes in Godine Koje su Pojeli Skakavci (Years Eaten by Locusts), a three-volume …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.