Comparing Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo to the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition is almost always a gesture of condemnation. The implication is not subtle: the intensified interrogation (by accepting bureaucratic euphemism) by the military and intelligence services of the 21st century is little more than sadism, rationalized in the name of self-justified bigotry. How could a comparison be taken differently?
Ron E. Hassner Anatomy of torture (Cornell University Press) examines a set of Inquisition records, always keeping in mind the debate on the “war on terror”. I started reading the book more than half, waiting for the familiar revelatory intent. The topic does not come as a pleasant surprise, but Hasner, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, is considering the material in some interesting ways.
A substantial comparison between medieval and modern torture must take into account the differences between them. And in this case, Hasner’s approach is determined by one huge contrast: the available evidence or their absence. Systematic and officially permitted torture includes many documents, literal or multimedia. From that moment on, the Inquisition perfectly embodied the bureaucratic spirit. (The early medieval Inquisition sought heresy in France and Italy, while the Spanish Inquisition operated from the late 15th to the early 19th centuries. Hasner’s work focuses on tribunals held in Spain and Mexico between 1484 and 1601).
The Spanish Inquisition has compiled vast dossiers (well-indexed and cross-referenced), full of testimonies from witnesses to the collaboration, as well as transcripts of every word and shout from torture sessions. Transcripts were prepared in several copies: if the tingling of the limbs of a single X gave statements about persons Y and Z, a copy of the document will appear in the files for all three. In states that used torture in the 20th and 21st centuries, it was undoubtedly easier to collect and extract data. But the more important difference is that the latest archives are closed. Details of torture are a state secret and are likely to remain so for decades (if not centuries) for reasons of national security or, in some cases, perhaps shame.
Thus, the current debate about torture – the scale and methods of it or its reliability as a source of intelligence – is largely an exercise in the back: a “war of anecdotes”, as Hasner puts it, based on unverified allegations by officials whose honesty and competence can rarely be checked with a record. The result: “Asymmetry of information contributes to the apologist of torture”, which can always hint at secret knowledge of cases where torture provided important information and saved lives.
Information asymmetry of another kind prevails in the Spanish Inquisition, which has conducted perhaps hundreds of thousands of investigations – and although only a small portion concerned torture, only this portion includes material spanning more than 300 years scattered across two or three continents. “Exhaustive records are often available for interrogations of entire communities,” Hasner writes, “which allow us to trace how information provided under torture by one detainee led to the arrest, interrogation or torture of others in their network.” He comes to this record as a political scientist, not as a historian, gratefully noting the work of generations of scholars who collected and rewrote material that was to be seen only by church officials. The documentary base is too broad and too contextual to make any generalization more than a hypothesis.
But his assessments, although conditional, at least make you think. The use of torture by the Inquisition sometimes provided true and verified information, he concludes, not considering it a justification for its use now. The Inquisition, he writes, “possessed absolute power and could use almost unlimited resources. The most important of these resources was time … He could afford to spend decades and centuries perfecting his methods, and he could afford to spend years gathering evidence against his prisoners. ”
Despite the popular image of priests inflicting pain to obtain confessions (if not conversions), the Inquisition used torture mainly to corroborate the testimony of witnesses who were not tortured. The cases that Hasner is considering concern Jews and Muslims who claimed to have converted to Christianity while continuing to secretly practice their original faith. The focus of the interrogation under torture was not what the victim believed, but whether he witnessed or participated in certain activities or behaviors, such as avoiding pork or reading texts in Hebrew or Arabic.
The Inquisition did not consider torture to be a particularly useful or reliable means of achieving the truth. Someone who is being tortured is more likely to make false accusations or say anything they think Qatar wants to hear. (During some medical procedures, I was prepared to admit to the abduction of Lindbergh’s child.) It seems that the Inquisition eventually understood this and developed a skeptical attitude towards statements made under torture but not confirmed by other sources. Perhaps the strangest thing that Hasner does is that the records he studied did not show a single case of the death penalty based solely on testimony given under torture.
It is clear that torture is documented on the part of the overwhelmed scribes the Inquisition is far removed from any scenario in which Kiefer Sutherland prevents the destruction of Los Angeles threatening terrorists while a time bomb is detonated. Hasner’s book can still be used as an argument for torture as a way of gathering information. But that would mean ignoring the reservation that the inquisitors led to the results caused by the brutality they practiced.