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Perhaps even the Sun King himself appreciated the irony of his secret tribunals being conducted in a court where daylight was not permitted to penetrate. The sinister proceedings of the Chambre Ardente took place in a room blanketed by thick black curtains in the depths of the old Paris Arsenal a few blocks from the Bastille.
The so-called Burning Chamber, so-named for the flaming torches that lined the walls and its victims who would later be set afire at the stake, originated in 1535 under Francis I as an inquisitional court for the prosecution of heretics. But the tribunal really kicked into lethal gear during the reign of Frances’ demented son, Henry II.
Henry was one of the most depraved figures in an era known for its regal brutality. He was, by all accounts, an insipid man, of limited intellect and charm, a bigot and sexual sadist, who was driven by a rabid hatred of the French Calvinists known as the Huguenots. Henry viewed the Huguenots as a “foreign contagion” infecting the homeland, and issued a series of increasingly severe Edicts calling on the Parliament of Paris to enact laws that would extinguish the Protestant threat. When the Parliament refused to act, Henry, enraged, moved on his own authority, using the Chambre Ardente as his covert prosecutorial instrument.
Before the sequestered judges of the secret court, all suspects were presumed guilty, awaiting only sentencing. Calvinist books and Bibles were proscribed. Thousands were cast into dungeons, their property seized as property of the king, their bodies subjected to vile tortures: gouged eyes, cropped ears, tongues extracted by glowing pliers—the usual menu of medieval atrocities. The condemned were carted away by the hundreds to the Place Maubert and set ablaze for the edification of the public.
In 1559, Henry’s grim tenure as king came to a fortuitously abrupt end at the point of Gabriel Montgomery’s lance on the jousting field at Place de Vosges. Montgomery was the head of the King’s Scots Guard, a kind of death squad geared toward tracking down and dispatching suspected Protestants and Henry’s political opponents. After Henry died in 1559, the Chambre Ardente was shuttered and Montgomery, now a pariah in France, fled to England and converted to Protestantism.
For 115 years, the doors of the black-curtained court in the Arensal remained sealed, until the Le Roi du Soleil ordered the doors opened, the terrible tables of judgment dusted off and oiled, and his own private prosecutor installed, the indefatigable Nicolas de La Reynie, the inspector Jauvert of his time.
Under Louis XIV’s reign, the Chambre Ardente was retooled a kind of personal inquisitional court, where scores were settled, detentions ordered, suspects interrogated and tortured, executions decreed. Between 1675 and 1682, more than 210 sessions of the black court were convened. Hundreds of arrest warrants and seizure writs were executed. All in secret, immune from the unpredictable pronouncements of juries and jurists. The Chambre Ardente was a place where all verdicts were pre-ordained, with no right to appeal.
Confessions, of course, are always desirable, especially by despots, and as a means of encouragement the so-called water-cure (and early predecessor of water-boarding) was often deployed by agents of the dark court. In one notorious case, a certain Madame de Brinvilliers was force fed sixteen pints of water, until she admitted her guilt. She was subsequently beheaded, her corpse torched at the stake.
The most infamous proceedings of the dark court during this period involved what is known as the Affair of the Poisons, a sex-and-murder driven scandal involving members of the aristocracy and Parisian elites very close to the King himself. To keep, from implicating Versailles, Louis instructed the Chambre Ardente to institute secret round-up of problematic individuals, including political and sexual rivals, abortionists, homosexuals, and manufacturers of what was called the inheritance drugs (ie, poison). At least thirty-six people were executed. Even the dramatist Racine narrowly escaped being shackled in the dungeon of the Bastille. The strange saga is given a vivid narration in Nancy Mitford’s delightful “The Sun King,” recently brought back into print by NYRB Press.
Some of the objects Louis’ vengeance proved too sensitive even to be hauled before the Chambre Attendre. In these cases, the King used an even more malign method of disposing of his rivals, enemies and political opponents, the Lettre de Cachet. By writ of the King, individuals could be arrested, exiled and secretly jailed without any trial at all. This was an early form of rendition that wasn’t abolished until after the French Revolution.
More than any other autocratic European ruler since Caesar Augustus, Louis put the total into totalitarian, a divinely-infused absolutism that is crystallized in his infamous quip “L’etat c’est moi.” In other words, whatever the King did was legal by definition. Yet, Louis Quatorze was widely regarded as a benign dictator, even by fierce critics of the Ancien Regime, including Voltaire himself.
Now we have our very own Sun King, a man almost universally praised for his high-learning and enlightened moral conscience. And, like the Bourbon monarch, Barack Obama too has his own dark court, an extrajudicial panel that operates in secret, authorizes domestic spying, wiretaps, detentions, renditions and even summary executions by drone strike.
Obama’s FISA tribunals are a Constitution-free zone. Its proceedings are shielded from public light by executive decree. Here, as in the ancient Chambre Arendte, all suspects are presumed guilty and the agents of the state are considered omniscient and omnipotent. Last year alone, the FISA courts considered 1,800 requests for surveillance on American citizens. Not one request was denied.
The Left remains nearly inert to the steady accretion of executive powers and the stunning abridgement of fundamental civil liberties. The basic structures of our democracy are being occluded by the creeping shadow of a benign autocrat.
The Republic descends into darkness.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the editor of CounterPunch and the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, Grand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay originally appeared in the July issue of CounterPunch magazine.