Concerning my comment on Heinlein and Abu Ghraib, a reader writes:
The secret policeman does not discuss the uncle’s death as a way of threatening the hero. (He threatens direct torture and, successfully, threatens to torture the horse the hero rides at a ranch boarding school.)
Rather, after the secret policeman decides to let the hero go, the hero asks him what happened to the hero’s uncle. (The two were picked up by the secret police for questioning together.) The policeman tells him the uncle died of heart failure. Only hours later does the hero recall being told in biology class that all forms of death, in the last analysis, are from heart failure. (Presumably, the uncle was tortured to death, or committed suicide to avoid revealing information.) Thus, the analogy to the Abu Ghraib death certificate is even closer than you suggest.
The interesting thing about Heinlein’s secret policeman is that he is not presented as a comic book monster, but as a hard-working policeman/government official trying to get a job done (albeit that the job is protecting an authoritarian government that is prepared to use torture as a matter of routine policy). As a character, he is very similar to the “competent individual” that critics have identified as a typical hero in many Heinlein novels. He even makes similar wisecracks.
Consistent with this, the uncle is, in fact, a member of a revolutionary organization and is using the young hero of the book as an unwitting courier to convey vital military information. Similarly, the policeman lets the hero go based on a judgment that he is probably innocent, even though he is not 100% sure. (In other words, while the policeman is using improper methods, he is not just persecuting people or being arbitrary.)
More broadly, the authoritarian government in Between Planets is not the product of some crazy or militant ideology. If I recall correctly, it evolved gradually from a world government that was given a monopoly on nuclear weapons for good reasons following one or more nuclear wars. For example, during the interrogation the hero asks for a lawyer. If I recall correctly, the policeman tells him he is legally entitled to a lawyer but adds, in a typical Heinlein character wisecrack, that he should have paid more attention in his high school history courses or he would know that it’s about a hundred years too late for a lawyer to be more than a formality.
All of this, I think, makes the interrogation scene even more chilling. And the sense given of a police state in a society not too different from the
1950s US is pretty interesting, especially in a novel marketed for “junveniles.”
My memory having been jogged, I can testify that the plot summary above is accurate while the one in the original post was mistaken.
If I recall correctly, the secret policeman’s reply to the hero’s demand for a lawyer doesn’t end with the statement that the demand comes, historically, about a century too late. He then adds something like, “After we’re finished with business, you may have a lawyer, or a lollipop, whichever you prefer. The lollipop would be more nourishing.”
It would be too easy, of course, to say that Heinlein would have opposed the war in Iraq and the tactics of the occupation. The pre-Starship Troopers Heinlein who wrote Between Planets might have, but the older Heinlein would have sounded just like your friendly local warblogger, grumbling about defending civilization against the barbarians and passing over the rest as unimportant details. Still the passage in Between Planets says what it says, whatever the author would have thought about the application to current events.
One thing’s for sure, though: Heinlein would have had nothing but contempt for the sheer incompetence and disrespect for fact that has characterized the execution of the war and its aftermath.