God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy
April 5, 2012 by Bob Livingston
Instead, Murphy’s larger purpose is to show how large organizations filled with small-minded bureaucrats can terrorize a population when they have willing foot soldiers to do their bidding. The Inquisition, as Murphy sees it, was just a taste of what big governments would later accomplish when they set their minds to trying to control both how people behave and how they think.
And Murphy points out that today’s technological marvels of communication and surveillance allow government inquisitors to record and track personal behavior in ways the old-time Inquisitorial powers could only dream of. He points out, though, that if you subtract the technological aspects of our modern inquisition, it shares a lot of similarities with what the Catholic church implemented.
The basic tenet of a bureaucracy, whether it works for the Federal government or a church, is that “Institutions do what they must to retain power. Isn’t it that simple?” That’s a quote that Murphy takes from Eamon Duffy, a historian who has tracked the bloody changeover of England from a Catholic country to a Protestant power in the 16th century.
Murphy shows how the tools of today’s bureaucratic governments are outgrowths of past measures to keep power: “Motivations may change, targets may shift, but the infrastructure builds by increments. Proof of identity, record-keeping, informers, surveillance, denunciation, interrogations: these are the basic instruments. And as medieval kingdoms remade themselves into modern states, the instruments became better and were applied in a more systematic way.”
The transition from the Inquisition to the modern police state picked up steam in France in 1790. It was then that France invented the passport and the identity card. Napoleon and his head of secret police, Joseph Fouche, formulated summaries of all the intelligence, news, rumors and gossip they could gather to make sure they stayed ahead of efforts to depose them.
Later, the Russian Czars modeled their secret police after the French undercover agents. And when the Communists took over Russia, Lenin made the Czar’s bureaucracy into what would later become the KGB. Today the KGB has morphed into the FSB. The FSB, if you can believe it, is even more powerful than the KGB ever was. As Murphy points out, at least the KGB had to report to the Communist Party. Today the Communist Party is gone and the FSB has no one to restrain it.
In the United States, Murphy says, these types of efforts at control led to the so-called Palmer raids in the early 20th century. At that time, the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, organized raids “led by the young J. Edgar Hoover, (that) rounded up targeted individuals by the thousands.” As The Washington Post noted in 1920: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”
Later, the FBI, led by the same Hoover, would gather files on 25 million Americans. Today, as the Federal government collects more and more information on its citizens under the USA Patriot Act, untold numbers of electronic files are being collected.
Murphy believes that single-minded organizations, whether they are inquisitions or modern police states, are misguided by their belief in their infallibility. He quotes Samuel Johnson’s observation about a man who “seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.”
A bureaucracy that wants everyone to behave like obedient sheep is likewise enslaved to one idea that is a wrong one. But as long as we stay vigilant and fight back against that wrong idea, there’s hope for a freer future.