Well, almost personal. I never tortured anyone except some unfortunate members of a concert audience who had to hear me play the piano on an off-night. But my family did. Apropos of my First Things essay this morning on torture, it seems worth mentioning a not-so-hypothetical case.
Two of my father’s first cousins as well as their uncle survived three years of World War II as partisans in Belarus, not far from where the Bielski brothers’ resistance group was operating. They lived near Slonim, right on the eastern side of the German-Russian division of Poland in 1939. When the Germans marched in with Operation Barbarossa, they immediately killed all the Jews they could find in the border towns.
My grandfather’s sister Feige was the only one of his six siblings who did not join him in America. As the youngest, she had stayed to care for their ailing mother. When the Germans marched in, her teenaged children, Dvora and Moshe, ran out of the back door of the house through the tall grass of the adjoining meadow and reached the shelter of the forest. The parents were only seconds behind them with the baby, but could not reach the forest. They hid instead in the tall grass as the Germans searched the house. While Dvora and Moshe watched, their Polish neighbor pointed out the spot where Feige hid with her husband and child. The Germans killed them.
Dvora and Moshe made contact with their uncle Ascher in the forest and joined the little partisan group he led. Sometime later they made their way back to their village, barricaded the Polish neighbor inside his house, and put to the torch. The neighbor was burned alive.
That was torture, all right: they did it for revenge, and to make a horrible example of a Nazi collaborator. There is a case to made for the use of atrocities to discourage collaboration with radical evil. Did they do the right thing? There is a reason that in our morning prayers we ask God not to put us to the test. Would I have done the same thing in their position? There’s no way of stating the affirmative strongly enough without expletives discouraged on this site.