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Christopher Caldwell

Bring Out the Spanish Tickler

God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
By Cullen Murphy (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 310pp £25)

The Spanish Inquisition was not run by a bunch of blockheads. It sought to root out heresy, which was a 'crime of the intellect'. Inquisitors were not interested in the blurtings of drunks or in what we would call Freudian slips. Testimony gathered under duress was admissible only if it was repeated freely on a later occasion. Nonetheless holy interrogators did feel the need, once in a while, to haul out the Pear of Anguish, Saint Elmo's Belt, the Heretic's Fork and the Spanish Tickler. These were all instruments of torture, although, as Cullen Murphy notes, 'they could just as easily be the names of pubs, or brands of condoms, or points of ascent on a climber's map'.

Murphy is a US magazine editor whose elegant books mine the ancient world for lessons about our own. Just as the Bush administration was getting mired in Iraq, his provocative Are We Rome? warned of imperial hubris. God's Jury makes use of newly opened Vatican archives to similar ends. Murphy finds that, while the Inquisition was often fanatical, fanaticism was not what distinguished it. What made the Inquisition innovative - indeed, what made it possible - was its mastery of early modern bureaucracy and data management. Far from being unimaginable to us, it is an 'unheralded ancestor' of our own attempts to enforce conformity.

There were actually many inquisitions. All used the same 'techniques for ensnaring the innocent in scenarios of scripted guilt', in Murphy's excellent phrase. The thirteenth-century Inquisition sought to uproot the Cathar heresy from southwest France. Cathars were dualists who did not believe God could be responsible for the evil in this world. As such, they had trouble accepting that imperfect priests, even corrupt ones, could speak with holy authority. An inquisitor, usually a trained Dominican, would arrive in some backsliding village, accompanied by as much military force as was required to guarantee his security. He would preach a barn-burning sermon and promise a period of grace during which the locals could repent of their sins. This was usually enough to identify the most dangerous heretics.

The Spanish Inquisition of two centuries later addressed a different problem. Having demanded that their Jewish and Muslim subjects convert to Christianity or emigrate, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella began to have doubts whether all these conversions were really meant. To root out the less sincere of the 'new Christians', Tomás de Torquemada and other inquisitors followed the medieval routine of sermons, grace periods and interrogations. 'The very structure of the process encouraged confession and denunciation,' Murphy writes, 'not to mention false confession and false denunciation.' It was a winning formula for oppressors and their intelligence agencies. That is why the Inquisition spread to become what Murphy calls 'the world's first truly globalized institution'. Inquisition tribunals sat in the mid-sixteenth century in Spanish Mexico City, Lima and Manila and in Portuguese Goa. There was even an Inquisition trial in Los Angeles in 1820.

Murphy has got his hands on some of the church's early manuals for interrogators. He is rightly struck by how little their technique has changed between the medieval war on error and the modern War on Terror. The process by which churchmen 'relaxed' prisoners to the secular state for punishment resembles the US procedure of 'extraordinary rendition', whereby a tough-to-crack prisoner gets sent to a country not known to be terribly punctilious about the Geneva Conventions. The Spanish Inquisition used the toca, a procedure of near-drowning that we would call 'waterboarding'. Some of the inmates at Guantánamo Bay wound up there because of dubious denunciations. Barack Obama's Muslim ancestry has led hot-headed adversaries to cast him as an untrustworthy converso in a way that Torquemada's contemporaries would recognise.

Torture fascinates Murphy. He sees it not as a holdover from ancient times but as a harbinger of modernity, because it betrays the inquisitors' belief that 'the truth can be ascertained without God's help'. It's an excellent point, but for all their operational similarities, there is a distinction between the sort of torture that went on in the basements of Seville and the sort that goes on in the barracks of Guantánamo. Torture in the War on Terror seeks to justify itself as a means of gathering information about military enemies, not of changing minds or saving souls. It is a different kind of transaction, on many levels, from rooting out blasphemy.

If we look not at methods but at dogmas, a more apt contemporary comparison to the medieval Inquisition is political correctness. The way Galileo was bullied by the Inquisition into a 'pragmatic accommodation' with the Church's teaching on the solar system does not have much in common with, say, the interrogation of alleged terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The interrogators who waterboarded Mohammed presumably wanted information about contacts and plans. They would have been wholly indifferent to his beliefs. Galileo has more in common with the hapless executive who, denounced for saying 'darkie' or 'broad' around the office water cooler, is offered the choice of attending sensitivity training or seeing his career destroyed. That man's persecutors really do want to extirpate his sinful thoughts, and really do require a public recantation from him.

There is nothing particularly backward or even Catholic about inquisitions, Murphy suggests. They are 'a recurring and inescapable feature of modern life'. Many of our clichés about the Inquisition - along with many of our anti-Catholic stereotypes - were developed under Elizabeth I. But as her own intelligence service under Sir Francis Walsingham showed, an 'inquisition' could be deployed to root out Catholicism as easily as to defend it. The Inquisition's chief weapons were not surprise and fear. They were self-righteousness and efficiency. The Inquisition did what it did not because it was the most evil institution of its time but because it was the most confident and the most advanced - the most 'networked', if you will. So it is with us, and this generation's enormities are more likely being hatched in a Silicon Valley lab than in any church dungeon.

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Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the FT.

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