Marc Thiessen and the Catechism

The New York Times has a new "Beliefs" columnist, Mark Oppenheimer, and he's taken on a hot topic this week: Marc Thiessen's attempts to justify the Bush Administration's legal maneuvering to permit torture in the "War on Terror" by appealing to Catholic moral teaching. Thiessen made that argument on EWTN, as I noted here last week. Then he was hired by the Washington Post, and Catholics took notice of the sorts of things he's been saying. Not surprisingly, few outside of EWTN's studios are prepared to accept Thiessen's interpretation of the Catechism. The column takes the predictable he-said, she-said approach to reporting on political issues, not challenging Thiessen on factual errors—his paraphrase of the legal definition of torture, for example, which conveniently leaves out the "physical" dimension and refers only to "severe mental pain and suffering." Leaving out the "physical" is important, since no one could credibly claim that waterboarding isn't severely painful. [Update: Although that is precisely what Bybee, Yoo, and Bradbury did claim in their "legal advice" to President Bush and the CIA.] Thiessen has set himself the task of explaining away only the "mental" pain, which (as you may know) he has done in the Washington Post by claiming that we were actually doing the Muslim detainees a favor by torturing them.

In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can -- and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

To take Thiessen seriously at all, you have to permit him to claim that waterboarding "isn't torture"—and he won't get any pushback there from the NYT. So, with that said, he moves on to argue that Catholic just-war teaching permits "enhanced interrogation techniques." He doesn't like to talk about the part of the Catechism that addresses torture directly, but when forced to he goes back to insisting that the "moral or physical violence" proscribed there does not include waterboarding. Oppenheimer notes that this is a contentious claim.

The belief that waterboarding is morally or physically violent seems to unite all the writers who have criticized Mr. Thiessen, a group that includes the conservative blogger Conor Friedersdorf; Mark Shea, who edits the Web portal Catholic Exchange; and Joe Carter, who blogs for First Things, a magazine popular with conservative Catholics. Thiessen has been vigorously criticized by both so-called liberal and so-called conservative Catholics, said Paul Baumann, who edits the liberal lay-Catholic magazine Commonweal. "That is one good indication of how erroneous his view is."

"I also have a common-sense definition [of torture]," Thiessen told Oppenheimer, "which is, If you're willing to try it, it's not torture." You've heard this before: if SERE training involves waterboarding, it can't be torture, because we wouldn't torture our own guys, right? SERE training, of course, is done to prepare members of our military in case they are captured by an enemy that tortures. I don't need to lay out for you the difference between resistance training and abuse of detainees. It was revealed several months ago— reported by the New York Times and discussed here—that the "enhanced interrogation" techniques introduced by the Bush administration were back-engineered from the SERE manual—that is, we based what we do on what our enemies (specifically Al Qaeda) do when they want to torture someone. Which brings us face-to-face with another troubling reality: the people who run the SERE training know that when a country tortures, it does so to produce false confessions—propaganda—not reliable information. How does the Thiessen claim that we must apply these SERE techniques to get information that saves lives hold up against the reality that those same techniques are known to produce false information?

All of Thiessen's arguments are flimsy (and they tend to contradict each other)—which I guess is why, as Conor Friedersdorf notes, Thiessen keeps saying that it would all make sense if you'd only read his book. But his application of just-war teaching in particular is so bankrupt that even the people he quotes in his book to back him up—people like Jean Bethke Elshtain—object to what Thiessen did with their arguments. Their comments are particularly worth reading. Oppenheimer has also provided lots of links to keep you busy this afternoon.

When asked if any Catholic theologians agreed with him, Mr. Thiessen named the Rev. Brian W. Harrison, (although "there are others who haven't necessarily been outspoken on it").

Harrison told Oppenheimer it is true, strictly speaking, that the Magisterium hasn't condemned waterboarding as such. The plain truth is, it doesn't need to.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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