Torturer’s Apprentice

The new science of interrogation is not, in fact, so new at all: “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” and “waterboarding” all spring directly from the practices of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The distance, in both technique and ideology, between the Inquisition’s interrogation regime and 21st-century America’s is uncomfortably short—and provides a chilling harbinger of what can happen when moral certainty gets yoked to the machinery of torture.

The first technique used by the Inquisition was known in Spanish as the garrucha (“pulley”) and in Italian as the strappado (“pull” or “tug”). It was a form of torture by suspension, and worked through simple gravity. Typically, the hands of the person to be interrogated were tied behind his back. Then, by means of a rope threaded through a pulley or thrown over a rafter, his body would be hoisted off the ground by the hands, and then be allowed to drop with a jerk. The strain on the shoulders was immense. The weight of the body hanging from the arms contorted the pleural cavity, making breathing difficult (asphyxiation was the typical cause of death in crucifixion, for the same reason).

Under various names, the garrucha appears frequently in more-recent history. Senator John McCain was subjected to a version of it, called “the ropes,” by the North Vietnamese, after his airplane was shot down during the Vietnam War. It has been employed in the interrogation of prisoners in U.S. custody. One well-known case is that of Manadel al-Jamadi, who died during interrogation at Abu Ghraib in 2003. His hands had been tied behind his back, and he had then been suspended by the wrists from the bars of a window five feet off the ground. Michael Baden, the chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police at the time, explained the consequences to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker:

“If his hands were pulled up five feet—that’s to his neck. That’s pretty tough. That would put a lot of tension on his rib muscles, which are needed for breathing. It’s not only painful—it can hinder the diaphragm from going up and down, and the rib cage from expanding. The muscles tire, and the breathing function is impaired.”

The second technique employed by the Inquisition was the rack. In Spanish the word is potro, meaning “colt,” the reference being to a small platform with four legs. Typically the victim was placed on his back, with legs and arms fastened tautly to winches at each end. Every turn of the winches would stretch him by some additional increment. Ligaments might snap. Bones could be pulled from their sockets. The sounds alone were sometimes enough to encourage cooperation in those brought within hearing distance. Here is an account of a suspected heretic who had been placed on the potro and was being questioned by inquisitors in the Canary Islands in 1597. The winches had just been given three turns. The suspect would confess after six more. The recording secretary preserved the moment:

On being given these he said first, “Oh God!” and then, “There’s no mercy”: after the turns he was admonished, and he said, “I don’t know what to say, oh dear God!” Then three more turns of the cord were ordered to be given, and after two of them he said, “Oh God, oh God, there’s no mercy, oh God help me, help me!”

The third technique involved water. Toca, meaning “cloth,” was the Spanish name, referring to the fabric that plugged a victim’s upturned mouth, and upon which water was poured. The effect was to induce the sensation of asphyxiation by drowning. Waterboarding is the English term commonly used today. The modern term in Spanish is submarino. One historian writes:

Even a small amount of water in the glottis causes violent coughing, initiating a fight-or-flight response, raising the heart rate and respiratory rate and triggering desperate efforts to break free. The supply of oxygen available for basic metabolic functions is exhausted within seconds. While this is sometimes called “an illusion of drowning,” the reality is that death will follow if the procedure is not stopped in time.

The CIA has acknowledged that one of its detainees, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in a single month. Defenders of the practice contend that this figure is misleading—that 183 refers to the number of individual “pours,” and that they occurred in the context of no more than five “sessions.”

As it happens, the Inquisition invented that defense. In theory, torture by the Church was strictly controlled. It was not supposed to put life in jeopardy or cause irreparable harm. And torture could be applied only once. But inquisitors pushed the boundaries. For instance, what did once mean? Maybe it could be interpreted to mean once for each charge. Or, better, maybe additional sessions could be considered not as separate acts but as “continuances” of the first session. Torture would prove difficult to contain. The potential fruits always seemed so tantalizing, the rules so easy to bend.

The public profile of torture is higher than it has been for many decades. Arguments have been mounted in its defense with more energy than at any other time since the Middle Ages. The documentary record pried from intelligence agencies could easily be mistaken for Inquisition transcripts. The lawyer Philippe Sands, investigating the interrogation (which used a variety of techniques) by the United States of a detainee named Mohammed al-Qahtani, pulled together key moments from the official classified account:

Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Asked God for forgiveness. Cried. Cried. Became violent. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times.

The Inquisition, with its stipulation that torture and interrogation not jeopardize life or cause irreparable harm, actually set a more rigorous standard than some proponents of torture insist on now. The 21st century’s Ad extirpanda is the so-called Bybee memo, issued by the Justice Department in 2002 (and later revised). In it, the Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stipulated that it must stop.

The regulation of torture never really works—it just points the practitioners in new directions. Darius Rejali, one of the most prominent scholars of torture, puts the matter simply: “When we watch interrogators, interrogators get sneaky.” The phenomenon is sometimes called “torture creep.” Inquisitors were well aware of the dynamic. We see it today when interrogators, queasy about extracting information by means of torture, send prisoners to be interrogated in countries without such scruples. The process is known as “extraordinary rendition”—a way of keeping your own hands clean, the equivalent of the Church’s “relaxing” the condemned to the secular authority. (During the past decade, the United States has handled an estimated 150 suspected terrorists this way.) In medieval times, torture was at first limited to crimina excepta—crimes of the utmost gravity—but that category was eventually broadened, and the threshold of permissibility lowered. In the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, in May 2011, a number of commentators claimed that the al-Qaeda leader’s hideout had been discovered owing to information gleaned from torture—demonstrating how worthwhile torture can be. The claim was false, but the fact that it was made illustrates a falling threshold: where once torture had been justified only by some urgent “ticking time bomb” scenario, now it is seen as an acceptable way to obtain intelligence of a more ordinary kind.

Amoral brutes certainly commit torture, but in their hands it doesn’t become part of a legally sanctioned system. Torture becomes legitimized in the hands of a different sort of person—one who is determined to use the powers of reason, and believes in the rightness of his cause. This is what the writer Michael Ignatieff means when he calls torture chambers “intensely moral places.” Those who wish to justify torture don’t do so by avoiding moral thinking; rather, they override the obvious immorality of a specific act by the presumptive morality of the larger endeavor. The Bybee memo maintained that interrogators could not be prosecuted if they were acting in good faith: “The absence of specific intent negates the charge of torture.” It is the same logic advanced by the inquisitors. Citing Thomas Aquinas, they argued that purity of motive forgave the crossing of any line.

Which, in the end, is the most dangerous inquisitorial impulse of all—that sense of moral certainty. In America today, religion asserts itself repeatedly and increasingly. Oklahoma and a dozen other states have introduced legislation to ban the use of Islamic sharia law in any way within their jurisdictions, despite the fact that it has become a problem exactly nowhere. Schoolbooks in Texas have been revised by government fiat to downplay the idea of separation of church and state. During the past decade, public libraries have faced challenges on moral grounds to more than 4,000 books in their collections. The notion of America as a “Christian nation” has emerged as a theme—explicitly or by innuendo—in the current presidential campaign. When President Obama, in 2009, maintained in a speech that what united Americans was not a specific religious tradition but “ideals and a set of values,” he was attacked by a wide range of public figures.

But religion is not the only culprit. The Enlightenment, which was supposed to be the antidote to this sort of thinking, gave rise to uncompromising outlooks of its own. For some, the higher power is not God but the forces of history, or democracy, or reason, or technology, or genetics. Fundamentally, the inquisitorial impulse arises from some vision of the ultimate good, some conviction about ultimate truth, some confidence in the quest for perfectibility, and some certainty about the path to the desired place—and about whom to blame for obstacles in the way. These are powerful inducements. Isaiah Berlin foresaw where they would lead:

To make mankind just and happy and creative and harmonious forever—what could be too high a price to pay for that? To make such an omelette, there is surely no limit to the number of eggs that should be broken—that was the faith of Lenin, of Trotsky, of Mao, for all I know, of Pol Pot … You declare that a given policy will make you happier, or freer, or give you room to breathe; but I know that you are mistaken, I know what you need, what all men need; and if there is resistance based on ignorance or malevolence, then it must be broken and hundreds of thousands may have to perish to make millions happy for all time.

Pasted into the front of Gui’s Liber sententiarum is a sheaf of 17th-century correspondence that describes how the book came to the British Library in the first place. It was discovered by the philosopher John Locke in the late 1670s, in the archives of Montpellier. Locke understood the importance of what he had found, and arranged for the manuscript to be sent to the historian Philipp van Limborch, in the Netherlands, who was compiling a history of the Inquisition. “When you see what it contains,” Locke wrote his friend, “I think you will agree with us that it ought to see the light.” Limborch published Gui’s document as an appendix. Years later, a buyer was found for the manuscript on behalf of the British Library. Locke wrote his famous Letter Concerning Toleration in 1685. He made the case for freedom of thought and expression—and a certain humility regarding one’s own cherished beliefs—on the grounds that, no matter how much certainty is in our hearts, human beings cannot know for sure which truths are true, and that believing we can leads us down a terrible path.

The correspondence tucked into Gui’s manuscript offers a reminder of what Locke understood. The Inquisition is not a closed chapter. It is an open book.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy, Vanity Fair’s editor at large, was The Atlantic’s managing editor for 20 years. This essay was adapted from his new book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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