From the Inquisition to us

James Mandrell teaches Hispanic studies at Brandeis University, where he chairs the women's and gender studies department.

The release of Bush administration torture memos proves one thing at least: When those at the highest levels of our government discussed “enhanced interrogation,” they neglected to consider the sordid history of torture.

Had they been interested, they might have discovered an illustrated article on water torture in a popular 19th century Spanish newspaper (I happened on it in Madrid, doing research for my next book). Published in 1836, just two years after Spain abolished the Inquisition, the article noted that torture was still practiced in a few places, although Catherine the Great of Russia outlawed its practice in 1760, as did France’s Louis XVI in the early years of his reign. The article claimed that the principal objection to torture was not necessarily moral or ethical. Torture doesn’t work, it said: “It’s not efficacious.”

Different types of water torture were reviewed, including a detailed presentation of a version of waterboarding as mandated in French documents from the time of Louis XIV. The article concluded by pointing out that such a “savage act” paradoxically took place in the most glorious court ever seen, headed by a king “who was daily surrounded by the most select individuals in a peaceful and educated nation.”

At the time, interest in Spain in the topic of torture was not coincidental. Many people struggled with the implications of support for the Inquisition -- 300 years during which the apparatus of the Catholic Church and a Catholic state pursued, sometimes to death, Arabs, Jews and other “heretics” -- in an otherwise enlightened country. In 1888, in the first comprehensive history of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea described one of the inquisitors’ punishing techniques, which ought to sound familiar. Prisoners were bound to a ladder-like plank that was tilted, so their heads were lower than their feet. A piece of linen was forced down the “patient’s” throat to allow water to trickle through slowly as it was poured from a vessel.


“The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, he was adjured to tell the truth,” Lea writes. The degree of punishment was gauged by the amount of water imbibed. Lea cites one case, in 1596, in which 12 pints of water were poured into the “patient.” Lea doesn’t mention the outcome of the case. He does, however, note that water torture was not much used in the Inquisition after the beginning of the 17th century. It was deemed not “merciful” enough.

The modern world condemns the Spanish Inquisition and its pursuit of racial purity and doctrinal religious observance. But there’s a more subtle point to be made. Ordinary citizens allowed it to function for hundreds of years precisely because it was understood to keep them safe, to preserve their culture and lives.

The parallels to the United States and the war on terror are obvious, from the suspicion and demonizing of people believed to be of Arab or Muslim descent to the appeals to preserve the American way of life. Just as obvious are the parallels to the way that America has been diminished in the eyes of the world.

Taking history into account could have protected the United States from engaging in practices that jeopardized our values, our democracy and even our lives. As the debate continues, it can add to our conversations much-needed perspective and depth. When we grasp the history of torture -- and now, our place in it -- we can begin again to speak persuasively of democracy and peace.