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Thiessen’s Catechism of Torture

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Fred Hiatt, rifling once more through the neoconservative refuse bin, has tapped former Jesse Helms staffer Marc Thiessen as a new Washington Post columnist, continuing that publication’s slide into the dark world of Dick Cheney and his apologists. For a taste of Thiessen’s technique, readers should watch his recent appearance on EWTN, a nominally Catholic cable network, to proclaim the Cheneyite catechism of torture. Techniques like waterboarding, sexual humiliation, and stress positions, he stated—without encountering any challenge from Raymond Arroyo, the interviewer–were fully consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Moreover, Americans were doing Muslims a favor when they tortured them, he proceeded to explain with typically obtuse logic. In a compelling Ash Wednesday post, Andrew Sullivan tackled Thiessen’s claims:

As the interview happens, Catholics keep calling in to protest, as Arroyo notices. He never challenges the absurdity that waterboarding isn’t torture. He never brings up the Church’s own horrifying past with respect to the use of torture, including the stress positions defended by Thiessen today. But the Catechism is very clear about this: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”

Notice that torture for a Catholic includes “moral violence,” in which a human being’s body is not even touched – the kind of sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, or crippling total isolation deployed by the US government for months at a time. Subjecting someone to weeks of sleep deprivation as was done to al-Qhatani, or freezing human beings to states of near-deadly hypothermia, let alone threatening to crush the testicles of a prisoner’s child, as John Yoo said was within the president’s legal and constitutional authority in the war on terror, is obviously at the very least moral violence. The idea any of it is somehow defensible as a Catholic position is so offensive, so absurd, so outrageous it beggars belief.

Moreover, the US Catholic Bishops have also made their position quite clear. From Dr. Stephen Colecchi, Director, Office of International Justice and Peace, Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Torture is about the rights of victims, but it is also about who we are as a people. In a statement on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, issued in preparation for our recent national elections [2008], the bishops reminded Catholics that torture is ‘intrinsically evil’ and ‘can never be justified.’ There are some things we must never do. We must never take the lives of innocent people. We must never torture other human beings.”

This is not a hedged statement. It is a categorical statement that what Thiessen is defending is, from a Catholic point of view, intrinsically evil and something that cannot be done under any circumstances.

Sullivan’s entire piece is a must read. Thiessen’s remarks furnish a good example of how religious doctrine can be warped in the service of politics, and it’s curious that no voice in the Catholic hierarchy was raised in criticism after he delivered them.

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