Friday, January 27, 2012

The Inquisition ignited the modern police state

One of the best habits I got into a very long time ago was to read Lingua Franca.  The magazine began about the time I was growing up as a graduate student.  It was something like an inside-baseball version of intellectual discussions.  From Lingua Franca, which didn't last long, I transitioned to a life of a daily dose of

Today, serves me this essay about how all our awful waterboarding and torture and censorship and everything else have their origins in the Inquisition.  But then,
[Why] did the Inquisition come into being when it did? Intolerance, hatred and suspicion of one group by another had always existed. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But the ability to sustain a persecution – to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life – did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those embers of hatred did not exist. Once the tools do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well. The targets can be large or small. An inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.
Yeah, why, and how?
The tools are these: there needs to be a system of law, and the means to administer it with a certain amount of uniformity. Techniques must be developed for conducting interrogations and extracting information. Procedures must exist for record-keeping, and for retrieving information after records have been compiled and stored. An administrative mechanism – a bureaucracy – is required, along with a cadre of trained people to staff it. There must be an ability to send messages across significant distances, and also an ability to restrict the communications of others – in a word, censorship.
The Inquisition was built on all of these capabilities. The new universities brought order to canon law, defining heresy with precision and therefore defining who was “inside” and who was “outside”. The Church bureaucracy became professional; papal chanceries turned out perhaps 300 letters in 1200 and 50,000 a century later. Inquisitors learned how to organise their documents and make them searchable; a person’s testimony to one tribunal could be known to another tribunal decades later. Interrogation manuals, like the famous Practica written by Bernard Gui, were drawn up to instruct inquisitors on how to question the accused – the tricks to use, the psychology to employ. The resemblance to the modern manuals for military personnel and intelligence operatives is hard to miss. As a supplement to interrogation, torture became systematic – subject to rules, perhaps, but rules that proved elastic, as they always do.
What an institutional support, eh that took intolerance to awful depths! 

Every once in a while, I ask students in my classes about the Spanish Inquisition.  Simple questions like if they know what it was about.  The approximate time when it happened.  And then I share with them the Mel Brooks version of the history of the world in which he presents the Inquisition :)

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