As often as his nonfiction books appear, you might not know that he spends his days as a publishing and intellectual property attorney (and The Journal's pro bono counsel). On Sept. 9, HarperOne will publish his latest, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God," a probing look at the 600-year-period of the Inquisition and its lingering legacy.
Jewish Journal: Was this book prompted by some parallel you see between the Inquisition and today?
Jonathan Kirsch: The core idea of my book, in a nutshell, is that the medieval Inquisition invented an inquisitorial toolbox, a set of tools that they used to prosecute a thought crime. And that inquisitorial toolbox has never been closed. It has been used without interruption since the 1200s. And it was in use at Abu Ghraib, arguably at Guantanamo, in the war on terror. Not with the same effect and the same purpose but with many of the same tools.
JJ: So do you see the American government today as the new inquisitors?
JK: I don't say that in my book. But I did say in my book that many of the same rationales that are articulated by the Bush administration and the Bush Justice Department were first articulated by the Inquisition.
The premiere example -- the shocking, startling example -- is that what they call waterboarding is not torture. They use the euphemistic phrase, "harsh interrogation technique," as if that is not torture.
Waterboarding is the premiere torture of the inquisition. It's a very appealing tool for practical reasons: All you need is a water bucket and a rag; there is no bloody mess to clean up, no scars, you have complete control over administering and stopping the pain. The fact they are still using this form of torture is one continuity from the Inquisition.
The other is the euphemism to disguise it, because the Inquisition never called anything by its rightful name, and the third parallel is this practice of demonizing the victim to justify the administration of the worst possible torture.
JJ: The 'enemy' was such a tragically amorphous entity, a moving target of heresy. How did they get people to participate in such atrocities against their neighbors, their fellow Christians?
JK: If you can convince someone else that a third person is not truly human, suddenly this kinship that we are hardwired to feel is unplucked. This occurred most pronouncedly during the Holocaust.
The Inquisition coined the language of disease and pollution in characterizing its victims. Heretics were vermin; they were a plague; they were a cancer. Once you take someone who is a living, breathing human being and turn them into a rat or a diseased organism, then the measures you take to eradicate them are self-justified.
JJ: If a Jew or Muslim didn't convert to Christianity, they would be kicked out of post-1492 Spain. But when Jewish converts and Muslim converts to Christianity were accused by the Inquisition, they became outsiders to both communities.
JK: This is exactly why I write in my book that Kafka is the poet laureate of the Inquisition -- this Catch-22, this heads-I-win-tails-you-lose approach to law. The Inquisition believed that if you claimed to have converted from Judaism to Christianity that it was a subterfuge and you were secretly practicing Judaism and secretly trying to corrupt other people.
JJ: You talk about this toolbox of torture and this period of terror; it really makes the inquisitors out to be the radical Islamists of most of the second millennia.
JK: I think of radical Islamic terrorists as essentially freelancers. The morality police in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a better parallel to the Inquisition. The Inquisition, like the morality police in the Islamic republic, is an agent of the organized constituted authority of the Roman Catholic Church. It is just meant to make sure everybody is the right kind of Christian.
It is all highly organized and highly structured as a function of church power and state power. This is an important distinction: These are not religious fundamentalists who act like vigilantes and go out into the street and punish someone they don't like, while the police look on and go tsk, tsk, tsk. This was the police. The people pounding at your door in the middle of the night and dragging you off were deputized by popes and kings.
JJ: Is this legacy one of the reasons Europe is more skeptical about the interplay of religion and politics than the United States?
JK: Europe suffered under the full weight of this oppressive operation of church power, such that in our era, there seems to be a very, very pronounced rejection of church authority. So church attendance and church affiliation has radically declined in Europe to a degree that we don't see in the United States. Maybe because we didn't see the worst excesses of organized religion in the New World, we don't have the same degree of skepticism and aversion.
JJ: You've obviously learned that there is a dark side to religion.
JK: It is undebatable that [in] organized religion, including at times and places within Judaism, there are times and places where people are inspired to act in hateful ways. Our life experience in the late 20th century and early 21st century teaches us that religion can bring out really horrible things in our fellow human beings. But that is not the only thing it brings out.
What I said to [atheist author Christopher] Hitchens is that if you condemn religion as unredeemably bad, you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.