instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, February 08, 2010

A basic review

Professional torture apologist1 Marc Thiessen likes to quote a salacious passage2 from Henry Charles Lea's A History of the Inquisition of Spain as a way of demonstrating that "even a remote comparison" between what the Bush Administration (in which Thiessen worked as a speechwriter) did to its prisoners and what the Spanish Inquisition did to its prisoners is a "canard," a "ridiculous argument" that "even a basic review of the facts makes clear" can only be made by someone "completely uninformed."

Here's the full passage:

The water-torture was more complicated. The patient was placed on an escalera or potro
--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
band around the forehead or throat kept 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; a bostezo, or iron prong, distended the mouth,
a toca, or strip of linen,was thrust down the throat
to conduct water trickling slowly from a jarra or jar, holding usually a little more than a quart. The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth.
The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jars consumed, sometimes reaching to six or eight.

The right-hand column contains the bits that, I assume, Thiessen thinks justifies his claim:
Needless to say, none of this even remotely resembles what was done by the CIA.
The left-hand column contains the bits that resemble what was done by the CIA. If that's too many words, let me edit it down to this:
The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated....
What explains his need to make, repeatedly, the laughable claim that pouring water into the nose and throat of a man strapped upside down to a table doesn't even remotely resemble pouring water into the nose and throat of a man strapped upside down to a trestle?

I've already mentioned Thiessen's consequentialism, though I should add that, as far as I can tell, he is at least a sincere consequentialist. That is, he seems to honestly believe that, if waterboarding saves lives, then it can't be wrong. (I contrast this with a cynical consequentialism, according to which, if waterboarding saves lives, then who cares whether it's wrong.)

And so we find him making statements like this:
I feel obligated to respond, to defend the honor of the courageous men and women of the CIA who kept us safe and who cannot defend themselves.
For a consequentialist, honorable end implies honorable means -- and honorable human beings.

Having started down this path, though, the cordeles can only tighten. If the CIA agents Thiessen has spoken to had good intentions -- and I have no reason to doubt their good intentions -- then they are honorable people, and if honorable people do honorable things, then what they did can't be dishonorable, so what they did can't be torture. And if what they did can't be torture, then what makes "water-torture" torture can't be the water, can't be the strangling and gasping and suffocating, so it must be the cruelty with which the victim is held in place.

And if a moment's thought shows how ridiculous that is, then a moment's thought shows that these honorable people did something dishonorable. But that's impossible, so a moment's thought is impossible, so a moment's thought must be avoided by declaring the thought a canard, ridiculous, completely uninformed, near-perfect ignorance.

The result is a best-selling apologist for torture whose argument reduces to, "Is not, is not, is not!"

1. Marc Thiessen would deny being a torture apologist, because he denies waterboarding is torture. I see no reason to follow him in his confusion. That he is a professional apologist he can't deny, since he's written an apologetical book on the subject.

2. It's a small point, but let me make it: Henry Charles Lea, though a respected historian of his day, wrote with a marked anti-Catholic bias. Thiessen, then, would have us compare a description of one activity written by someone biased against the organization sponsoring it with a description of a similar activity written by someone biased in favor of the organization sponsoring it. This is not to say either description is inaccurate, merely that the author's bias will naturally affect the description given, and that comparison between two descriptions ought to account for these differences.