The Inquisition was a phenomenon limited to fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain. Correct? Not so says Cullen Murphy in his new book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and in the Atlantic Magazine’s excerpt of the book, Torturer’s Apprentice. So too does Adam Gopnik in a recent New Yorker essay about this and related books, Inquiring Minds: The Spanish Inquisition revisited.
As Gopnik puts it, the Inquisition is “an institution as deeply rooted in modernity as the scientific tradition that it opposed. Its fanaticism, its implicit totalitarianism . . ., its sheer bureaucratic brutality . . . make it central to who we are and what we do. Its thumbprint is everywhere. . . .” What happens at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is only one of the recent examples. Another example is the close parallels of the Spanish Inquisition’s interrogation manuals and the current U.S. manuals about “enhanced interrogation.”
Gopnik also criticizes scholars who allegedly delve into the minutia of the Spanish Inquisition and in the process lose the forest for the trees: Benzion Netanyahu (the father of the Israeli Prime Minister), Henry Kamen and Eamon Duffy.
According to Gopnik, history needs to be done with “historical imagination,” which is the “ability to see small and think big.” Without such imagination, the historian “risks a failure of basic human empathy.” For studying and writing about the Spanish Inquisition, this means, he says, that the historian must imagine “the horror of being burned alive.”
The persistence of the practices of the Inquisition unfortunately continues to be demonstrated by the news of the day. Minneapolis’ Center for Victims of Torture has treated over 23,000 victims over the last 24 years. A similar program at New York City’s Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture recently reported that in its “20 years of examining torture victims, we have seen few as traumatized as the several Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and black site (secret prison) detainees whom we evaluated.” And the European Court of Human Rights recently decided that under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the U.K. could not deport a radical Muslim cleric to Jordan because there was a “real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him.”
We also have seen in the following prior posts the persistence of torture and the efforts to stop such conduct:
- the negotiation and adoption of a multilateral treaty against torture (the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment);
- the U.S. ratification of that treaty;
- the U.S. adoption of the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA);
- the U.S. federal court lawsuit under the TVPA over the torture, rape and murders of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador;
- the civil liability for torture under the Alien Tort Statute in U.S. federal courts;
- the criminal cases in Spain under the principle of universal jurisdiction against U.S. officials for alleged torture of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and for authoring legal memoranda allegedly justifying torture;
- the negotiation and adoption of the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that has been interpreted to provide refugee status and asylum for victims of torture;
- the granting of asylum to a Salvadoran for having been tortured in his home country and who came to Minnesota to be treated at the Center for Treatment of Victims of Torture; and
- the jurisdiction over torture as part of crimes against humanity (Art. 7(1)(f)) and war crimes (Art. 8(2)(a)(ii), 8(2)(c)(i)) for the International Criminal Court and other international criminal tribunals.
As a result, eternal vigilance against torture is necessary. In the U.S., for example, various religious groups have banded together in a National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Its statement of conscience says, “Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved — policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.”