OF HOLY AND DEMOCRATIC INQUISITIONS
Passing in the short space of an exhibition from the instruments used by the Inquisition to the methods of interrogation used today in every police station and barracks of the world seems to be nothing but a provocation. How can one compare the cruelty that forced a huge number of people to the garrote to the legal procedures of the police of a democratic state? How can one relate the brutal phantoms of the church in such a dark epoch with the rationality that is the basis of the defense of contemporary institutions? And yet the time that separates the pyres erected in the name of god from the modern electric chairs is not on the order of centuries as many people think, but rather of a few decades, since, in fact, the trials of the Inquisition continued into the 19th century.
So what is it that makes it seem so very distant? Maybe the conception we have of it.
When we think about the inquisition, our minds turn to images of the religious folly of a handful of fanatics who tortures and killed blinded by their fear. Secular and rationalist thought has given us the conception of religion as an irrational phenomenon, a mental impulse that, having abandoned the paradise of Reason, leads to violence and terror. Thus we think that the Inquisition was a long sleep of Reason, the most frightful statement of the arbitrary nature of faith.
But the Holy Inquisition was exactly the opposite. The heresy trials do not just represent the total faith in dogma, nor are they merely a constant attempt to repress every form of difference. Above all, they correspond to a project of rationalization of the repressive instruments. The torture of heretics is an extremely rational thing, the opposite of a blind, violent reaction. Everything occurs according to precise rules, with legal procedures and a very particular attention to the spectacle that must accompany the trial. The church defends its power and its interpretation of the scriptures with a rigorous refinement of repressive techniques.
If the inquisition was a horror, it was a horror of Reason. This is why one cannot make an enlightened appeal to rationality and science against this horror. This is why pyres don’t merely brighten the dark night of History, but are here as well, burning in a different form.
Several years ago, the pope rehabilitated the figure of Galileo after so many centuries with the intent of celebrating the marriage of religion and science. Well then, in his gesture there is simply a continuation of the same project of power and conquest. Just as his predecessors blessed the garrote, today the pope blesses the electric chair (as is said in paragraphs 55 and 56 of Evangelium vitae, a papal encyclical of the 1990’s). The first was built by religion in the name of god; the second by science in the name of the state.
Today, repression no longer makes reference to god, but the power that justifies it is no less totalitarian. Rather, if the efficacy of its control over individuals is measured in terms of acquiescence and acceptance, one could say that the present society is the most repressive up to now.
The Community wants participation because everyone has to contribute to their own and other people’s oppression. This is why repression I increasingly becoming the capacity for draining the individual of all desire for revolt. Television, the extortion of work, the value given to social climbing all annihilate the tension for freedom, and when these are refused, repression is forced to abandon its customary methods and to show itself directly: then there are the interrogations, the searches, the asylums, the prisons, the physical elimination.
Just like the old days. But we have the impression that all this is “at least” rational, organized with the aid of technology and in the service of our security. The apparatus justifies it.
If anyone is held responsible for any brutality whatever, he is defined as a monster or a lunatic and imprisoned. The walls in which she is enclosed are as distant as a prohibition and as close as a warning. However, the worst wickedness carried out for reasons of state no longer seems so terrible, because there is a meaning in its brutality. Anyone who kills and commits violence in a “gratuitous” way is frightening, but the general who bombs an entire population, the soldier who rapes, the secret service agent who carries out a massacre, the police who tortures and shoots, these are never crazy.
This is why the Inquisition seems senseless—and therefore distant—in comparison with traveling papers, decrees of expulsion, prison and the electric chair. But ideology is no different from religion, not even when it abandons the great values, the great hopes and becomes a eulogy to dialogue and pluralism. The Inquisition no longer exists today because it is everywhere. Now the Brunos and Vaninis, who were burned in the past as the bearers of a thought that blasphemed the truth, end up burning themselves on their own. Individuals are always sacrificed in the name of something. If it isn’t the good, it is the sovereign people or the gross national product. The state makes the lack of individual freedom common to all. The community of authority and capital is the order of this lack. When the order is threatened, sooner or later the garrote appears.