Marc Thiessen & the Ethics of Torture

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Dave S. says:

    I have not been following this closely, but two things jumped out at me.

    My guess is that he’ll be vindicated on the facts — after all, he was there.

    Not necessarily. To use a very possibly related analogy, a criminal has a vested interest in suppressing the facts pertaining to a crime scene.

    As many people have pointed out, a single act of waterboarding does not necessarily amount to torture.

    In fact it does outside of SERE training or any other voluntary situation. I would be curious to see how “many people” justify their reasoning; could you please provide a link or two?Report

    • Avatar Matthew Schmitz in reply to Dave S. says:

      On your first point, yes, this is just a guess. The facts should be sought out, but I’m not inclined to think that Thiessen is a liar. He’s a man who tried to act as a faithful public servant but ended up out of his depth.

      Your moral standard seems to be one of consent. But this isn’t really sufficient. Someone who conducts terrorist operations could be said to have consented, in some sense, to the possibility of being captured and tortured. But torture is intrinsically wrong. This is because it overrides the will of the victim and, in Lee’s terminology, “dis-integrates” him or her.

      Waterboarding will always be unpleasant, but it is only torture if used in order to break a person. Lots of unpleasant stuff doesn’t amount to torture. This is one reason why there should be charity for people like Thiessen, along with a willingness to point out in clear language why they are wrong.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

        “Waterboarding will always be unpleasant, but it is only torture if used in order to break a person.”

        Huh…. So if your goal is noble and true then waterboarding is just ducky. It’s only bad if it is done to break someone. Well I guess the rationalization fairy has just visited. Some things are torture no matter why you do them. Actions that cause serious physical harm or that put a person in fear of being killed are torture. People can always present noble reasons why they did something evil. Plenty of evil people felt they were just defending their country or some such. In fact the more questionable an action the more a person will reach for a good reason to validate their actions. That is why there need to be bright lines against things like torture, so that people don’t just rationalize their way to hell.Report

      • I stand by my moral standard. Committing a crime of any kind does not at all imply consent to be tortured upon capture. Torture is the sole responsibility of the torturer, not the victim.
        Regarding “unpleasant stuff” (what a delightful euphemism), why else would one employ such methods outside of the desire to break a person’s will to resist? General depravity comes to mind, but that’s no excuse.Report

        • Avatar Matthew Schmitz in reply to Dave S. says:

          Dave, I absolutely agree that there’s no reason to waterboard without that intent. That’s what Tollefsen and Lee say as well.

          Greg, see above.Report

  2. Great post, Matthew, and Tollefsen’s take down is spot-on.

    One brief technical point: the Mark Shea link actually heads back to PD, not to Shea’s critique of Lee. Just FYI.



  3. Avatar Koz says:

    There’s one small but important point of this whole business that hasn’t been emphasized very much. If we accept the idea that the dis-integration of the person is the essence of torture (and I do), we should also note that it occurs in many circumstances and reasons and not always at the control of someone who has physical custody of the person at the time.Report

    • Avatar Matthew Schmitz in reply to Koz says:

      Interesting. Care to elaborate?Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

        By way of context, I think that the repudiation of torture as legitimate for maintaining public order is one of most benevolent, humane developments of the secular conscience over the last century or so in the industrialized world and it would be very bad indeed if the George W Bush Administration somehow changed that.

        As it relates to my prior comment, one example is the capture of Saddam Hussein. We all got to see on television that Army medic stick his tongue depressor down Saddam’s throat like he was some diseased homeless guy. Saddam’s entire persona and the edifice he built around himself was completely destroyed. I have no doubt that for him such an experience really was torture, yet for me at least it’s not very credible to say that the Army capture team was guilty of anything.

        We don’t control have enough control over people to guarantee the integration of their psycho-spiritual state, even where we have physical custody of them (or as history of totalitarianism shows, to guarantee it’s dis-integration if that’s the intent).

        Furthermore, I think we have to accept that coercion by the state is, in many circumstances, legitimate means when applied to legitimate state ends. What is incarceration except a particular application of coercion?

        This doesn’t necessarily defend the Bush Administration of anything, except that we should bear in mind they were struggling with genuinely difficult issues instead of trying to justify mindless sadism.Report

  4. Avatar Andrew says:

    Not sure where this assertion that “Waterboarding will always be unpleasant, but it is only torture if used in order to break a person.” comes from.

    From Article 1 Part 1 of the UN Convention On Torture, signed in 1988 by the US:

    For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

    I don’t see any part of the definition which refers to breaking a person. The use of waterboarding, as carried out on so-called high-value detainees, clearly meets “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, […] intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information.”Report

    • Avatar Matthew Schmitz in reply to Andrew says:

      Andrew, thanks for your comment. I in no way meant to suggest a standard more loose than that embodied in the UN document. Please realize that in my post I am calling on Thiessen to answer the opinion of the experts, not my own.

      But note that phrase, “For the purposes of this Convention…” I’m trying to explain a moral definition of torture, not deny its legal one. I agree with you that the use of waterboarding meets both definitions.Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

        Also the Canadian scandal Scott Payne has been blogging about fits as well. Supposedly the Canadians took some enemy fighters prisoner and turned them over to the Afghan authorities who tortured them. I for one assume the allegations are true.

        Now what? Afghanistan is big and there aren’t many Canadians there and anyone who has seen our dinky bases there should clearly see they aren’t plausible options for holding prisoners. The Taliban prisoners were going to be handed over to somebody, and the realities of the Middle East being what they are, whoever accepted custody of those prisoners was reasonably likely to torture them. I don’t blame the Canadians.Report

  5. Avatar steve says:

    Let me recommend this post by Major Pryer, an Army interrogator, on ethics and torture.

    On the pragmatic side. in my research and writing on this, I think it important to realize that modern, state sanctioned torture programs do not generally engage in cutting off fingers and crushing testicles. In this age of Youtube,, the internet and global information, there is a down side to an kind of torture that will leave obvious, debilitating marks. Information ops is inherent in any kind of war effort today. In a very closed, authoritarian system there is some hope that you can engage in acts of cruelty and torture and not have them exposed directly. This is less true in an open society like we have. Yet, even in those closed societies, they avoid the kinds of things that the right would define as torture. Look at Arar, the Canadian we sent to Syria (?) for torture. They did not poke out his eyes.

    Modern torture techniques encompass stress positions, sleep deprivation temperature extremes and waterboarding. They all fit the necessary requirement of not disfiguring the prisoner, while producing the high levels of pain and fear needed to qualify as torture. (I will assume if you are willing to post on torture you are well read enough to know it has questionable efficacy.)

    Query- You seem to assume Thiessen is speaking the truth. Do you assume that about all politicians? Yours is an unusual position for a blogger of any ilk, unless you are saying you believe him because he is on your side of the political spectrum. That is common as dirt.


    • Avatar Murali in reply to steve says:

      No, it is merely tactical/rhetorical. i.e. the principle of charity (which mark tends to employ very often)

      i.e. Even if we grant to Thiessen that his account is true, it is still the case that something morally problematic (read wrong) took place, just by going according to his definitions and accounts.

      The technique is rather brilliant (and its more than a mere technique in that the principle of charity often should be adhered to intellectual arguments) Instead of proposing a strawman, give your opponent his strongest case, then proceed to obliterate it.Report

  6. Avatar M.Z. says:

    Tollefsen is simply wrong to claim that the evil of torture derives itself from violating the principle of double effect that disallows the desired good to be the product of the known evil. It can be another argument about torture, but the evil of torture that makes it “intrinsic evil” is understood in the object of the act. For those that subscribe to the four-part test of double effect, that means the 1st condition of double effect is violated with torture. That the third condition is also violated, as Tollefsen argues, is true, but not significant.Report

  7. Avatar Mark Shea says:

    Sure. I’ll give Lee his props for acknowledging that Bush authorized torture.Report

  8. Avatar Mark Shea says:

    This is one reason why there should be charity for people like Thiessen, along with a willingness to point out in clear language why they are wrong.

    I don’t think it uncharitable to say that Thiessen’s language is, at best, evil and Orwellian. His entire point consists of radical doublespeak and contradictory perversions of language calculated to directly contradict obvious and clear Catholic teaching. On the one hand, he tells waterboarding is not torture (ignoring, of course, the numerous other incidents and forms of torture (and consequent murders) authorized by his bosses as they exempted themselves from Geneva) while repeating the lie “three high value targets”.

    On the other hand, he tells us that waterboarding is so terrifying that prisoners were grateful because it broke their wills and conferred on them a sort of quasi-sacramental grace of absolution when they talked. He wants us to believe both propositions A (It’s not torture despite the obvious consensus of ecclesial and secular competent authorities to the contrary for the past century) and Not A (It is such effective torture that it gave broken prisoners a sense of grateful release from the demands of their own (admitted radically deformed) consciences) are true at the same time.

    I don’t believe that “charity” means “pretending somebody who is manifestly perverting the English language and Catholic teaching is not doing so.” Thiessen is radically perverting the obvious and clear meaning of both. He needs calling out, not kid gloves.Report