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If Marc Thiessen Doesn’t Want to be Compared to the Spanish Inquisition, He Should Stop Advocating Torture Techniques Used in the Spanish Inquisition

By Matthew Yglesias  

"If Marc Thiessen Doesn’t Want to be Compared to the Spanish Inquisition, He Should Stop Advocating Torture Techniques Used in the Spanish Inquisition"

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Marc Thiessen, who loves torture, is sad that people think he loves torture:

“The handling of detainee issues is going to be a huge, huge issue in the period ahead,” said Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush.

“For six years,” Mr. Thiessen added, “the left has had a field day with this, running around saying we tortured people and comparing us to the Spanish Inquisition.” Now, he said, the politics have turned. “It’s a huge vulnerability for Obama and the Democrats, and Republicans are starting to gather their courage and talking about this.”

I’m fairly certain that I’ve only compared Bush administration interrogation techniques to the Spanish Inquisition while seated. But at the end of the day, the reason the Bush administration’s preferred torture methods get compared to the Spanish Inquisition is that they used techniques cribbed from the Spanish Inquisition:

Its use was first documented in the 14th century, according to Ed Peters, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. It was known variously as “water torture,” the “water cure” or tormenta de toca — a phrase that refers to the thin piece of cloth placed over the victim’s mouth.

At the time, using water to induce confessions was “a normal incident of law,” Peters says, and people viewed it more or less as we view a cross-examination today. If anything, Peters says, the Inquisitors “were more careful about it” than others of their time. [...]

“The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth.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 [of water] consumed, sometimes reaching to six or eight,” writes Henry Charles Lea in A History of the Inquisition of Spain.

“The thing you could not do in torture was injure the body or cause death,” Peters says. That was — and still is — what makes waterboarding such an attractive interrogation technique, he says: It causes great physical and mental suffering, yet leaves no marks on the body.

Now it’s true that Thiessen’s pals’ appropriation of a Spanish Inquisition torture method was more-or-less a coincidence. The lineal descent of their torture methods is rather different. US soldiers taken captive by Chinese forces during the Korean War were often tortured in order to induce false confessions of war crimes and such. Consequently, the American military compiled a manual that detailed the kind of torture techniques the Chinese used and offered training in torture-resistance. The Bush administration decided to turn that around and start applying many of the same methods to terrorism suspects. As a result of convergent evolution of torture practices, it seems that various figures interested in coerced confessions—Spanish Inquisitors, People’s Liberation Army, Khmer Rouge, etc.—all hit upon the basic idea behind waterboarding.

Exactly why the Bush administration thought that an interrogation technique designed to compel people to “admit” to whatever the interrogator wants to hear would be a good idea has to remain something of a matter of speculation. Part of the story, however, may be that false confessions was a good way to build evidence for the Iraq War.

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