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In harm's way, again and again

October 05, 2008|Wendy Smith

The Grand Inquisitor's Manual

A History of Terror in the Name of God

Jonathan Kirsch

HarperOne: 296 pp., $26.95

JONATHAN KIRSCH leaves no doubt about his motive for writing "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual," a scathing account of the Inquisition's 600-year campaign to stifle religious dissent, as well as to persecute various groups of people it branded as alien menaces to communal security. "The Inquisition was and still is a danger to human life and human liberty," he writes. "[It] is not only a fact of history but also an urgent moral peril to the American democracy." Kirsch doesn't specifically address the Bush administration's war on terror until the closing pages of his book, but references throughout to the erosion of individual rights and the legal justification of torture make it clear that contemporary manifestations of the persecuting instinct are very much on his mind.

Regrettably, this distinguished literary critic, author of many books on biblical subjects and a long-standing contributor to The Times' book pages, has allowed his passion to overmaster his judgment here. Among Kirsch's principal targets are the "apologists" who note that secular courts of the period also sanctioned torture and had scant respect for civil liberties. Certainly, it would be grotesque to cite the Inquisition's regulations about exactly when and to what degree torture could be applied as evidence that it was a law-abiding organization. (And it would be nice if Kirsch quoted specific revisionists who make this contention instead of anonymously summarizing their arguments.) But to examine the Inquisition in the context of its times is simply good scholarship; it considers an ugly institution as a response to particular social, political and cultural factors in order to more precisely analyze the circumstances that led to witch hunts and autos-da-fe.

Kirsch's approach, by contrast, is disquietingly general. "[A]n unbroken thread links the friar-inquisitors who set up the rack and the pyre in southern France in the early thirteenth century to the torturers and executioners of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia . . . ," he writes. "Nor does the thread stop at Auschwitz or the Gulag; it can be traced through the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Hollywood blacklists of the McCarthy era, and even the interrogation cells at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo." Why not include the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, or the trials of socialists who opposed World War I? The only thing this tells us is that history is filled with authorities punishing dissidents and that human beings can often be intimidated into allowing their neighbors to be carted off to jail, or worse.

Kirsch does somewhat better in discussing the tactics that marked the Inquisition's three phases -- tactics that continue to resonate. The medieval Inquisition's lurid charges against the 13th century Cathars, accused of everything from bizarre sexual practices to cannibalism, were echoed in the Nazis' libels against the Jews. Hitler and his henchmen also shared the obsession with "purity of blood" displayed by the Spanish Inquisition, which viewed the mere fact of being Jewish (or Muslim) as a crime. The broken Old Bolsheviks who admitted their guilt in the Moscow show trials recall the humiliation of Galileo, the Roman Inquisition's most famous victim; secret interrogations and extorted public confessions worked just as well for Stalin as they had for all three varieties of inquisitors. Their insistence that a meaningful confession must include identifying one's fellow heretics was shamefully emulated by the American congressional committees that exhorted repentant communists to "name names."

Modern readers will get the point when Kirsch writes, "Once the war on heresy was understood as an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil . . . then the end plainly justified the means." Nor are they likely to disagree with his sobering reminder that "[t]hen as now, demonization of the victim is the necessary precondition for genocide." Still, conflating an array of historical movements with vastly different motives and scope, Kirsch neglects a vital subject: the rise of a worldview opposed to the Inquisition and its latter-day emulators. The spread of Enlightenment ideals via the American and French revolutions didn't put an end to political and religious persecution, but it vigorously challenged its legitimacy.

Stalin's show trials were denounced across Europe and America; the Nazis took care to keep the Final Solution secret. The Bush administration failed to convince the Supreme Court that its military tribunals sufficiently safeguarded defendants' rights; mass murderers from Serbia to Liberia have been tried for their crimes. Genocide and abuse of human rights remain stains on the international conscience. But Kirsch's overwrought tract, depicting the Inquisition as the progenitor of all injustices perpetrated ever since, doesn't provide the tools to thoughtfully assess or meaningfully combat today's threats.

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Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

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