Extracting information in cold blood

If I had to choose my main fear, it wouldn’t be the sky falling over my head, like Asterix. A good candidate for my particular bogeyman is the unrestricted exercise of power, and its most brutal expression: torture . My readings of Latin American authors like Mario Benedetti’s, or Spanish films like Pilar Miro’s The crime of Cuenca remain hidden deep inside my memory. Nothing like torture conveys an image so gruesome of the dark side of human beings.

Empirical evidence on contemporary torture is sparse. That’s why scholars are beginning to mine historical archives for detailed records of past torture campaigns. A particularly detailed source of data on torture can be found in the archives of the Spanish Inquisition(1).

Ron E. Hassner, Professor of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley, has just started an empirical research program on interrogational torture with two datasets, a quantitative one of torture in Toledo, 1575–1610, and a qualitative one from a network of trials against the Jewish community in Mexico City 1589–1601. His account and conclusions are terrifying.

The myth is that the Inquisition tortured recklessly, used torture as punishment and to extract confessions of guilt. The truth is that its primary goal was not to terrorize society but to extract information. Victims often collaborated with interrogators in the torture chamber and often provided truthful information they were not willing to divulge prior to torture. It tortured to corroborate known information, not to discover new information. Nonetheless, inquisitors treated the results of interrogations in the torture chamber with scepticism.

Professor Hasner is very clear: the Inquisition tortured comprehensively, it tortured brutally and systematically. Inquisitorial torture yielded information, often reliable. The Inquisition tortured meticulously, as part of a bureaucratic procedure designed to collect information. It tortured in cold blood.

The bureaucratic nature of its procedures does not detract from their viciousness; on the contrary, it lends the torture an almost inhuman cruelty.

The Spanish Inquisition illustrates the remarkable conditions required for a torture campaign to yield truthful information. This was bureaucratized violence in the service of an authoritarian government that was willing to pour vast resources in treasure and labour to forge a totalizing torture campaign. The results were far more professional, indeed far more modern, than any contemporary torture effort. Unlike many contemporary torture advocates, inquisitors did not regard torture as easy, quick, or cheap. This bureaucratized torture stands in stark contrast to the “ticking bomb” philosophy that has motivated US torture policy in the aftermath of 9/11.

Evidence from the archives of the Spanish Inquisition suggests torture affords no middle ground: one cannot improvise quick, amateurish, and half-hearted torture sessions, motivated by anger and fear, and hope to extract reliable intelligence.

Having read this, all I have to say is that I have seen the light. Current social networks and systematic violations of privacy by incumbent powers are the worst method to extract information, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time, such as the Spanish Inquisition, a pinnacle of bureaucratic achievement.

Oh Facebook, Google. Here I am. Please come and take all my data…


(1) Hassner, Ron E. ‘The Cost of Torture: Evidence from the Spanish Inquisition’. Security Studies 29, no. 3 (26 May 2020): 457–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2020.1761441.

Featured Image: El Crimen de Cuenca (The crime of Cuenca)

One comment

  1. lol, o boy, are you a poor mistaken soul concerning the tortured victims by the RCC…

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