It's not hard to recoil from the regime of horror that was the heresy-seeking Inquisition. Late Medieval and early modern inquisitors had the full organized power of church and state behind them, interrogating, torturing, and sending to be burned presumptive apostates and Jews. They frightened whole populations into numb submission, as in the south of France. Murphy insists we recognize the close kinship between that terror regime and the activities of the U.S. empire in the first decade of this century.
No reader is allowed to miss that Mullen is lumping Dick Cheney, David Addington and Donald Rumsfeld in with Tomas de Torquemada.
The unhappy similarity Mullen points out is not primarily between bad people in power, but founded in structures that states build to enforce conformity.
Along the same lines, the Bush administration invented its torture regime on the fly when given an opening by the 9/11 attacks, offering up renditions, Guantanamo, enemy combatants, military commissions, etc. When elements of society committed to previous legal limitations on state power pushed back, under both Bush and Obama administrations the Congress and courts have codified and approved the innovations, while the executive has further articulated and streamlined systems of unchecked repression. The extraordinary has been regularized. And therein comes the horror of what the early 21st century United States is offering the world:
So should we all just go bury our heads and hope the new Inquisition keeps its focus on somebody else -- Muslims, immigrants, the poor …? Mullen's prescription for a turnaround is essentially ethical; we need to recall a virtue not much prized these days (or by any empire):
Well yes, but it's hard to imagine this country embracing humility unless we (including our elites) are taken down a peg or two. Losing remote mercenary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't phase us. Climate change havoc might get our attention -- though the purveyors of fossil fuels continue to do their best to keep us focused on illusory bogeys and circuses.
Yet Mullen chronicles in his glancing way one era that did end an Inquisition; maybe we do well to look at how European societies and the cultures that grew out of them cast off the Roman Catholic Inquisition beginning in the 1600s. Maybe there are some lessons there. He quotes an historian of the early modern period whose assessment seems pertinent.
For the old Inquisition, "tolerance" was "the intellectual equivalent of habitat destruction." Certainty of moral virtue that allowed, even required, institutional torture and intellectual repression to enforce conformity no longer could command space in which to flourish.
What would it take to deprive the New American Inquisition of the moral certainty that undergirds its bureaucratic operation? One answer is obvious: on-going globalization continually scrambles both cultural differences and cultural commonalities, making the assertion of any One Way more laughable than convincing. The closest thing the globalized world has to a universal God these days is unfettered market capitalism -- the Good Greed -- but the natural world and human resistance contest that orthodoxy everywhere. The habitat that supports the New American Inquisition may prove to be quite short-lived.