Cullen Murphy’s article, Torturer’s Apprentice, (The Atlantic, January/February 2012, pp. 72-77) is an exquisitely researched mind popper, and a must read. It turns out that official records of the Inquisition’s chief torturers in the 14th century are sufficiently detailed and abundant as to allow a comparison of types and theories of torture between inquisitors then and interrogators now. What we have here are instances of independent invention 650 or so years apart.
The article draws upon the interrogation manuals of two fourteenth century Dominican priests. First, Bernard Gui, the model for the interrogator in The Name of the Rose, the unforgettable character played by F. Murray Abraham in the movie version of Umberto Eco’s novel. Gui was appointed Inquisitor of Toulouse by Pope Clement V in 1307 to prosecute heretics, Jews, assorted blasphemers, and stray Cathars in the Languedoc region of France after a century of Crusade had been set in motion against them by Pope Innocent III 1n 1208. It is estimated that half a million people died in the Cathar extermination. Gui, whose work was mostly after the Crusade, is credited with the deaths of between 600 and 900 people. His book Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis or “Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Wickedness” is now available as The Inquisitors Guide from Ravenhall Books (2006). It will cost you close to $130 to buy a copy though.
The second inquisitor was Nicholas Eymerich, a theologian appointed Inquisitor General of the Crown of Aragon in 1357, and later appointed, as an honorific for his outstanding work prosecuting heretics, Chaplain to the Pope. His Dictorium inquisitorum, building upon Gui’s writings, codified the state of the art in interrogation. Enhanced interrogation was by this time a virtual science after a century and a half of experience to draw upon. Both were prolific writers. Gui had written down all of his cases in a book Liber sententiarum, the “Book of Sentences.” The point Murphy would have us keep in mind is that torture was carried out in the fourteenth century by a corporate foreshadow of the ‘modern’ organization. The Office of the Inquisition had buildings, offices, positions, plans, strategies, tools, files, and good records. Given the extensive data available from such records and manuals, Murphy is able to make something close to a side-by-side comparison of their theories and practices with those described in the Human Intelligence Collector Operations, the official U.S. Army interrogation manual for HUMMINT collectors. The Office of the Inquisition, in short, had a well organized system of records not unlike those one would expect to find in the Department of Defense, the CIA, or the national security archives.
Murphy doesn’t tell us whether the two Dominican Priests made personal use of the Belgian disemboweling tool whose picture graces the whole of the second page of the article, but I would guess, given the experience and sophistication of Gui and Eymerich, that neither would have needed to depend much upon this tool in their personal work. The author does point out that the inquisition drew on a large number of instruments of torture, each with a colorful name, but they were only occasionally used. In general, Inquisitors had other approaches to prosecution that they preferred. But someone used that terrifying disemboweling machine.
Cullen Murphy’s article is adapted from a book he has written on the subject, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, due out for sale this month. I gather from the book title, and also from the article, that Murphy’s point of emphasis is not: shame on you George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and other supporters of “enhanced interrogation” for bringing us Abu Grahib, extraordinary rendition, offshore prisons, Guantanamo, and waterboarding, or in Cheney’s case, for defending torture to the extent of claiming Osama bin Laden’s body as redeeming compensation.
No, I think Murphy’s point, stated more balding than he might prefer, is: here we go again, what happened in the Inquisition and in the Bush administration is just the start. Torture has appeal in the modern world—to the Catholic Church early and to the United States government late—and, be forewarned, to others to come. So, good people, be wary, steel yourself, study your history, watch out! Maybe this language is more my paranoia talking than the author’s thoughts. Murphy does say this though about the Office of the Inquisition:
But it’s a mistake to think of the Inquisition as just a metaphor, or as relegated to the past. For one thing, within the Church, it has never quite ended; the office charged today with safeguarding doctrine and meting out discipline occupies the Inquisition’s old palazzo at the Vatican. More to the point, the Inquisition had all the hallmarks of a modern institution—with a bureaucracy, a memory, a procedure, a set of tools, a staff of technocrats, and an all-encompassing ideology that brooked no dissent. It was not a relic but a harbinger. (p.74)
A harbinger? Of what? More torture, I presume. Perhaps Murphy is trying to save us from the shame of allowing torture to further contribute to the decline of Western Civilization. He’s clear that two of the greatest sources of philosophical and moral strength in our civilization and country, Christianity and the Enlightenment, have contributed to the rise and use of torture. And that’s without saying anything about torture everywhere else. Shouldn’t we talk about torture in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Russia, China, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, South Africa, Congo, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere? Where shouldn’t we talk of torture? England’s Inquisition paralleled the mother of all Inquisitions in Spain. Perhaps we should make a list of the countries and people who have never used torture and commit ourselves to learn from them.
The most shocking finding to an American reader is that the standard for cessation of a bout of torture in the 14th century Inquisition was more ‘humane’ than the one approved by the “Bybee Memo” issued by George W. Bush’s Justice Department in 2002.
In it, the Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stated it must stop. (pp. 76-77)
The article can best be summarized by the abstract presented as its preface:
The new science of interrogation is not, in fact, so new at all: “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” and “waterboarding” all spring directly from the practices of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The distance, in both technique and ideology, between the Inquisition’s interrogation regime and 21st-century America’s is uncomfortably short—and provides a chilling harbinger of what can happen when moral certainty gets yoked to the machinery of torture. (p. 72)
In the first debate between Republican Presidential candidates on May 5, 2011, Chris Wallace of Fox News conducted a straw vote on the question of who would support waterboarding under “any conditions” or “any conditions the candidate might imagine?” Three candidates, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum raised their hands affirmatively. Audience applause was heard. At the November 12, 2011 debate in South Carolina, when the question was again raised, Michelle Bachmann added her assent, and affirmed it afterwards, even against Senator McCain’s strong objections. Rick Perry is also a supporter of waterboarding. All are fervent Christians who have claimed an advanced moral standing as a reason to vote for them. Is such zeal a harbinger of things to come?
If it is true, as George Santayana has said, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” then we are so condemned, because we have repeated it, and we are prone to do so again.
January 13, 2012©