To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good . . . Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquererors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race, and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations. — Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

To this list Solzhenitsyn could add American conservatism: The movement is increasingly becoming a pagan-influenced ideology, providing long-sought justification for evildoing and providing us the steadfastness and determination to do what we know is wrong and the boldness to call evil good.

How else can we explain the willingness of conservatives to not only defend the intrinsically evil act of torture but to also claim that those who oppose such evil have no place in making decisions about war and peace?

That is the jaw-dropping position advanced by Marc Thiessen in (of all places) National Review Online :

Jonah is absolutely right that opposition to waterboarding is an honorable position — but it’s a little more like pacifism than opposition to the death penalty. As I explain in Courting Disaster, the evidence is overwhelming that waterboarding helped stop a number of terrorist attacks. Which means if you oppose waterboarding in all circumstances, it means you are willing to accept as the price another terrorist attack.

[ . . . ]

Those who argue that we should not use enhanced techniques even on the KSM’s of the world are effectively arguing from a position of radical pacifism. They are opposed to coercion no matter what the cost in innocent lives. We should respect their opinion, they way we respect the right of conscientious objectors to abstain from military service. But that does not mean we put pacifists in charge of decisions on war and peace. Same should go for decisions when it comes to interrogation.


It’s difficult to know where to begin on such an embarrassing argument. Let’s start with the bizarre claim that those who oppose torture, specifically in the form of waterboarding, are not just pacifists, but radical pacifists. Such a claim is so patently ridiculous that no one can truly believe it. Indeed, I suspect that even Mr. Thiessen doesn’t really believe his own insult.

Could he truly believe that people like me (a fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran) and Sen. John McCain ( ”Waterboarding is torture” ) are radical pacifists? What about Gen. Charles Krulak, former commandant of the Marine Corps, and Joseph Hoar, former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, who claim that waterboarding is torture and note that such methods “have nurtured the recuperative power of the enemy.” Or what about John Hutson , former Judge Advocate General of the Navy, who says “Waterboarding was devised in the Spanish Inquisition. Next to the rack and thumbscrews, it’s the most iconic example of torture.” Are we to really believe that these men are not only radical pacifists but should have never been put in “charge of decisions on war and peace”?

No offense to Mr. Thiessen’s experience as a speechwriter for the former Secretary of Defense, but I would prefer to trust the judgment of these men—these radical pacifists—who are intimately familiar with torture, war, and the best means of keeping our nation safe.

The rest of Theissen’s argument is like a matryoshka doll of false choices. Embedded in his ad hominem false dichotomy (you either accept torture or you’re a radical pacifist) is a false dichotomy between accepting waterboarding and resignation to another terrorist attack.

Contrary to Theissen’s assertion, the evidence that waterboarding helped stop movie downloads a number of terrorist attacks is debatable. While you will find many former members of the Bush administration (e.g., Dick Cheny, Mr. Thiessen) making absolutist claims about its efficacy, those who actually know the most about the subject (i.e., the military, CIA, FBI officials) are generally more skeptical. And for good reason: The claims about the effectiveness of torture have been debated—and proven inconclusive—throughout history.

Fortunately, waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not the only means of extracting information from our enemies. In fact, the most successful interrogation of an Al-Qaeda operative by U.S. officials after 9/11 involved a less dramatic interrogation tool: sugar cookies . Even the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohamed was subjected to waterboarding 183 times in a one month period casts doubts on its utility and shows that it would be completely worthless in the hypothetical “ticking-timebomb” scenarios that torture-apologists tend to favor. Perhaps Theissen should familirize himself with the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses before making such overly broad, and spurious, claims about what is required to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Even weaker than the logic of the argument is the moral justification. Perhaps torture would make sense in a pagan society where the nation-state is of primary importance and all actions are ultimately justifiable if they serve nationalist ends. But in a nation whose ethical foundation is rooted in a Judeo-Christian concept of justice, torture by state agents should always be considered impermissible. The reason that there is a long history of just warfare theory but no corresponding “just torture theory” is because torture is inherently antithetical to justice and morality.

As Russell Saltzman wrote back in April,

[T]orture is wrong because it can never serve a moral purpose. It serves instead only an immoral purpose: the destruction of an individual’s personhood. It is violence against the imago Dei, the image of God carried by every person.

Crucial to the use of torture is the intentional, systematic, step-by-step reduction of identity and selfhood, the purposeful diminution of the person as person, as the image of God cheapened to something less, to something “unperson.” The “other” is depersonalized. It is this process of thinking which gives us license for abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and torture—everything that strips the person of personal humanity.


Despite the weakness of Thiessen’s argument, his position is worthy of discussion. After all, First Things is dedicated to “religiously informed public philosophy” so a position based on religious—specifically pagan—values is deserving of respectful treatment. But the fact that Thiessen feels comfortable making an argument based on pagan ethics in a journal with a long heritage of Christian (and specifically Catholic) influence is a sign of how far we have come in the debasement of conservatism.

Of course, pagans—and Christians who accept pagan ideals when convenient—have always been with us and they deserve their place in the public square. But the global war on terror has allowed them to dominate certain conversations, leading us away from conservative policy proposals that are rooted in Christian principles. Rather than push back, we Christians have remained silent and treated an issue once considered unthinkable—the acceptability of torture—as if it’s a practice that must be accepted under the banner of “realism.” Perhaps we should not be surprised then to find the tables turned on us and the idea that opposition to torture is barely worthy of respect.

But Christians should be unequivocal in our opposition: torture is immoral and should be clearly and forcefully denounced. We continue to shame ourselves and our Creator by refusing to speak out against such outrages to human dignity. If that means that we will be slandered as radical pacifists, then we should wear the label proudly.

Note: As a commenter pointed out, my use of the term “pagan” can be confusing. The term is broad but I intended it in a more narrow sense. Essentially, I meant it to refer to the types of societies and thinkers that Robert Kaplan refers to in Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos : the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Asian warrior-cultures (such as those that produced thinkers like Sun Tzu), the pre-U.N. secular Europeans (such as Machiavelli). The virtues of these types of pagans are the ones that Kaplan, et al., want to replace Judeo–Christian morality.

Addendum: Invariably, such a discussion will lead someone to claim that “waterboarding is not torture.” While I can respect those who wish to claim that there are times when torture is necessary, I have no patience for those who play semantic Orwellian games. Waterboarding has always been considered a technique of torture. The U.S government considered waterboarding to be torture when it was used on our soldiers in World War II—and it would be considered torture if used on our servicemembers today.

For those still unclear on the concept, the legal definition of torture to which the U.S. subscribes can be found in the UN Convention Against Torture :

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.

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