* * *
When I was in graduate school, I knew people into scoffing at the "black myth" of the Spanish Inquisition. It wasn't really so bad, they said; they had real standards of evidence and proper procedures, unlike some of the witch hunting courts in Germany or England; most people had no fear of the inquisitors and some people openly laughed at them.
That all depends, I think, on what you mean by "bad." To me the Inquisition reeks of evil because I regard the persecution of people for what they believe as a horrible evil no matter how carefully the judges proceed and how hard they tried to reach the truth. They burned people alive for believing wrongly about invisible things, and that I do not forgive.
But they kept wonderful records, which makes their career of persecution a boon for social historians. If you want to learn about, for example, secret Judaism in Spain or Spanish America between 1492 and 1750, the records of the Inquisition are by far your best source. Consider the torture of Pedro Rodrıguez Saz in Mexico City on 16 May 1596:
Once he was naked, and his arms were tied, he was admonished to tell the truth. He said that he had already told it and that witnesses who testified against him had testified falsely. His arms were ordered to be tied tightly, and he was admonished to tell the truth and the minister ordered the first turn of the cord. He complained loudly. He said: “Help me Lord, Jesus Christ, help me, I am here because of false witnesses.” Another turn of the cord was ordered and he said: “Oh Christians! I will tell the truth! I beg for mercy! I will tell the truth!” The official who administered the torture was ordered to leave.He said: “It is true that, starting six to seven years ago, Luis de Carvajal started keeping the Laws of Moses.” He was told to confess the truth clearly and openly, to satisfy this Holy Office, for the salvation of his soul. He said: “About seven years ago, when Diego Henríquez, brother in law of Manuel de Lucena, and son of Beatriz Henrıquez, La Payba, was arrested by the Holy Office, Manuel de Lucena taught me the Law of Moses, telling me that the Lord had promised to send a great prophet who will save the people. And that Jesus Christ was not the true God, but only God, who was in the highest heaven, will save the world. This God has a great day that the Jews call their Great Feast, on which they celebrate and fast. On this Great Day of the Lord, I was there with Manuel de Lucena, his wife Catalina Henríquez, Clara Henríquez, her daughter Justa Mendez, Leonor Díaz, and a man called Juan Rodrıguez. I don’t remember whether Constanca Rodrıguez was there. We fasted and celebrated in Mexico City at the house of Manuel de Lucena, near the workplace of Juan Álvarez, in observance of the Law of Moses. I and the rest of the people I have listed, we danced and we celebrated, we wore festive clothing. We did not eat all day long until night, when I went to eat at my house, which is the house of Phelipe Nuñez, where I stayed, and I ate in the company of Phelipe Nuñez and his wife Phelipa López. We ate fish, garbanzos, eggs, and fruit. That’s all that happened on the Great Day of the Lord.
This comes from a fascinatingly awful article I stumbled across yesterday, "The Cost of Torture: Evidence from the Spanish Inquisition" by Ron E. Hassner, published in Security Studies. This begins with a chilling sentence:
The study of interrogational torture has made significant strides in recent years.
Hassner goes on to say that the reason the study of torture has not made more progress is the lack of good data. While entities like the UN HCR and Human Rights Watch have tried to compile statistics, their results are biased in many ways and probably do not represent a real sample of torture in any particular program. Hence, the records of the Spanish Inquisition:
The archives of the Spanish Inquisition provide a detailed historical source of quantitative and qualitative information about interrogational torture. The inquisition tortured brutally and systematically, willing to torment all who it deemed as withholding evidence.
As Hassner says, the Inquisition had centuries of experience and built up a strong institutional knowledge base about how and when torture was effective. Hassner's article is based on two sets of records, a single manuscript that records 1,046 cases from the tribunal in Toledo between 1575 and 1610, and the investigation of a network of Jews in Mexico in 1596 to 1601.
Of the 1046 suspects in the Toledo manuscript, 123 were tortured. It is important to note that the Inquisition did not immediately put suspects to torture, but did all they could to build up a detailed case before even bringing the suspect before an Inquisitor. The Inquisition generally had no interest in extracting false confessions; their goal was not to trap particular individuals so much as to wind up networks of secret Jews, Muslims, and Protestants, and for that they needed accurate information. This is quite different from the witch hunts going on at the same time, trials in which people were routinely tortured until they confessed to completely impossible things. The Inquisition did not use torture to fish for new information, because they believed that any such data would be unreliable; they were looking for confirmation of what they had already been told. The Inquisition proceeded slowly, taking years if necessary to build up a detailed case. The Inquisitors also understood very well the problem of leading questions, which could get the suspect to tell them "what they wanted to hear." Their usual method was, in fact, to ask no questions at all.
Imagine: a suspect is arrested and taken to prison, never told anything about the charges against him or her, kept in a cell for days or weeks or months, then brought before a panel of judges who simply say, "Tell us the truth." If the suspect says nothing, he or she goes back to prison. This could go on for years. Eventually, if they had learned enough from other sources, the inquisitors might decide to torture the suspect, again without asking any questions. The inquisitors were forbidden to draw blood, and they usually inflicted pain by having the suspect's arms twisted with ropes or by a sort of water boarding. The very tough could bear this, and often did, but some suspects who held out for years of imprisonment did break quickly and confess. In the Toledo sample, 29% of those put to torture confessed, and in every case their confessions corresponded closely enough with what the court already knew to lead to a conviction.
The methods of the Inquisition stand in stark contrast to American torture policy. In the aftermath of 9/11, US interrogators quickly formed an interrogational torture program to prevent additional mass terror attacks and dismantle the al Qaeda network. US interrogators tortured rashly, amateurishly, and haphazardly. Amateurs carried out interrogation sessions without bureaucratic oversight or strictly delimited procedures, and the sessions did not lead to an accumulation of organizational expertise. Rather than torturing those believed to withhold crucial information, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel tortured terrorist leaders who had “blood on their hands.” Culpability, not utility, determined who would be tortured. This was hot-blooded torture and it failed, by and large.
According to Hassner, experienced inquisitors would have scoffed at the "ticking bomb" scenario used by some Americans to justify torture. They believed that torture was not a reliable way to extract new information, and that it did not work quickly. It could produce valuable information, but only if it was used systematically and patiently alongside other investigations.
It makes me queasy to dwell on these things, but I feel like we have to. If decent people refuse to learn about how torture has been used and the problems with any information so acquired, we may again end up at the mercy of sinister people who claim that what they are doing is essential to protect us.