Torture Redux

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.

Will Callender

January 13, 2012©

4 thoughts on “Torture Redux

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  1. Thanks Will. Thus far I’ve only read two articles in the recent Atlantic – the one about Joan Didion and the second about the state of manufacturing in the U.S. Murphy’s piece will be next. I am haunted by this story and the history it tells because in recent months I have returned to the Catholic Church after about a 35 year sabbatical leave. And ironically, I’m reading lots of medieval-era material including Chesterton’s treatment of St. Thomas Aquinas (another Dominican!), St. Francis, and the myriad glories of gothic architecture. Tossing the disemboweling device into the mix kind of muddies (bloodies) the waters, but as you say we need to face our history and learn from it.

  2. My Rendition

    My hands are trembling.
    The fire is nearly out.
    I remake the fire in the stove.
    The husband is waking for the dawn.
    He hears me making the fire.
    My hands are trembling.
    The husband wakes and walks to me.
    The fire is coming to life again.
    My hands are trembling.
    The husband crouches by the fire.
    He crouches to help me.
    He sees my hands trembling.
    The husband sees I am not cold.
    But my hands are trembling.
    The wakened husband wants to know
    Why my hands are trembling.
    It’s torture I tell him.
    He crouches to soothe me.
    He takes my trembling hands into his.
    He thinks I am in pain.
    He thinks my hands hurt me, that they ache.
    My hands are trembling.
    The fire is ablaze.
    He crouches. He searches me for answers.
    It’s torture to think of torture I tell him.
    It’s what the people want, I say.
    They believe torture saves lives.
    They fear difference.
    They fear critical thinking
    They wonder why anyone questions authority.
    They report unsuspecting neighbors.
    They report innocent people who inquire.
    The husband nods, he understands.
    We crouch closer to the fire.
    A stranger knocks, rattling our door.
    My hands tremble.
    My mind trembles.
    My heart trembles.
    I fall down. The husband falls down.
    We hold each other and tremble.
    The blazing fire cannot stop our shaking.
    Nothing can.

  3. Will, et al:

    Ever since I became acquainted with the story of Anne Frank, having read a book about her life in grade school, I came to love her. I adored: her hope, her bravery, and her ability to cope with the continuously dire circumstances she lived with while secreted in a hiding place with both her family, and another. Being a young girl myself, who desperately needed an escape from the slow and painful death that my mother was going through with terminal cancer I needed a friend like Anne, for I felt that she and I would be able to understand one another.

    Hoping that she wouldn’t mind my company, I crept into her world through her diary and learned about things I’d never thought humanly possible. When I was with her I imagined living there with her as her sister, or friend, cloistered among the highest of the building rafters in the ‘secret annex.’ (The nest of rooms that the seven people lived in, including Anne, was not an actual annex, but was called “the house behind,’ or Het Achterhuis, in Dutch. Because older structures in Amsterdam were frequently built with apartments that faced the street on one side, and faced the backyard or gardens on the other, two apartments were created, facing in two opposite directions.) How stressful it must have been for their little community to never be certain if the Nazi’s would detect them as they clustered together to try and remain alive until the war was over.

    The words in her diary made her circumstances feel real to me, and I feared for her, feared that she and her small group would be found, found and punished, punished and tortured, tortured and murdered, and not for a crime, but for a genealogy—an association through blood, or for a religious belief, or being different, or too curious. I realized that they were in danger too for their intellectual questing, and for their not being able that fit in with Hitler’s mad idea of what kinds of people were preferred for the ‘betterment’ of the human race.

    This was my first real taste of prejudice, my first date with hatred, my first journey into irrational authority, and my first brush with group think. Let me restate that. It was not my first brush with group think; I was already experiencing that in grade school via ‘duck and cover drills,’ the tailings left from McCarthyism, etc. But the level of group think that drove the Gestapo, the citizenry, and all of Hitler’s horrific minions, seemed unthinkable to me; yet it was real, and vividly so.

    The fact that Anne and her family might be found out, that they might somehow be ‘turned in’ by a community resident (which they were) and discovered by the Nazi’s (which they were) made me put off reading the ending of the story for a long time because I wanted a good ending for her, for her family, and for the other family that roomed with the Franks.’ Finally, I pushed myself to read to the end of the book, weeping loudly for my lost friend, and realizing, in my young girl way that, for reasons I could not make sense out of, certain groups of people became targets for their differences, and they were slaughtered for it. That was a turning point for me, but like Anne, I did not want to give up hope, and I have always refused to do so, else there would be little reason to get up everyday.

    In memory of Anne Frank, and of the many millions world over who’ve suffered and/or perished under inhumane conditions, my poem was a slide into a temporary hell; imaginary as it was I still had a difficult time recovering from it. And, regardless of my questionable strength as a poet, my attempt was to draw the reader in to the possibility of having to endure the type of anxiety and fear that some people are forced to live with (I appreciate your sharing about how the poem resonated with you, Will), as well as to honor everyone who has needlessly suffered cruel and unusual punishment, as well as to acknowledge the tragically terrifying fact that our human condition still permits us to support and employ such tactics currently, and apparently, into the undated future.

    Thanks to you, Will, for expanding each topic that you’ve chosen so far by offering us participation in this blog, and for the encouragement to consider the opportunities that are available to us to rethink the promises of democracy, and to engage in compassionate, legal and ethical practices that will serve to promote and fulfill the best dreams it has to offer, whether at home or abroad.

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