The Inquisition: Alive And Well After 800 Years | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

The Inquisition: Alive And Well After 800 Years

Play associated audio

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/.

NPR

Wounded Bull-Runner: 'If You Run Long Enough, You Get Gored'

Bill Hillmann, a writer from Chicago, contributed to the book Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona. He was gored at this year's running of the bulls in that city, but says he plans to return.
NPR

What If The World Cup Were Awarded For Saving Trees And Drinking Soda?

We thought you'd get a kick out of seeing how the four teams in the final World Cup matches stack up in global health and development.
NPR

Congress' Latest Death Match Involves A Bank You've Never Heard Of

The business lobby is pushing hard for the survival of the Export-Import Bank, which has supported U.S. exports for 80 years. Some House GOP leaders, though, think it's time to kill the bank.
NPR

Looking For Free Sperm, Women May Turn To Online Forums

Bypassing commercial sperm banks, thousands are logging on to websites where women can connect with men at no cost. Anecdotes abound, but the scope of the unregulated activity is unclear.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.