March 3, 2013

God's Jury: Exploring Inquisitions, then and now

The word "Inquisition" harkens back to medieval Europe - Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Catholic Church. But in Cullen Murphy's frightening account, that repressive past was only prologue: The self-propagating bureaucracies of the modern world contain the seeds of inquisitions potentially far vaster and more destructive than anything wrought by the Catholic Church. 

Murphy seamlessly traces the 700-year history of successive Catholic Inquisitions to expose their underlying mechanisms, and highlight the fundamental similarities between then and now. The "enhanced interrogation" practiced at Guantanamo is not so different from the Roman rigoros esamine (rigorous examination), he explains. Indeed, modern interrogation methods as outlined in a U.S. Army manual eerily parallel to the sophisticated techniques first outlined in an inquisition manual from the 1300s.

Inquisition waterboarding
Murphy, himself a Catholic, encourages us to broaden our historical lens to see that inquisitions need not necessarily be religious. They can occur any time members of a dominant group - whether religious, political, corporate or national - appoint themselves "God’s jury," believing that they alone are privy to the true and right path. The "inquisitorial impulse" springs directly from moral certainty. Think about the inquisitions over the last century alone, just in the United States: The Palmer Raids (an early Red Scare led by the young J. Edgar Hoover), The Japanese internment, Cointelpro, the Patriot Act. The McCarthy Era alone was more far-reaching than any church inquisition, he argues.

But inquisitions require certain tangible assets, and it is these that the modern world possesses in abundance:  
  • A bureaucratic machinery: Bureaucracies are self-perpetuating and expansionistic. They require no evil conspiracy at the helm. Take the Transportation Security Administration, whose methods since 9/11 have grown ever more "invasive, mindless, and routine": A single "credible tip" can get one's name added to the 440,000 on a secret terrorism watch list; but people are not allowed to find out if their names are on that official list. Shades of the inquisition? Repressive regimes are, at base, record-keeping regimes.
  • Surveillance: As far back as 1796, philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte noted that "the chief principle of a well-regulated police state" was the ability to identify its citizens and keep track of their activities and whereabouts. Murphy shows how the modern surveillance state has expanded to new heights in the wake of 9/11, especially in the United States and in England. As a British surveillance leader justifies it, "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear." The game of surveillance, says Murphy, ratchets forever upward, so that what was heretofore unimaginable is constantly becoming the new normal. 
  • Censorship: Just as the Vatican has its catalogues of banned books (which Murphy spent time examining), the Internet has its "choke points" that can be manipulated to deny the public access to information.  Less obvious but no less sinister are today's "mobious strips of the like-minded," creating an "epistemic closure" in which people are able to avoid exposure to information that might challenge their assumed realities.
Whereas both the targets of an inquisition and the motives of the inquisitors can shift with time and place, these tangible underpinnings - proof of identity, efficient record-keeping, a network of informers, surveillance, denunciations, interrogations - remain constant. And they are all ubiquitous in the modern world. 
The history lessons Murphy is able to impart in God's Jury owe in part to the Vatican's decision to open its archives (although only up to 1939) to outside scrutiny, an unprecedented boon to scholars. Murphy is a fluid writer, and his descriptions of the archives and their contents  contain so many riveting nuggets that the book's pages fairly turn themselves. 

Forensic psychologists may be especially interested in his description of interrogations and false confessions, so parallel in many ways to what we witness today in style, if not in content. Armed with a manual on witchcraft, Mallens Maleficarum (which Murphy describes as a cross between Monty Python and Mein Kampf), inquisitors sallied far and wide in search of purported witches, whom they coerced through now-familiar techniques of shaping to admit to such things as having sex with the devil. 

God's Jury is unsettling. But Murphy does offer a ray of hope. Just as the inquisitions of yester-year were extinguished by the Enlightenment ("the intellectual equivalent of habitat destruction"),  Murphy maintains that there is a remedy for contemporary inquisitions. He does not believe they can be legislated away, although more power to those who are valiantly trying to place legal limits on repression. Rather, he believes that "the most effective ally" against inquisitionism is the "seventh virtue" of humility. Inquisitions can only occur, he argues, when those in power insist with absolute certainty that they hold the one and only absolute truth, and that everyone else is wrong. 

If you found this review worthwhile, I would greatly appreciate your taking just a moment to go to my Amazon review (click HERE), and click on the "YES" button at the bottom (this review was helpful). This will help boost the review's ranking. Thanks in advance.  

Of related interest: NPR's "The inquisition: A model for modern interrogators," which includes a downloadable podcast and an excerpt from God's Jury

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