February 26, 2010
Defender of Waterboarding Hears From Critics
By MARK OPPENHEIMER
In “Courting Disaster: How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack,” Mr. Thiessen, a practicing Roman Catholic, says that waterboarding suspected terrorists was not only useful and desirable, but permitted by the teachings of the Catholic Church.
This does not square, to put it mildly, with the common understanding of Catholic teaching. In the past month, Catholic bloggers and writers from across the political spectrum have united to attack his views, and to defend their own: that waterboarding is torture, and that Roman Catholics are not supposed to do it.
Mr. Thiessen makes two basic arguments. First, he says that waterboarding, the simulated drowning technique used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, and others, is not torture. “I didn’t get into the Catholic theological stuff of it until I sat down to write the book,” Mr. Thiessen said in a phone interview. So when Mr. Bush asked him, in 2006, to write a speech explaining the C.I.A.’s interrogation program, Mr. Thiessen asked himself other kinds of questions.
“There’s a standard of torture in civil law,” he said, “which is severe mental pain and suffering. I also have a common-sense definition, which is, ‘If you’re willing to try it, it’s not torture.’ ”
Thousands of American soldiers have been willing to undergo waterboarding as part of their resistance training, Mr. Thiessen notes; therefore, it stands to reason that it is not torture.
Second, he invokes Catholic teaching to defend what he calls “coercive interrogation.”
The catechism states, “the defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to do harm,” and Catholic tradition accepts that this might involve killing. And, Mr. Thiessen writes: “If this principle applies to taking human life, it must certainly apply to coercive interrogation as well. A captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks.”
To justify killing in self-defense, Catholics point to Thomas Aquinas’s principle of double-effect: the intended effect is to save your own life; killing is the unintended effect. By the same logic, Mr. Thiessen argues, “the intent of the interrogator is not to cause harm to the detainee; rather, it is to render the aggressor unable to cause harm to society.”
While Mr. Thiessen points out that the church does not forbid specific acts, his antagonists say the church’s guidelines are hardly nebulous. The blogger Andrew Sullivan has noted that the catechism condemns “torture which uses physical or moral violence.”
The philosopher Christopher O. Tollefsen, whose essay attacking Mr. Thiessen’s views appeared Friday in the online magazine Public Discourse, pointed in a phone interview to the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. There, Pope John Paul II wrote that there are acts that “are always seriously wrong by reason of their object,” including “whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity.”
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. “
In “Courting Disaster,” Mr. Thiessen cites several thinkers to explain facets of his just-war interpretation. In interviews, two sounded skeptical of his position.
Parts of Mr. Thiessen’s argument may have merit purely as a “philosophical theory,” said Darrell Cole, who teaches religion at
Jean Bethke Elshtain, of the University of Chicago, said that while soldiers or politicians might have to commit necessary evils sometimes, they “still stand convicted before God, if you are thinking theologically.”
“The necessary evil means precisely that: it is both ‘necessary’ and ‘evil,’ ” she said. “So the worst thing that can happen is to make something like waterboarding legally acceptable.”
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”).
By phone, Father Harrison cautioned that “you can’t do evil that good may come — that is an intrinsic principle of Catholic doctrine.” But, he said, he was persuaded by Mr. Thiessen’s book that “at least so far, there is nothing that the Catholic magisterium has said that would condemn waterboarding as such.”
But what if the church specifically prohibited waterboarding?
“On what competence would they do that?” Mr. Thiessen said. “I don’t think the church would be competent to judge whether the way we did it was torture.”
“Perhaps,” he added, “they should clarify it. We were in the middle of a war, and there was no teaching on that. But the church only gives general moral guidance, and people of good faith have to interpret that guidance.”
The Beliefs column will appear every other week.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs