The Inquisition: Torture corrupts truth


Waterboarding, as practiced by The Inquisition

The recent hullabaloo over Guantanamo torture here in the States coincides with my reading through the Martyrs Mirror accounts of the Catholic Inquisitions that began sweeping Europe in the 13th Century. I think these stories are instructive to those, who, despite Christopher Hitchens’ ordeal, refuse to see that waterboarding is torture or maintain that the torture is somehow justified.

Torture’s biggest problem is not that it is barbaric; it’s that it is ineffective for its stated purpose and has a corrosive effect on the truth. An unbroken man may not tell you the truth, but, once broken, may tell you any lie you want to hear to make the pain stop. Like the Bush administration used torture to manufacture a connection between Al Qaeda and the Iraq War, the Inquisition used this principle to extract the confessions that sent many an accused heretic to horrible deaths. Consider some of the early “tests” the Mirror mentions for rooting out heretics who refused to confess:

  • In Germany, the presiding priest would heat an iron to red hot, say a prayer over it, sprinkle it with holy water and then put it in the hand of the accused. The accused would be made to walk nine paces holding the iron. After which, the hand of the accused was bound with a cloth. It was inspected three days later. If it was still injured, the accused was burned to death.
  • A variation on the test in the Netherlands would require the accused to submerge his or her arm in a pot of boiling water up to the elbow.
  • The Netherlands also employed a cold-water Catch 22, in which the accused was stripped naked and thrown into a freezing canal. If the poor person sunk (and presumably drown), he or she was judged innocent, yet dead. If he or she floated, it was off to the stake.

These trials were generally applied after a series of leading questions designed to extract a confession, and they share a common thread with today’s tortures – they were designed for predetermined outcomes. The logic is a mess. The hot iron test uses a miraculous outcome as evidence of innocence, but the river test considers supernatural intervention to be a sign of evil.

Like today’s torturers, the Mirror states that the Inquisitors worked out of he public eye in order to prevent popular sympathy (or logic) from preventing them in their quest to obtain confessions. Otherwise, someone might have questioned if the priests administering these tortures would care to try to pass their own tests.


2 Responses to “The Inquisition: Torture corrupts truth”

  1. […] (source, read the full story of waterboarding here) torture and sexuality […]

  2. Very useful info.
    Kinda creepy huh?
    I mean the ways they tortured people to see if they were innocent was INSANE.
    Thanks. :)

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