Marc Thiessen And Waterboarding

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 28, 2010


Marc Thiessen is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who has made himself famous by defending practices like waterboarding. While this kind of discussion may be somewhat interesting on an academic level, I just have to call shenanigans when I read stuff like this:

“There’s a standard of torture in civil law,” [Thiessen] said, “which is severe mental pain and suffering. I also have a common-sense definition, which is, ‘If you’re willing to try it, it’s not torture.’ ”

Thousands of American soldiers have been willing to undergo waterboarding as part of their resistance training, Mr. Thiessen notes; therefore, it stands to reason that it is not torture.

American soldiers are not only “willing” to undergo waterboarding as part of their resistance training, but they are required to undergo it as well. The reason, of course, is that waterboarding constitutes a method of coercive interrogation so severe, that American soldiers need to be familiar with it so that they can learn how to counteract it if ever they are captured on the field of battle. They are not undergoing waterboarding resistance training because the experience is fun and delightful. They are undergoing it because they need to be prepared to resist–dare we say it?–torture.

There is a difference between what American soldiers go through as a part of their resistance training, and what detainees/prisoners go through. An American soldier’s waterboarding during resistance training can and will stop if a doctor finds that the soldier in question is in medical danger. The waterboarding of a detainee/prisoner may be halted by a doctor, but that will only be to ensure that the detainee/prisoner in question is not permanently harmed, so that the waterboarding–and the interrogation associated with it–can continue. To equate the two experiences, and to argue as a consequence that waterboarding is not torture because American troops undergo waterboarding as part of their resistance training, elides a few key steps, to say the least.

There is an added twist to Thiessen’s arguments in favor of waterboarding; one that involves reliance on Catholic doctrine:

The catechism states, “the defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to do harm,” and Catholic tradition accepts that this might involve killing. And, Mr. Thiessen writes: “If this principle applies to taking human life, it must certainly apply to coercive interrogation as well. A captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks.”

To justify killing in self-defense, Catholics point to Thomas Aquinas’s principle of double-effect: the intended effect is to save your own life; killing is the unintended effect. By the same logic, Mr. Thiessen argues, “the intent of the interrogator is not to cause harm to the detainee; rather, it is to render the aggressor unable to cause harm to society.”

But as the story points out, the catechism of the Catholic Church forbids “torture which uses physical or moral violence.” And it refers us to this essay by Christopher Tollefsen, which takes on Thiessen’s argument on theological grounds:

One might ask how the subject of a coercive interrogation is to be understood as a “threat.” In most examples of defense against an aggressor where double effect is implicated, the aggressor physically threatens, and force is used to repel that threat, even if it is foreseen that harm, and even lethal harm, will be done as a consequence of the repelling—if, for example, it is done with a gun, or a bomb. Thiessen’s claim is interesting in this regard: the suspect is a threat in virtue of his knowledge of an impending attack, and protecting against this threat requires inducing the suspect to give up the information that he is concealing.

In this essay, I do not address the question of Catholic teaching on torture or “torture lite,” as enhanced interrogation is sometimes called. I think that Thiessen is correct in thinking that the teaching of the Catechism is not obviously definitive in ruling out torture for interrogatory reasons, since the Catechism does not specifically mention interrogatory torture by name. However, the Catechism’s repudiation of a number of other kinds of torture as “contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” is quite strong, and its mention of torture “to extract confessions” could perhaps be read broadly to include interrogatory torture. It does not seem unlikely that stronger statements regarding this form of torture will be forthcoming from the magisterium.

Tollefsen takes Thiessen seriously as a thinker, and does not question Thiessen’s motives. He also points out that not every instance where pain is inflicted should be considered torture, or should be ruled impermissible. But there is no mistaking his argument that the principle of double-effect is not applied properly in this discussion:

The essential difficulty in Thiessen’s argument is his application of double-effect reasoning. Double effect has its primary application in the domain of what one is doing, where what one does, including the consequences of what one does, will encompass both good and evil effects. Thus, I consider the possibility of taking medicine to cure a disease, and realize that taking that medicine will not only cure me, but also cause me to lose my vision. I may be said both to have cured my disease and to have brought on blindness, but, insofar as it was only the cure that I intended, and blindness was only foreseen, but not chosen, then bringing on blindness was not part of my act in the fullest sense—the sense that encompasses all and only what I intended.

This analysis has application where an attacker is physically prevented from fulfilling what he has set out to do: I stop the attacker by hitting, or shooting, or stabbing him. Stopping, or repelling, is what I intend, and the harm that I thereby cause is, when I act rightly, outside my intention. But in the case of interrogation, what is envisaged—the end pursued by the interrogator—is, in fact, something that is to be done by the suspect. This is a difficulty, because what I do ends, under most circumstances, with the choice of another agent to do something. I can, of course, establish conditions under which others will be motivated to do something, but its being done is still their doing, not mine.

Tollefsen then introduces the “Torturer’s Dilemma” argument, which, basically stated, is that while an interrogator can inflict some pain to make a suspect talk, the practice of creating “conditions of such agony that the suspect is no longer in control of his actions and literally has no choice but to speak,” will be “rejected by anyone who accepts the basic framework of double effect for the analysis of interrogation: the intention to break someone down is an intention to harm them, and that is morally impermissible.” Thus, Tollefsen concludes that

. . . it is very hard to see repeated application of the techniques of enhanced interrogation as anything other than an attempt to break down the suspect, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of waterboarding. To waterboard someone repeatedly, multiple times a day for many days, seems like an attempt to grievously damage another human being.

[. . .]

. . . if, as the double effect defense presupposes, waterboarding or some other interrogation technique is done in a way that is expected to cause harm to the suspect, then that harm is most likely intended as a means by the interrogator and double effect will not justify it. And if such techniques are performed with the intention to cause pain, but not either direct physical harm, or psychological disintegration, then they are likely to be ineffective. Either way, it is, in my view, a good thing that United States’ policy has moved (as it did in the second Bush term) beyond the grim, if understandable, policies of the first few years after 9/11.

This, it seems to me, refutes Thiessen completely.

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