Man’s capacity to torture in the name of righteousness has blighted civilization from its inception in the twelfth century to the 15th century and the Spanish Inquisition, when heretics (and Jews) were subjected to methods of torture in service of purging infidels from the faithful. Creatively grotesque, those ancient instruments, the cold-blooded application of such methods, and the willing proponents of torture reveal much about society and the nature of torture.
As shocking as the intricate tools designed to inflict maximum pain is the army of black-hearted priests and/or government officials who ply their skills without mercy, proving over and over that an agonizing body will reveal information. History has proven the futility of torture, yet, through the years, such methods have been used to validate guilt, victims willing to swear to anything to alleviate their suffering.
I have long been fascinated by the monstrous power of the Spanish Inquisition and the reign of terror it spread among those deemed suspect, but this author takes that outrageous history and establishes the link between the cold-eyed friars maiming and killing in the name of God and the arcane techniques that have survived the ages, from Nazi Germany to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to modern-day Guantanamo Bay.
Impassively watching as the accused suffer the various accoutrements of torture, most stunning are the monstrous designs created for no other reason that to inflict unbearable pain and evoke the necessary confessions. It is not difficult to view such events through the prism of the past, but the author makes direct connections from the blood-drenched dungeons to more modern shadowed places, secret prisons where enemies of the government are subjected to the same grisly techniques in the name of a righteous cause, always the oppressor exerting power over the helpless individual.
Kirsch draws parallels between then and now: “Here we see the tripwire between the kind of Christian rigorism that the Church was willing to sanction and the kind that it insisted upon punishing.” First it is heretical beliefs that must be exorcised, but once the gates of Hell are opened, all manner of demons are released, an excuse for practicing abominable deeds, man’s own dark nature cleansed in the process.
From the medieval to the modern, the travesties of the past have periodically revisited a frightened world, from the exterminations of Nazi Germany (“The same visceral anti-Semitism that had blighted medieval Europe and prompted some of the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition”) to the urgency to keep America safe from fundamentalist fanatics, always the end justifying the means.
In a logical progression, the book addresses the sanctioned terror of the twelfth century; but this chilling history pales in the light of more recent years, inflicting its horrors from early heretical sects to specifically targeted groups. What is most shocking is man’s willingness to perpetrate such crimes against the powerless, all behind the mask of power. Kirsch writes intimately and precisely, describing the indescribable as history repeats itself in circular logic. To shine the light on such methodical inhumanity is the best hope for purging society of its inherent cruelties. It isn’t “them” in the dusty pages of history any more; now it is us and the society we define.