Ticking Time Bombs and Eternity

Scott McLemee reviews Ron E. Hassner’s Anatomy of Torture.

May 13, 2022
Cover of Ron E. Hassner’s Anatomy of Torture, showing hooded figures operating a medieval torture device.

Comparing Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay to the torture rooms of the Spanish Inquisition is almost always a gesture of condemnation. The implication is not subtle: the enhanced interrogation (to adopt the bureaucratic euphemism) by 21st-century military and intelligence forces is little more than sadism, rationalized on behalf of self-righteous fanaticism. How could the comparison be taken otherwise?

Ron E. Hassner’s Anatomy of Torture (Cornell University Press) examines a set of Inquisition records while keeping the “war on terror” debates always in mind. I started to read the book more than half expecting the familiar denunciatory intent. The subject matter does not make for pleasant surprises, but Hassner, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, takes the material in some interesting directions.

A substantial comparison between medieval and modern torture must attend to the differences between them. And in this case, Hassner’s approach is defined by one enormous contrast: the available evidence, or lack of it. Systematic and officially authorized torture involves a lot of paperwork, literal or multimedia. On that score, the Inquisition embodied the bureaucratic spirit to perfection. (The early-medieval Inquisition looked for heresy in France and Italy, while the Spanish Inquisition operated from the late 15th through the early 19th centuries. Hassner’s work focuses on tribunals held in Spain and Mexico between 1484 and 1601.)

The Spanish Inquisition compiled enormous dossiers (well indexed and cross-referenced) full of testimony from cooperative witnesses as well as transcriptions of every word and scream from torture sessions. The transcripts were prepared in multiple copies: if mangling the limbs of individual X produced statements about persons Y and Z, a copy of the document would appear in the files for all three. States employing torture in the 20th and 21st centuries have undoubtedly had an easier time of data collection and retrieval. But the more important distinction is that the more recent archives are closed. Details of torture are state secrets, and likely to remain so for decades (if not centuries) for reasons of national security or, in some cases perhaps, shame.

Thus contemporary debates over torture—over the extent and methods of it or its reliability as a source of intelligence—are largely exercises in spin: a “war of anecdotes,” as Hassner puts it, based on unverifiable claims from officials whose honesty or competence can seldom be checked against the record. The result: “information asymmetry favors the torture apologist,” who can always allude to classified knowledge of cases in which torture provided crucial intelligence and saved lives.

Information asymmetry of a different sort prevails with the Spanish Inquisition, which conducted perhaps hundreds of thousands of investigations—and while only a fraction involved torture, that portion alone includes material covering more almost 300 years, dispersed over two or three continents. “Often, comprehensive records are available for the interrogation of entire communities,” Hassner writes, “allowing us to trace how information provided under torture by one detainee led to the arrest, interrogation, or torture of others in their network.” He comes to this record as a political scientist rather than a historian, acknowledging with gratitude the work of generations of scholars who have gathered and transcribed material that was only ever meant to be seen by church officials. The documentary base is too vast and too context-specific to make any given generalization more than a hypothesis.

But his assessments, however provisional, are at least thought-provoking. The Inquisition’s use of torture did sometimes produce valid and verifiable information, he concludes, without taking that to be justification for its use now. The Inquisition, he writes, “wielded absolute power and could draw on near-unlimited resources. The most important of these resources was time … It could afford to spend decades and centuries perfecting its methods, and it could afford to dedicate years to gathering evidence against its prisoners.”

Despite the popular image of priests inflicting pain to elicit confessions (if not conversions), the Inquisition used torture mainly to confirm the testimony of witnesses who had not been tortured. The cases Hassner considers involved Jews and Muslims who professed to convert to Christianity while continuing to practice their original faith in secret. The focus of questioning under torture was not on what the victim believed but on whether he or she had witnessed or participated in specific activities or behaviors, such as avoiding pork or reading Hebrew or Arabic texts.

The Inquisition did not regard torture as especially useful or reliable as means of getting at the truth. Someone under torture is likely to manufacture false accusations or say whatever they think the torturer wants to hear. (In the course of certain medical procedures, I have been prepared to admit to kidnapping the Lindberg baby.) The Inquisition seems to have figured this out over time and developed a skeptical attitude toward claims made under torture but not confirmed by other sources. Perhaps the most surprising point Hassner makes is that the records he examined showed no case of someone being executed solely on the basis of testimony given under torture.

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Clearly the torture documented by the Inquisition’s overworked scribes is worlds away from any scenario in which Kiefer Sutherland prevents the destruction of Los Angeles by threatening a terrorist while a timed bomb ticks. Hassner’s book might yet be pressed into service of arguments for torture as a way to extract information. But that would mean ignoring the reservation that the Inquisitors brought to results produced by the brutality they practiced.


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