Creating new perspectives since 2009

How America keeps alive the ghost of the inquisition in Guantanamo Bay

June 16, 2015 at 9:11 am

A church apologist in the early fifteenth century, writing approvingly of the Inquisition, declared, “We persecuted the seeds of evil not only in men’s deeds, but in their thoughts.” The statement is emblematic of the centuries-old system of oppression that targeted thoughts, actions and beliefs of those deemed by the state to be a threat.

It’s an image we like to believe is a world away from our contemporary life: civilisation does not purge human beings for the free expression of opinions, let alone police people’s thoughts. We take comfort in that belief and hold this ideal as one of the founding principles of the modern world; but is it?

American author Cullen Murphy invites us to think otherwise. In his book, “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World”, he maintains that the Inquisition left behind a fully-fledged apparatus for persecution and an intellectual tradition that is still used to justify killing and torture nearly a century after it ended.

Too often, we mistakenly perceive the Inquisition as a relic of the past; a dark period in Europe’s history; a history lesson for us to remain vigilant against institutionalised religion. It’s a neat fiction told to assert our moral, secular, liberal progress, but is it really just history and a feature of religious institutions?

Murphy encourages us to consider what an inquisition really is: “A set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organised systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of one true path.”

Considered that way, the Inquisition should be more accurately viewed not as a relic of the past but as a harbinger of things to come. Inquisitions are not hard to find; sometimes they retain a religious dimension and sometimes the visionary dimension is secular, characterised by the absolute needs of the state itself.

The picture painted by Murphy uses more than 700 years of history, covering the Spanish Inquisition and Roman Inquisition all the way up to the current War on Terror. His portrayal of Guantanamo Bay as an institution bearing the hallmarks of past inquisitions is highly relevant given the ongoing reluctance to release Shaker Aamer, the last British prisoner in Guantanamo, which is condemned by Human Rights groups.

Having been held for 13 years in the detention centre without any charge, the Saudi-born British resident has described horrific torture at the hands of US interrogators in graphic detail. He alleges that US interrogators threatened to rape his five-year-old daughter. According to a medical report, he claimed that he was hearing people screaming from torture day and night.

“They would beat you two to three hours a day with a metal braided wire, belts and a hose,” he has claimed. “They beat you in public. Everyone could see. Five people would beat you. They’d kick your face, body and head.” According to his statement published in the Independent, Aamer said that guards told him that he should tell the interrogator “whatever he wants to hear” to make the torture stop, so he allowed a fake confession to be filmed claiming that he worked with Al-Qaeda gathering intelligence.

America’s use of torture was exposed shockingly in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison. Official denial failed to keep a lid on horrific accounts of the extent of US torture after 9/11. Eventually, in 2009, Barack Obama released four top secret memos which showed that the CIA under the George W Bush administration was given the green light to torture Al-Qaida and other suspects held at Guantanamo.

In December 2014, the US Senate intelligence committee’s report on CIA torture found the agency’s post-9/11 embrace of torture to be brutal and ineffective. The 6,700 page document continues to be classified.

The public profile of torture post-9/11 is higher than it’s ever been but what is interesting is the degree of sophistication and complex rationalisation that has been mounted in its defence. The most notable of these is the “ticking time bomb” scenario and crude arguments to bring torture “under the rule of law” by issuing torture warrants.

Remarkably, the Bush administration’s threshold for when torture begins — when physical injury is such that it causes serious damage to organs or severely damages bodily functions — is the point at which the inquisitions of the past stipulated that an act of torture must stop.

The telling similarities do not end there. Acts of cruelty must be made acceptable through some form of rational justification, and perpetrators commonly adopt euphemisms to sterilise the inhumanity of the act of cruelty and torture. The Roman Inquisition called torture rigoros esamine (rigorous examination) just as the Bush administration adopted the term “enhanced interrogation”.

Examples like this highlight the fact that inquisitions did indeed advance hand-in-hand with civilisation itself. This should compel us to think not just of the alleged torture but also the condition of the society that enables it and thus see how modern societies are regressing.

The cruel and vicious actions of ISIS would possibly be the first to come to mind when we think of modern day inquisitions. Such a conclusion would be uncontroversial and conceded almost universally. That view, however, overlooks a major feature of an inquisition — the sanctioning of repression, violence and torture by a powerful centralised authority. ISIS came into being precisely because no such centralised authority exists and it has no capacity, in all likelihood, to sustain repression for decades, let alone centuries, given that it is deprived of any political legitimacy.

That’s the key, if not the main, feature of the Inquisition. Without a powerful bureaucracy and centralised authority it would not have been possible to sustain such institutionalised persecution for centuries.

While information (“intelligence”) and centralised government are vital, other notable essentials for a sustainable inquisition include a powerful political authority; a system of law and the means to administer it with a certain degree of uniformity; well-defined processes for conducting interrogation and extracting information; procedures for record-keeping and for retrieving information; an ability to send information over significant distances and the capacity to restrict the communications of others; and, above all, a source of power to ensure enforcement.

The required competencies for an inquisition in the 21st century lie fully in the hands of a powerful state that is culturally and politically hegemonic. The absence of a religious dimension makes no difference to the interrogation regime.

The Inquisition was once an essential organ of the state; it was organised formally and regulated by protocols. Inquisitors swore to follow universal norms and standards, to be fair and just in decision-making, to be impartial in their practice and to work for the greater benefit of the public.

Just like those languishing in Guantanamo Bay, those brought to trial by the historical inquisitions were already presumed guilty; a conviction was virtually guaranteed and the cards were stacked heavily against the accused. The proceedings of the trial were secret and the accused did not know, when initially charged, what the specific allegations against them were. The application of torture invariably loomed to secure a confession. This bears remarkable similarities to modern day “anti-terrorism” measures adopted by Western governments.

Shaker Aamer, and many others like him who have endured institutionalised and officially endorsed torture by American officials, are living evidence that the ghost of the inquisition remains with us. Is that why his release has been delayed for so long?

As Murphy reminds us, Guantanamo Bay was chosen because it was a place where it was legal to have no legal regimes at all; it remains a legal black hole. It is not part of the constitutional homeland, or subject to the same legal standards that might need to be followed within the homeland. Detainees could therefore be subjected to any legal regimes that the authorities decided to implement. Habeas corpus did not apply and detainees did not have to be told why they were being held. Their captors did not have to justify holding them.

Through Guantanamo Bay and the pretext of the War on Terror, the US has been able to resurrect the relic of the inquisition adjusted perfectly to the perceived needs of the contemporary world or, arguably, the wishes of the neo-conservative ideologues pulling the strings in the West. The fact that Guantanamo was allowed to exist and continues to exist, despite the best efforts of “the most powerful man on earth”, ought to be more than a cause for concern. It should strike fear into the hearts of each and every one of us.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.