Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has written a book that has reopened a rather vociferous squabble about what constitutes torture. The debate has a special resonance in the Catholic world since Thiessen, a self-identified Catholic, has appeared on Raymond Arroyo’s news broadcast on Eternal Word Television Network and on other Catholic outlets.
The political left and various Catholic front groups of the Democratic Party are celebrating the reopening of the debate over enhanced interrogation because it gives them yet another opportunity to try and draw faithful Catholics away from the Republicans and towards the party of abortion. It fits neatly into the narrative that the Democrats are better on social justice issues than the Republicans even though the Republicans may seem better on the single issue of abortion. (By the way, our bishops and the Vatican have repeatedly said for the record that being good on other issues does not make up for being bad on abortion.)
The enhanced interrogation debate, such as it is, revolves mostly around the technique known as waterboarding, wherein a person is restrained, his face is covered with a cloth, and water is poured over it. It simulates drowning in brief bursts. Other charges have been leveled against CIA interrogators including murder. But since no one – not even Dick Cheney – defends actual killing of detainees, the issue is almost completely about waterboarding and, at least for liberals, is really about getting faithful Catholics to vote for the abortion party.
Let me make some things very clear. I do not advocate torture. I do not even advocate waterboarding. I am describing the contours of the debate and its implications for the pro-life movement.
There is a great deal of confusion about what the CIA interrogators actually did with a number of captured terrorists. Writing in Catholic Online a few years ago, Father Gerald Coleman said detainees were submerged in water. Others have said the CIA did things similar to what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, which was a vicious form of torture wherein the victims were held completely under water and drowned. None of this was true of the CIA methods. But let’s be clear: even the actual CIA method is not something anyone could describe as anything other than truly frightening and possibly approaching the intrinsically evil.
The political left, however, are not the only ones complaining about Thiessen’s book and his view that waterboarding has morally acceptable uses. Blogs such as “The American Catholic,” “Zippy Catholic,” and “Catholic and Enjoying It” have attracted a small but voluble group of politically conservative Catholics who are also fanning the flames. For them, it is mostly an issue of Catholic morality. (The great Elizabeth Anscombe’s name usually surfaces at some point.) The Church clearly teaches that torture is morally impermissible, although this is a development of doctrine, given that the Church either approved or sponsored torture in centuries past. Still, the Church is clear now. Torture is morally wrong and these critics want everyone, especially Catholic supporters of waterboarding to know it.
But is waterboarding torture?
One of the documents frequently pointed to by anti-torture campaigners is a Catholic study guide on torture prepared by the lay staff of the Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s not a magisterial document and mentions waterboarding only twice, never in a definition of torture. No Vatican document I am aware of defines waterboarding as torture.
To be fair, the waterboarding-is-torture crowd says waterboarding clearly fits into many definitions of torture, including documents of the U.S. government, binding international treaties, and Church teaching. For them, therefore, waterboarding does not need to be explicitly defined as torture to be so.
Still, many faithful Catholics are not entirely convinced. A recent Pew poll actually shows that most self-identified (not necessarily faithful) Catholics actually support the “torture” of terror suspects. This may mean – as with abortion – that many Catholics are either ignorant of or dissenters from the Faith. But it may also express some skepticism that what is often described in the media as torture really is such.
In recent days, I spoke to the presidents of two faith-based think tanks and two former high-ranking military officers (both of the latter went on to high-level jobs in the CIA, Department of Defense, and the White House). All are faithful Catholics and daily communicants and not a one is convinced that waterboarding is simply torture. What the Pew poll and this anecdote demonstrate is how far the waterboarding-is-torture movement would have to advance to be serious.
For some in the pro-life world there is a fear that this debate will be successful in the effort to draw people away from the imperfect but still pro-life Republican Party. They also wonder how the fact that three terrorists were waterboarded more than six years ago in the aftermath of the horror of 9/11 can eclipse the regular, ongoing killing of unborn children in the tens of millions. In the six years of the waterboarding debate, there have been something like 7.2-million abortions and exactly zero cases of waterboarding. To their credit, most, if not all, of the conservative critics of waterboarding do not say waterboarding is more important than abortion, and if forced to make a choice of issues to work on would easily and quickly choose the fight for the unborn child.
On the one hand are the good-hearted who are advancing serious moral arguments. On the other side are those who use torture as a political agenda item. In the end, no matter what the motives, the prolife community must protect the momentum we have generated since 1973.
Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
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