Marc Thiessen, The Catholic View Of Waterboarding And The Validity Of A Victim’s Perspective

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Andrew Sullivan has a rather extensive refutation of former Bush speechwriter (and new Washington Post hire) Marc Thiessen’s argument that the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on terror detainees by the Bush Administration were “carried out in a moral way” compatible with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. It is worth reading Sullivan’s piece in its entirety.

I am not qualified to argue Catholic theology. But I was struck by one of the many arguments Thiessen uses as part of his well-honed debate-style, which depends heavily on knocking down red herrings. (“Our public perception of interrogation is [the television show] ’24,’ ” he says at one point. “Critics have come out and made false accusations, comparing it to the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge” etc.)

At the end of the video below, Thiessen justifies the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods like dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation and stress positions by asserting that the captured terrorist Abu Zubaydah told interrogators after the fact that his own abuse was a good thing.

After he was was waterboarded he thanked his interrogators for waterboarding him, and he said, “You must do this for all the brothers.”

According to Thiessen’s unnamed sources, Zubaydah thanked his interrogators for forcing him to the edge of what he could physically and mentally endure, thereby freeing him of his religious obligation to not talk. The logic of this argumentation, as they say in the business, shocks my conscience.

Does it also follow that a victim of domestic violence who forgives her attacker’s violence (or argues that it was justified) can also effectively erases the moral culpability? Is Thiessen unfamiliar with the reams of research about the effects of Stockholm syndrome, which drives victims to identify with their attackers and behave in ways contrary to their own rational physical and emotional interests? Should confessions made under threat of physical and emotional harm now suddenly be considered credible, or germane to a discussion of the morality of that harm?

The history of Western philosophy and of American jurisprudence suggest that Thiessen’s argument is absurd on its face. Abu Zubaydah’s own post-hoc analysis of his treatment is as relevant to a moral discussion of harsh interrogation methods as the horrific fact that girls who are  kidnapped and repeatedly raped often choose to pass up opportunities to escape their captors, and even develop relationships of dependence and affection towards them. That Thiessen makes such an argument simply strikes me as abhorrent.

I am all for good debate over these issues. There are difficult questions to be hashed out here, and I agree with him that far too much of the discussion has been conducted on television where it is little more than a debate game, filled with misinformation. But this sort of talking point simply brings nothing to the table. Zubaydah’s own view of his abuse, even if it could be verified, simply has no bearing on the moral dilemma presented by harsh interrogation, which, we now know, included techniques such as simulated drowning and sleep deprivation by use of forced stress position for more than seven consecutive days. It is either morally justifiable or it isn’t. The victim does not get to determine the morality of a crime.

To watch the Thiessen interview in question, see the two videos below.