Vocabularies of Inquisition


Guest Post by Jonathan Kirsch


For those of us who bristle at the word “waterboarding” and its dismissal as nothing more than a “harsh interrogation technique,” the Obama administration took an encouraging first step toward candor in American policy by frankly calling it by its rightful name: torture. And, in fact, Eric Holder, Obama’s nominee for Attorney General, took another step by attributing water torture to one of its earliest users, the Inquisition.

The fact is that the Inquisition casts a long shadow over world history, and both the language and the tools of the first friar-inquisitors are still in use. When we speak of giving someone “the third degree,” for example, we are recalling the five degrees of torture by which the Inquisition formally measured out the violence to its victims. The first degree of torture, by the way, consisted of showing the victim the instruments of torture; the inquisitors understood that their best weapon was terror, and often it was enough to extract a confession without bothering to heat up the irons. And “putting his feet to the fire,” too, is a verbal artifact of the Inquisition–the victim would be seated in front of a fire, grease would be slathered on the soles of the feet, and he (or she) would be brought closer or farther away from the flames, depending on how much pain the inquisitor wanted to inflict.

The problem with torture, as we learn from the transcripts of torture sessions that the Inquisition itself made and kept, is that the suffering victim will say whatever he or she thinks the torturer wants to hear just to stop the pain. “Senores,” begged one pathetic victim of the Spanish Inquisition, “why will you not tell me what I have to say?” For the Inquisition, which put its first victims to torture in the early 13th century and did not stop for another six hundred years, it hardly mattered because the inquisitors were perfectly willing to burn wholly innocent men and women as heretics if they could not find someone who actually practiced a forbidden faith. Indeed, many of the so-called heresies that it persecuted only existed in the dirty minds of the friar-inquisitors themselves.

For the American democracy, however, the use of torture is not only a moral and diplomatic catastrophe, but also an intelligence blunder. “Harsh interrogation techniques” may inflict terrible pain on the victim, to be sure, but they do not reliably produce actionable intelligence. So we are left with both a false confession and a bad odor. In the war for hearts and minds in which were are engaged, that’s one inquisitorial relic that we should shun.

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of twelve books, including, most recently, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God.

Image: courtesy of author

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