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Cullen Murphy is the editor-at-large for Vanity Fair and previously served as managing editor at The Atlantic Monthly. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt )

The Inquisition: Alive And Well After 800 Years

by NPR Staff
Jan 14, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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When we talk of inquisition it is usually prefaced with a definite article — as in, The Inquisition. But, as Vanity Fair editor Cullen Murphy points out in his new book, God's Jury, the Inquisition wasn't a single event but rather a decentralized, centuries-long process.

Murphy says the "inquisitorial impulse" is alive and well today — despite its humble origins with the Cathars in France, where it was initially designed to deal with Christian heretics.

"The temptation, I think, is to think of the Inquisition as a kind of throwback," Murphy tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "Nothing quite says 'medieval' the way the word 'inquisition' does. And my view is that you should actually adjust the lens fairly substantially."

When you look at the Inquisition, he says, what you really see is the beginning of the modern world.

"There's always been persecution, there's always been hatred," Murphy says. The Inquisition, however, was such an enormous, sustained effort that it required an infrastructure to collect and retrieve information — over centuries.

It was this institutionalizing of the Inquisition that revolutionized record-keeping and surveillance techniques, Murphy says.

Modern Day Parallels

If you open a modern day interrogation manual for the police force or the military and place an interrogation manual from the Spanish Inquisition by its side, Murphy says, you'd be shocked by the similarities.

"There isn't a trick that is used nowadays that wasn't in use by the Inquisition. The psychology of interrogation, the ruses that people would use when you're questioning, there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to interrogation," he says.

Interrogation at Guantanamo, for example, illustrates that the spirit of the Spanish Inquisition is alive and well today, Murphy says.

"The Inquisition tried to put restraints on torture. The problem was that in the moment, when people are trying to get information, those boundaries keep being pushed," he says. "People think, 'You know, one more turn of the screw will get us one more little piece of information' ... and torture creeps and creeps and creeps."

Are We In Danger?

Murphy says the key ingredients for a modern day inquisition exist today.

In order for an inquisition to succeed, he says, there must be an individual or a group of people who believe they are in the right and want everyone else to toe the line.

"But that moral certainty isn't enough," Murphy says. There must also be a bureaucracy and methods of surveillance to sustain the persecution.

"All of those things are much more advanced right now by an order of magnitude than they were centuries ago," Murphy says. "Nowadays [surveillance] is done almost automatically — every time you hit the keyboard on your computer or every time you walk by a camera on the street."

Murphy fears what could happen if that moral certainty meets the kinds of monitoring tools that exist today.

"In the wrong hands, the tools of repression are just more available and dangerous than they have been in a long time," he says.

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