Friday, July 24, 2009

COMMENT: The terror inquisition ...

I've come across a recently-published book (as in published in 2008) about the history of the Spanish Inquisition. It's called The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God and is authored by Jonathan Kirsch, a lawyer and journalist. It's a book for general reading, not an academic text. And it makes scary reading.

Kirsch compares America's domestic anti-terror adventures (and, by implication, Australia's) to the Medieval Inquisition of the Catholic Church in various parts of Europe, most notably in Spain.

More than a few unsettling parallels can be drawn between the medieval Inquisition and the modern war on terror. The FBI reportedly considered a plan to secretly monitor the sales of Middle Eastern foods in grocery stores in order to detect the presence of Muslim terrorists in America; the FBI later denied the report, but the whole notion echoes the readiness of the Spanish Inquisition to arrest young men of Muslim ancestry who were seen eating couscous. Federal law enforcement officers were, in fact, “ordered to search out and interview Muslim and Arab men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three,” an inquisitio generalis that was intended to fl ush out a vast and secret conspiracy of alien terrorists.

I never liked couscous that much. But it's even scarier when you look overseas to warzones in Afghanistan and Iraq or to prisons (known and secret) where suspected terrorists are held.

The parallels are even more striking when it comes to American military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world. Like the war on heresy in the Middle Ages, the war on terror has been the occasion for coining new and evasive phrases: “extraordinary rendition,” for example, refers to kidnapping a suspect off the streets and sending him to a secret prison in a “third country” where he can be subjected to “harsh interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for torture. Indeed, the technique now called waterboarding is precisely the same one that the friar-inquisitors of the Middle Ages called the ordeal by water, and the same one used by the Gestapo and the NKVD ...

The prisons are the same. Even the prison dress is the same.

The inquisitorial prisons, where victims could be held for years or even decades and tortured at will, find their counterparts in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and the detention facilities at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The notorious photograph of a naked and shackled Iraqi prisoner taken in a cellblock at Abu Ghraib features a specific item of apparel that was a favorite of the friar-inquisitors—the Iraqi man has been crowned with a conical “dunce’s cap” that resembles the coroza worn by victims of the Spanish Inquisition at an auto-da-fé. In both cases, the point of the headgear was to degrade and humiliate the victim.

Kirsch concludes with this assessment:

All the weaponry and tactics that have been deployed in the war on terror are justified by precisely the same theological stance once invoked in the war on heresy.

But what if the inquisitorial rhetoric of "war on terror" changes? Will many of these excesses cease to exist? Or will they be packaged and sold in a more clever and convincing way?

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