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[Note: For more on this topic, see here and here ]

When defending the indefensible, it’s generally beneficial to stop when the apologia becomes untenable. The CIA gave up trying to defend the morality or legality of waterboarding—though they may still make a Machiavellian justification—because it troubled even the people who carried out the torture. Yet at NRO, Marc Thiessen continues unabated . Despite the fact that the Red Cross, Senator John McCain, numerous military leaders, FBI interrogators, Christian ethicists, former SERE school instructors, and his own church, denounce the technique known as “suffocation by water,” Thiessen continues to defend it on the website of one of the most august journals of conservatism.

Alas, such is the shameful state of American conservatism.

I apologize to readers who are finding this topic rather tedious; I too wish that we didn’t have to point out the obvious to our fellow conservatives. But the sophistry employed by Thiessen must be challenged so here, once again, is a rebuttal to his latest volley.

He begins by saying that I have made a “shameful comparison between the lawful techniques employed by the CIA and the tortures employed during the Spanish Inquisition.” The fact that the current method of waterboarding is almost exactly like the Inquisition’s “water-torture” is an inescapable fact, yet Thiessen is not convinced. Instead he rebuts my source by providing one of his own and quoting selectively from it:

The patient was placed on . . . a kind of trestle with sharp-edged rungs across it like a ladder. It slanted so that the head was lower than the feet and, at the lower end was a depression in which the head sank, while an iron band around the forehead or throat made it immovable. Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves . . . .

Instead of Thiessen’s selective quotation, I recommend reading the entire passage which is available online. (The sentence before his quote is, “The water-torture was more complicated.”) Rather than directly quoting the next passage, he skips ahead to to describe a technique which, according to the book, is not water-torture, but the potro —the rack.

Here is Thiessen’s quote:

were carried to a maestro garrote by which the executioner could control all at once. These worked not only by compression, but by traveling around the limbs, carrying away skin and flesh. Each half round was reckoned a vuelta or turn, six or seven of which was the maximum, but it was usual not to exceed five. Formerly the same was done with the cord around the forehead, but this was abandoned as it was apt to start the eyes from their sockets.

Curiously, Thiessen then goes back to quote the original passage, as if the latter part truly did come in the middle. He conflates the rack with waterboarding in order to imply that they are both part of the same technique. I’m not sure if this is an intentional attempt to deceive or merely a failure of Thiessen’s skill as a researcher. Either way, it only further undercuts his claims.

Thiessen then triumphantly proclaims:

Sorry Joe, none of this even remotely resembles the technique as applied by the CIA. No cutting cords travelling around the limbs, twisting like a tourniquet and ripping away skin and flesh; no cord tightening around the head causing the victims eyes to pop from his skull; no iron prong distending the mouth; no strip of linen thrust down the throat to carry the water into the internal organs. No comparison whatsoever.

Thiessen appears to imply that unless it is combined with the rack, waterboarding cannot be considered torture at all. The fact that the primary purpose of both techniques is, as the Red Cross calls it, suffocation by water, seems to be a trivial detail.

But let’s look at how one of the prisoner’s who was waterboarded, Abu Zubaydah, described the incident:

I was put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds caused severe pain. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle . . . I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.

Does that sound so different? Does Thiessen truly want to claim that the water-torture of the Spanish Inquisition does not “even remotely resembles the technique as applied by the CIA”? If so, then I suggest he take a course in reading comprehension.

His next section quotes me saying, “No doubt Mr. Thieseen will regale us with some bit of sophistry about how this “water torture” (simulated drowning) is radically different from waterboarding (which is also simulated drowning).” He presents his case and then adds:

In Courting Disaster, I go though other examples of how the Japanese employed water torture — and all of it rebuts Carter’s charge that these techniques are the same as the techniques used by the CIA.

Theissen seems not to have noticed that in one of the quotes he uses to defend his case it says, “They tied him to a stretcher, gagged him and elevated his legs. Then they poured water up his nostrils for five minutes.” Although I never said the techniques were similar (my claim, as you can see, is that the outcome—simulated drowning—is similar) Thiessen presents evidence that refutes his own case.

He continues:

Carter tries to respond to my point that we waterboard tens of thousands of U.S. troops during training, by arguing that waterboarding as conducted in SERE training and waterboarding of terrorists is different. Well, of course it is Joe — no great insight there. But he does not answer my question: Do we torture our own troops during SERE training? After all, we do not pull out their fingernails during training, or electrocute them, or break their bones leg screws, or burn their fingernails off with cigarettes. But we do waterboard them. Why is waterboarding permitted, but these other techniques are not? Because the other techniques constitute torture; waterboarding does not.

Thiessen admits that the waterboarding conducted in SERE training is different than waterboarding done on terrorist yet cannot fathom how this difference could make one technique “training” and the other torture. A moment’s consideration would identify that consent and intensity would certainly seem to be obvious points where difference can transform an act. After all, there is a vast chasm between consensual sexual intercourse and violent rape. Sometimes “difference” makes a difference .

But again, I’ll point out that it is no only me that thinks the difference is essential. As I quoted before, a former SERE school instructor says that is is the way that waterboarding was done on terrorist that constitutes torture. And the internal CIA IG report—which I also quoted from—says that, “according to [the Office of Medical Services], there was no a priori reason to believe that applying the waterboard with the frequency and intensity with which it was used by the psychologist/interrogators was either efficacious or medically safe.”

If Carter acknowledges that we do not torture our troops (which he must, or else appear ridiculous) then he must also admit that the act of waterboarding is not an intrinsic evil, as defined by the Catholic Church.

The mind reels at such willful obtuseness. I hope one of my Catholic friends (perhaps one of those at NRO who have so far remained silent) can explain to Mr. Thiessen how consent and intensity of violence can transform an act into an intrinsic evil as defined by the Catholic Church.
Carter says I do not make an argument based on Christian principles. I dedicate an entire chapter of Courting Disaster to doing just that.

I can certainly respect an author’s plugging their book (indeed, I recommend he read my book, How to Argue Like Jesus , in order to make a more persuasive case). But since this is a debate in an open forum, perhaps he can copy-and-paste some of the relevant passages for his argument. I’m sure we’d all be interested in hearing how he squares the circle on an issue in which so many Christian ethicists disagree with him.

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