The Horrors of Torture – History’s Dark Reminder | The Center for Victims of Torture

The Horrors of Torture – History’s Dark Reminder

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Anne Maertz is CVT strategic partnerships officer.

On a recent vacation in Europe, I visited a museum in Granada, Spain that advertised an exhibit about torture. The museum’s name was Casa Sephardi, Sephardi being the term for Jews who used to live in Spain and Portugal. Although the exhibit was historical, it was strikingly relevant to today, and because of my work at the Center for Victims of Torture, I’m sharing my observations about the ways torture was used to punish, control and decimate communities and populations.

A note of caution: This post includes graphic images and descriptions of torture. 

The exhibit started off easy, with displays of artifacts like menorahs, prayer shawls and wedding costumes. Jews had done well in Spain, prospering under both Muslim and Christian rule. But their success made them a target. 

In 1391, 4,000 Jews were massacred in Seville. This was followed by mass forced conversion to Christianity. Judaism provides a “get out” clause that allows for conversion if one’s life is at risk. So most Jews converted—sincerely or not. The problem was, conversion wasn’t all that the monarchs were after; they wanted the community’s wealth. There were religious motives, to be sure, but economics was the prime driver of what became known as The Spanish Inquisition. 

The Inquisition imprisoned and tortured the Conversos—Jews who had converted. Their property was seized and sold off, ostensibly to pay for their upkeep in prison. Their families were turned out into the streets.

Not surprisingly, almost all were found guilty of secretly practicing Judaism and executed. In 1492, all the remaining Jews were expelled from Spain. About a hundred years later, Muslims were also subjected to forced conversions, an Inquisition and expulsion.

Then there was the specific exhibit about torture. It was awful, truly awful, and I say this as someone who works for a torture rehabilitation center. 

The museum offered no spin on the exhibit. It wasn’t a “human rights” museum; it made no call to action at the end. It also did not make light of torture. It presented straight-out torture, torture and more torture, leaving any interpretation and follow up to the visitor.

One of the exhibits featured masks that people—mainly women—were forced to wear if they questioned authority.

The pig mask was designed to humiliate Jews, who don’t eat pork. These masks may look kind of funny (as in humorous), but they weren’t. As the paragraph in the first photo describes, they often had spikes that pierced the tongue and collars that cut into the neck. Wearers typically died of starvation.

Then there was a set of branding irons. The “crimes” for which people were branded included “blasphemer” and “rogue”— in other words, these were for people who said or did things contrary to the status quo. 

The exhibit proceeded, and it got worse. I didn’t take photos of most of it; it was just too horrible.

There was an iron maiden, thumb screws, chastity belts (for men and women, with and without spikes); the saw (victim hung upside down and sawed); the iron bull (victim forced inside a hollow iron statue of a bull under which a fire was slowly built); the rack (with and without spikes), which pulled the victim’s spine and other joints apart one by one; and the cage, in which victims were locked and suspended from a bridge where they were exposed to the elements and starved to death.

The displays, which appeared to be decades old, confirmed at least three things I’ve learned since working at CVT:

  1. While torture may be used to extract information, it is mainly meant to punish those who speak out when they disagree with authority and to intimidate entire communities from doing the same.
  2. Waterboarding is torture, and a medieval technique at that.
  3. Torture is not effective in obtaining accurate information.

Finally, if you think the tortures used in medieval times are behind us, think again. As a CVT clinician said to me once, “Every kind of torture you’ve heard of, someone, somewhere in the world is still doing it.”

Almost 50% of Americans think it’s okay to use torture. If, like me, you don’t agree, please sign CVT’s Reject Torture declaration.



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