Tortured Debate: Why the Media Should Stop Referring to the Inquisition

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Liam Brockey, currently assistant professor of history at Princeton University, will become an associate professor of history at Michigan State in the fall. He is the editor of Portuguese Colonial Cities in the Early Modern World (Ashgate: 2008).

As a troupe of wise men once said, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Regrettably, that is no longer the case. The recent flood tide of commentary about the so-called Torture Memos has brought on a torrent of comparisons to the Inquisition, a church court that operated from the late fifteenth until the early nineteenth century with varying degrees of activity.

Seeking to offer valid comparisons with the horrors of the past, journalists and other commentators have conjured the ghost of the “Spanish Inquisition” as a standard for despotic depravity. The invocation of this ecclesiastical tribunal is typically followed by fleeting references to the more notorious governments of the twentieth century. While the terror provoked by the Inquisition over the three centuries of its existence is beyond dispute, the Holy Office (as it was known to contemporaries) is surely out of its league in this company. Indeed, its popular reputation and its presence in current debates owe more to the gothic imagination of the nineteenth century than to the study of its history. The use of comparisons that are inappropriate because they ignore the historical specificity of any past institution or event does a great disservice to our political culture. The appeal made by mentioning the Inquisition is based on caricature rather than fact, and its inaccuracy cheapens the debate.

The popular image of the Inquisition—despite the best efforts of Mel Brooks and Monty Python—is no laughing matter. It is the legacy of a distinct political climate which combined shades of anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish sentiment to justify the presumably more enlightened political and religious attitudes of the French, English, and Americans. Central to that vision of the Inquisition was the question of torture, a barbaric practice that the new progressive regimes in those lands would, of course, never countenance—regardless of their own histories of witch hunts and anti-Semitism. Other hallmarks of the Inquisition, such as its absolute secrecy and the religious criteria for its judgments, also contributed to its nefarious image.

If we are to reflect on the issue of torture and, more specifically, on how and why torture was used by the Inquisition five hundred years ago, some preliminary considerations are in order. The Holy Office was an ecclesiastical court, conceived in the late 1470s, which was run by churchmen for the express purpose of prosecuting heresy and other crimes against contemporary Christian beliefs and practices. After an initial thirty-year period of great activity (by fifteenth century standards) in which it moved from town to town seeking out Crypto-Jews and blasphemers, the Inquisition became a settled, urban tribunal. Its procedures were marked by formality and legalism, with the ultimate stated goal of rooting out heterodoxy. Ironically, it was the court’s strict adherence to its rules of operation and, in particular, its obsession with record-keeping that ensured that its catalogue of horrors would be preserved for posterity.

The rules for the use of torture, the instances when it was applied, and the results of its use are clearly described in Inquisition records. Indeed, the technique known as waterboarding is presented in graphic detail in many trial reports. One such case from the spring of 1494 relates how a particularly recalcitrant woman in Toledo refused to confess to the accusations of “judaizing” that had been brought against her. The inquisitors considered that she was a Christian in name only, since several people had witnessed her “reversion” to the Jewish practices of her ancestors, and so decided to force a confession through torture. Six legal experts, all duly identified, concurred that this was the correct procedure. And so Marina González was stripped, tied to a rack, and “with a jar that held three pints, more or less, they started to pour water down her nose and throat.” After each pint was poured, she was asked to confess. González reportedly held out for the whole jar, and only began to confess to performing Jewish rituals when she was lowered once again into position for further torture.

The use of torture by the Inquisition was never without deliberation. There was no urgency to defuse ticking time-bombs; rather, torture was applied during judicial procedures in cases where the accused did not confess to his or her misdeeds in spite of what was considered to be strong evidence. Aside from potentially securing denunciations, torture was meant primarily for producing confessions, not “intelligence.” The rules drawn up by the Holy Office imposed strict limits and procedural requirements on the use of torture. One compendium of rules published by the Royal Press in Madrid in 1630 lays out the prolonged deliberations necessary for resorting to torture. Confessions secured as a result of torture, the rules insist, must be repeated in full two to three days afterwards. Moreover, these rules state that the inquisitors who issued the order to proceed with torture must be present during its application. Even the torturer is supposed to be “a man who would not be expected to do something he shouldn’t out of hatred, affection, or self-interest.” Nevertheless, while these rules insisted that the option to apply torture could only be used once, trial records state that inquisitors would “suspend” the torture sessions so that they could be resumed indefinitely.

Inquisition records have revealed a wealth of information about the lives of people of the past in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the Iberian empires in the Americas and Asia. Historians have mined their archival riches for details about politics, culture, and religion hundreds of years ago. In other words, those records contain rare echoes of the voices of the past, on either side of the law of their day. We should not forget, however, that the Holy Office was an institution that existed at the dawn of the modern era—and was extinguished by Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians as their history entered its modern phase. Serious historians have analyzed it according to the standards of its time, not of ours. Dispassionately, they have revealed the Inquisition as the product of an age when anxiety about religious conformity and orthodoxy weighed heavily on the minds of monarchs. Those kings and princes did not swear to defend a constitution, to abide by international conventions, or to defend human rights; a different legal and moral vocabulary guided their actions.

So there is no need to invoke the “Spanish Inquisition” to refer to the barbarity of our age. If there is a pressing need to find analogies for the abuses committed by Americans in the name of hunting terrorists, the recent past offers an ample selection. Without the hazy remoteness of distant realities such as the Holy Office, the indictments to be made as a result of accurate comparisons will be all the more grave. To be sure, the industrial age raised the bar for brutality to levels that would have made inquisitors blanch. If we are serious about understanding what recently went wrong in our midst, hard as it may be for us to swallow, we are far better served by references to recent events, since these remind us of the moral lessons that we should already have learned from our own experiences.

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Dennis Loo - 5/18/2009

The parallels between the Spanish Inquisition and the US government's use of torture are more apt than Liam Brockey believes.

While the cover story for why they've been torturing prisoners is that it is because of an alleged "ticking time bomb" and for intelligence, that is not in fact why they've been doing it. The initial go-ahead to torture by Cheney et al was to extract confessions as to a relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq in order to justify the invasion. The continuing underlying rationale for torture was and is to intimidate and terrorize, just as it was in the Spanish Inquisition.

As I wrote in an essay entitled "Out of the Woodwork: Today's Torquemadas:"

The “Ticking Time Bomb”

This is the rationale of today’s Torquemadas: we are saving American lives and we must do it or else. It is also a favorite of shows like 24 whose purpose is to dignify torture and to justify it in an entertainment format.

But the ticking time bomb scenario is simply fiction. Here is why:

If you capture a suspect and are convinced that he or she knows something about an immediately pending terrorist attack, what terrorist cell, as soon as one of theirs is out of contact for an extended period – remember this is supposed to be just a day or less to the bomb going off, so this group will be very careful about staying in touch and having signals that none of them has been picked up - wouldn’t immediately cancel their plans?

Furthermore, if you suspect that this person’s a terrorist, or even know for a fact that this person’s a terrorist, you then have a choice: do you torture this person and thereby ruin any chances of obtaining their cooperation in the future and gain through torture of them information that you don’t know is truthful because you’ve tortured them to get it, and also, by torturing them, destroy any chances of convicting this person for any crimes, thereby putting this person and yourself in legal limbo? Or do you try to use methods that will get you reliable information?

What I have just said is no doubt obvious to the government itself. They won’t say it, but you can see how obvious this is, as long as you’re not blinded by fear or by xenophobia.

So why, then, use torture?

The answer is because torture’s purpose isn’t intel. Torture’s purpose is terror.

This is why the Bush White House used it. To terrorize whole populations, including Americans who might find torture unacceptable. To get their way.

Lorraine Paul - 5/18/2009

I went to backspace and the rest is 'history'!!

To continue...
...being linked to Al Qaeda or, as the case with most detainees in Iraq, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the victim of vicious informers?

When populations are whipped into fear by those who should know better, then perhaps a closer look to more recent times will be more fruitful than turning back to a distant past. After all, not much has been said here in Australia, although it could be different in the US, about those countries which still practice torture as part of, perhaps, their political or criminal systems.

Who are these governments and why was the Bush administration so hand-in-glove with them that they were trusted not to 'tell'?

What role did Mossad play in all this? Is Israel one of those countries so willing to play a part in wrongful detention and subsequent torture? If so, what does that say about its much vaunted 'only democracy in the mid-east'?

So many questions. What the United States and other countries involved in the 'Coalition of the Willing', need is a Royal Commission whereby those affected can testify, with or without legal representation, and tell their stories. Although there may be legal consequences arising out of the findings of Royal Commissions it is more a forum where testimony can be freely given without a verdict being imposed on participants.

This fact of torture being carried out by democratically elected governments, with the complicity of the population, must be investigated. I doubt I need to point out why.

Lorraine Paul - 5/18/2009

Could it be said that the Inquisition was the genesis of the type of bureaucracy which enabled Nazi-Germany carry out the persecution and murder of such undesirables as trades unionists, socialists, gypsys and Jews in the 20thC? These groups could also be said to have posed a threat to the 'contemporary...beliefs and practices' of Nazism.

The criteria used by the Bush administration to imprison and torture may not conform to the raison d'etre of the Inquisition, as analysed above by Brockey, but on the other hand how many of those detained by reason of their politics rather than their being linked to Al Qaeda or, as the case in most Iraq in the wrong place

Nicholas Clifford - 5/18/2009

I don't think that Brockey's arguing that comparisons to the inquisition are "inappropriate." I think the point is that reference to 500-year old practices, however, appropriate they may be, betray an unwillingness on the part of those who use them to admit that the narrative of modernity and the belief in progress so often implicit in that narrative, in fact has permitted barbarities in our age that would, as he says, "make an inquisitor blanch." Reference to something like the inquisition, in other words, becomes a way of diverting attention away from the horrors that modernity has permitted (and indeed in some ways has even encouraged).

Jonathan Dresner - 5/18/2009

While I appreciate the clarity of the history, it's entirely unclear to me why references to the Spanish Inquisition -- which routinely, as the author describes, used torture to produce false confessions under the guise of legal procedure which it, again routinely, circumvented, in an atmosphere of panic regarding enemies internal and external -- are inappropriate.