'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Modern Inquisition 

UPDATE: An incisive critique of this post in a comment by evildoer:

it raises the question as to whether one of the covert purposes of the war on terror is the desecularization of American life by substituting feudal social practices for those adopted over time in response to the Enlightenment

I think this kind of reverses the historical sequence. The Inquisition was not a feudal practice. In fact, it was an anti-feudal practice that heralded the beginning of thre emergence of "enlightened" institutions in Europe. The roman inquisition developed because heretics were able to rely on support of some local lords and the convoluted system of local feudal rights to avoid represssion. It provided the first bureacratized system of establishing the legal truth that went against local traditions (including juries, ordeals, and feudal arbitration). It was therefore heavily supported by monarchs who wanted to centralize the state and defeat recalcitrant feudal barons.

Comparisons with today are also skewed by legend. For example, the rate of conviction in the courts of the Spanish Inquisition in the sixteenth century were LOWER than the rates of conviction in the US "justice" system today. In other words, a 16th century converso had a better go at convincing a judge that he was a bona fide Christian than a suspect of burglary in the US has of winning a "not guilty" plea today. Most inquisitorial trials ended with minor citations and warning. Some were fined and imposed penance. The Albigensian Crusade, which was the first European genocide, launched by the Kings of Paris with the express goal of exterminating a religious group, was not representative of the inquistion as an institution, but, like the inquisition, it was a major step towards the modern world.

INITIAL POST: Ever since George W. Bush described the US response to the 9/11 attacks as a crusade, there has been a periodic stream of stories analogizing the conflict between the the US, Europe and Islamic fundamentalist groups as a contemporary struggle between Christianity and Islam. Not surprisingly, Christian fundamentalists have promoted this narrative incessantly.

Beyond this, there have been episodes, such as the Marines invoking the protection of God prior to attacking Fallujah in November 2004, wherein the US military perceives itself as an instrument of God's will. Meanwhile, the Air Force has been sharply criticized for permitting Christian fundamentalists to proselytize recruits, frequently in an offensive and coercive manner. But, perhaps, the association between the war on terror and Christianity is more straightforward, revealed through the practices of the purported war itself. Consider, for example, this footnote in Silvia Frederici's Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, a footnote where she elaborates upon the practices utilized by the Catholic Church to suppress heresy:

Andre Vauchez attributes the success of the Inquisition to its procedure. The arrests of suspects was prepared with utmost secrecy. At first, the prosecution consisted of raids against heretics' meetings, organized in collaboration with public authorities. Later, when Waldenses and Cathars had already been forced to go underground, suspects were called in front of a tribunal without being told the reasons for their convocation. The same secrecy characterized the investigatory process. The defendants were not told the charges against them, and those who denounced them were allowed to retain their anonymity. Suspects were released, if they informed against the accomplices and promised to keep silent about their confessions. Thus, when heretics were arrested they could never know if anyone from their congregation had spoken against them. As Italo Mereu points out, the work of the Roman Inquisition left deep scars in this history of European culture, creating a climate of intolerance and institutional suspicion that continues to corrupt the legal system to this day. The legacy of the Inquisition is a culture of suspicion that relies upon anonymous charges and preventative detention, and treats suspects as if already proven guilty.

Preliminarily, observe that this is the Roman Inquisition, an inquistion that predates the more popularly known Spanish one by about 200 years. Upon reading this passage, it is remarkable the extent to which the practices of this inquisition anticipate the ones associated with the war on terror, so much so that it raises the question as to whether one of the covert purposes of the war on terror is the desecularization of American life by substituting feudal social practices for those adopted over time in response to the Enlightenment. The separation of church and state is one of the guiding principles asserted by those influenced by the Enlightenment, and, yet, in regard to the war on terror, the boundary is degraded by the state's adoption of religiously inspired measures to suppress perceived enemies. In effect, the state is seeking to attain the autonomy retained by religious institutions where it comes to the punishment of heretics in order to combine it with the power to project violent force globally. Indeed, it may now be more accurate to speak of the opponents of US global hegemony as heretics instead of the words commonly ascribed to them: radicals, terrorists, militants, anarchists and guerrillas, among others.

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