Author Interviews
2:13 pm
Sat January 14, 2012

The Inquisition: Alive And Well After 800 Years

When we talk of inquisition it is usually prefaced with a definite article — as in, The Inquisition. But, as Vanity Fair editor Cullen Murphy points out in his new book, God's Jury, the Inquisition wasn't a single event but rather a decentralized, centuries-long process.

Murphy says the "inquisitorial impulse" is alive and well today — despite its humble origins with the Cathars in France, where it was initially designed to deal with Christian heretics.

"The temptation, I think, is to think of the Inquisition as a kind of throwback," Murphy tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "Nothing quite says 'medieval' the way the word 'inquisition' does. And my view is that you should actually adjust the lens fairly substantially."

When you look at the Inquisition, he says, what you really see is the beginning of the modern world.

"There's always been persecution, there's always been hatred," Murphy says. The Inquisition, however, was such an enormous, sustained effort that it required an infrastructure to collect and retrieve information — over centuries.

It was this institutionalizing of the Inquisition that revolutionized record-keeping and surveillance techniques, Murphy says.

Modern Day Parallels

If you open a modern day interrogation manual for the police force or the military and place an interrogation manual from the Spanish Inquisition by its side, Murphy says, you'd be shocked by the similarities.

"There isn't a trick that is used nowadays that wasn't in use by the Inquisition. The psychology of interrogation, the ruses that people would use when you're questioning, there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to interrogation," he says.

Interrogation at Guantanamo, for example, illustrates that the spirit of the Spanish Inquisition is alive and well today, Murphy says.

"The Inquisition tried to put restraints on torture. The problem was that in the moment, when people are trying to get information, those boundaries keep being pushed," he says. "People think, 'You know, one more turn of the screw will get us one more little piece of information' ... and torture creeps and creeps and creeps."

Are We In Danger?

Murphy says the key ingredients for a modern day inquisition exist today.

In order for an inquisition to succeed, he says, there must be an individual or a group of people who believe they are in the right and want everyone else to toe the line.

"But that moral certainty isn't enough," Murphy says. There must also be a bureaucracy and methods of surveillance to sustain the persecution.

"All of those things are much more advanced right now by an order of magnitude than they were centuries ago," Murphy says. "Nowadays [surveillance] is done almost automatically — every time you hit the keyboard on your computer or every time you walk by a camera on the street."

Murphy fears what could happen if that moral certainty meets the kinds of monitoring tools that exist today.

"In the wrong hands, the tools of repression are just more available and dangerous than they have been in a long time," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. A few yeas ago, writer Cullen Murphy took a long, hard look at America's place in the modern world, and then he asked a simple question: Are we Rome? He went on to write a book with that very title, looking at the ancient world and the modern one and concluding not much has changed.

Well, Murphy's back on the case. This time, he takes on the Inquisition - or, rather, the Inquisitions with an S. The book is called "God's Jury," and in it, Murphy argues that the Inquisitions that began in the 12th century were actually a harbinger of the modern world.

CULLEN MURPHY: The temptation, I think, is to think of the Inquisition as a kind of throwback. Nothing quite says Medieval the way the word inquisition does. And my view is that you should actually adjust the lens fairly substantially. If you do, you begin to see that the Inquisition has a lot of characteristics that are not really medieval but in fact modern.

You know, there's always been persecution, there's always been hatred, but the Inquisition is something that is institutionalized. And institutions require a kind of infrastructure. You need to be able to keep records, to, you know, amass information, and then you need to be able to find it. And the fact is that in the late medieval world, these kinds of tools are finally coming into existence once again.

RAZ: Surveillance, data collecting.

MURPHY: Surveillance would be another. Keeping tabs on what people are doing, keeping tabs on what people are thinking. So finally, these tools emerge. We see them around us in our own day all the time. We take them for granted. But it's not very often that we ask when did governments, when did other institutions begin to have these tools. And the Inquisition is a good way to begin to answer that question because it relied on them, you know, essentially.

RAZ: What's fascinating is that certain techniques were so proscribed during the Inquisition. You talked about these Inquisition manuals, and you draw comparisons between those and modern manuals for interrogation.

MURPHY: It's uncanny. There's an inquisitor named Bernard Gui. He compiled an Inquisition manual, you know, for use by other inquisitors, and it became the basis of many such manuals. And if you look at that and then you look at modern manuals for, for instance, police forces or the military, you begin to see that there isn't a trick that is used nowadays that wasn't in use by the Inquisition, you know, the psychology of interrogation, the ruses that people would use when you're questioning. There's, you know, there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to interrogation.

RAZ: My guest is Cullen Murphy. He has written a new book. It's called "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." At one point in the book you draw a comparison between Guantanamo and the Spanish Inquisition. Can you explain that?

MURPHY: Guantanamo has been a symbol worldwide of many things, but one of them is interrogation gone wrong. And to me, it illustrates something that always happens when you try to put restrictions on a kind of behavior that is inherently problematic. The Inquisition tried to put restraints on torture. The problem was that in the moment when people are trying to get information, those boundaries keep being pushed.

People think, you know, one more turn of the screw will get us one more little piece of information, and that will justify this very messy procedure that, you know, we really wish we didn't have to resort to. So that happens again and again, and torture creeps and creeps and creeps. The same thing happened at Guantanamo.

If you look at the early history, the attempts to get information from detainees, you see the same kind of creep. So that is one thing that Guantanamo illustrates where I think the parallel with the way in which the Inquisition proceeded is very close.

RAZ: Towards the end of the book, you write that not only do all the ingredients for a modern day inquisition exist today but also that they are more prevalent than ever before. How so?

MURPHY: Well, this is a real worry of mine. There's one thing that every Inquisition needs, and that is a person, people, who are possessed of an idea. They think they're in the right about something that they want everyone else to toe the line. And you see this in religion, you see this in totalitarian regimes, but that moral certainty isn't enough.

You need to have something that sustains it that gives it life over time. And those things, like having a bureaucracy, having methods of surveillance, information technology, all of those things are much more advanced right now by an order of magnitude than they were centuries ago. And many of these things are, you know, more or less on cruise control.

You know, we know what bureaucracies are like. They don't shrink. They expand. We know what surveillance is like. Nowadays, it's done almost automatically every time you hit the keyboard on your computer or every time you walk by a camera on the street. And so my worry is what happens when you combine that idea of moral certainty with the kinds of tools that exist nowadays?

You know, it does seem to me that in the wrong hands, the tools of repression are just more available and dangerous than they have been for a long time.

RAZ: I should probably mention that you are a Catholic and a practicing Catholic. Is that fair to say?

MURPHY: Yes.

RAZ: And as you point out, many accounts of the Inquisition have been biased, either overly critical of the church or overly defensive. And understandably, the Church has been prickly about accounts of the Inquisition, but what does the Inquisition tell us about the modern day Catholic Church?

MURPHY: Well, the Church certainly has been prickly about the Inquisition, and there's a lot to be defensive about. There's no way that you can paint the Inquisition in a lovely light. I'm a Catholic who has, you know, long had issues with his church, and one of those issues has to do with a basic mindset.

And you can think of it this way: Is the Church and its teachings fundamentally about absolute certainty that brooks no discussion, or is it fundamentally about something else? It is about humility? Does it have a place for tolerance and for doubt in a constructive sense? And these two traditions fight with each other throughout the history of the church. And for a long time, the first tradition has been in the ascendant. And I think it's time for the second tradition to emerge.

RAZ: That's Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy. His new book is called "God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." Cullen Murphy, thank you so much.

MURPHY: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program