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An Interview with Sadakat Kadri About His Book, The Trial: A History, from Socrates to O.J. Simpson

Your book spans a range from the myth of Orestes to the trials of Bernhard Goetz and O.J. Simpson. What changes did you observe during that long period?

Trials throughout the pre-modern world were very often explicitly religious rituals. Punishments, meanwhile, treated criminals as pollutants or pests. In ancient Athens, for example, murderers supposedly emitted a vapor that could be cleansed only by a court hearing. Celtic druids burned wrongdoers in huge wicker men. And lawyers in late medieval Europe prosecuted animals and human corpses if they seemed blameworthy enough. It’s too easy to dismiss those precedents as “superstitious.” Although our theories of proof and punishment have changed, I was always more struck by the continuities between past and present than by the differences. Trials are still structured so as to repair damage to the moral fabric of society. The hope remains that by exacting vengeance in court, we will achieve a moral balance.

You began The Trial shortly before the September 11 attacks, which you experienced while living in New York. Did the post-9-11 discussions of enemy combatants and military commissions influence the book?

They certainly did. Modern trials can be understood in many ways, but most people would probably underscore their role as a check on state power. The Bush administration’s post-9-11 promise to bring enemies to justice -- even “Infinite Justice” -- at the same time as it consigned hundreds of them to the shadowlands of Guantánamo Bay and Bagram made me realize, however, that the avoidance of trials can be as significant as their staging. Although O.J.’s prosecution is the last I describe in detail, the jurisprudence of the war on terror pops up throughout my book.

Could you explain how torture, which has recently found proponents once again in the U.S., first entered the history of the trial, and how it then left?

The peculiar notion that violence begets truth has been around for millennia. Ancient Athenians thought the evidence of slaves inadmissible unless obtained through torture. With the fall of Rome, torture’s use declined. Its formal reintroduction comes in the early 13th century, the era of the Crusades, a precedent that is instructive and alarming. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV approved the temporary use of non-lethal force to extract information and confessions. Torture then became integral to the inquisitorial system for 500 years. The rack and thumbscrew were abandoned only in the late 1700s thanks to the campaigns of liberals such as Cesare Beccaria and Voltaire. This came with some pretty basic intellectual changes: a new view of citizens as free agents whose humanity entitled them to physical respect, and new developments in our theory of knowledge that rendered apparent the logical shortcomings of torturing someone to see if they ought to be tortured. Now we have people who, in the name of combating barbarism, want to reverse the Enlightenment.

Read entire article at American Prospect