The most frightening human being I have ever met in my short time on this planet was an Islamic cleric in neighboring Mali who urged me, in all seriousness, to do everything in my power to kill infidels or kaffirs (non-believers in Arabic). He was a sweet old man in his early sixties, and I had just interviewed him for a radio program to be broadcast in Dakar. I had also shared a meal with him and his advisors. I cannot imagine that he personally ever killed anyone, but it was the froideur, the icy coldness, with which he approached the whole idea of killing another human being because of his or her religious beliefs that sent icy chills down my own spine. To this day, I do not know from what part of the human soul this impulse springs.
God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy’s magisterial study of the Inquisition, now available in e-book format, reminds us that the most frightening and most dangerous people in the world are zealots who believe they are right because they are also righteous. Too, they sometimes even believe that they are divinely guided, as my Islamic zealot did. They lack that helpful self-doubt that assails the rest of us. Certain communist leaders from the 20th century suffered from this delusion I believe, Mao Tse Tung, for example, and Stalin, though their self-certainty appears not to have sprung from personal dialogue with the Almighty. More recently, Ayatollah Khomeini had no compunction about also wishing to see kaffirs dead.
Islam has yet to experience a Protestant Reformation, and to be surrounded by Islam sometimes makes one feel that one is living in the eleventh century and not the twenty-first. The gripping tale told by Cullen Murphy starts in a dark time in human history almost that far back, a millennium ago. Established by the Catholic Church in 1231, the Inquisition continued in one form or another for almost seven hundred years. Though associated with the persecution of heretics and Jews, and with the well-known practice of burning at the stake, its targets were more numerous and its techniques more ambitious.
What was completely new to me was the degree to which we owe to the Inquisition so many modern tools of the authoritarian state — the invention of the apparatus of state surveillance for example, along with state censorship, and what former Vice President Dick Cheney refers to euphemistically as “enhanced interrogation.” With the passage of the centuries, the methods of the Inquisition as well as its mindset spread far beyond the Roman Catholic Church to become tools of secular organization and persecution.
Cullen Murphy takes us from newly opened manuscripts he was privileged to be the first to see in the Vatican Library to the connections he so boldly makes to the detention camps of Guantanamo and the filing cabinets of Germany’s Final Solution. Torquemada may be long dead, but his spirit and that of his cohort Grand Inquisitors not only survive him, but are more actively abroad in the world than ever, and doing as great if not greater mischief.
It seems to me that this is the great value of such a book, and the only reason to immerse onself, especially at night before being subject to possible dreams, into these very real nightmares: for Murphy’s real point is that it is only by understanding the Inquisition’s history that we can hope to explain the iron grip of some of its most totalitarian methods in shaping our present world.
With the combination of vivid immediacy and learned analysis, Murphy puts a human face on a familiar but little-known piece of our past and argues that only by understanding the Inquisition can we hope to explain the making of the present. He traces the 700-year history of successive Catholic Inquisitions to expose their underlying consistencies and contradictions, their mechanics and diabolical devices, to highlight those common threads that start a millennium ago and stretch right into today’s newspaper headlines. The “enhanced interrogation” I mentioned earlier, as it is practiced at Guantanamo, is quite similar to the Roman process of rigoros esamine (Latin: rigorous examination), he explains. Indeed, modern interrogation techniques as outlined in a U.S. Army manual are eerily parallel to the sophisticated inquisition techniques first outlined in a manual from the 1300s.
Another important point that I had to grasp was that inquisitions need not necessarily be religious (though my personal experience with zealots in West Africa is that they are always religious fanatics). But the deeper point is that moral certainty is a very dangerous self-attribute, be it religious, political, corporate, or chauvinistic.
The true believers are the most dangerous men and women who walk the earth because they are prepared to judge you and me by standards we not only do not accept, but may never have even heard of. They believe that they alone know the path that is true, the path that is right, and we must deeply fear their certainty because the “inquisitorial impulse” springs directly from it, whether it is religious or atheistic.
Murphy asks us to consider many the inquisitions over the last century, citing a litany in the United States alone: The Palmer Raids (an early Red Scare led by the young J. Edgar Hoover in the 1920s), the Japanese internment in California, Cointelpro, and more recently the Patriot Act. The McCarthy Era alone was more far-reaching than any church inquisition, he argues.
This is a sobering book, an excursion into history that may prove far more relevant to the present than any of those who pick the book up casually first guess, but the present relevance of God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World is its most important message — and reason alone to read and study this text.