No One Expects The Spanish Inquisition

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To recap a bit of history, back in the early days of the Bush administration a man named Donald Rumsfeld—deemed one of the worst secretaries of defense in American history by John McCain—was running the Pentagon. He had a guy working for him named Marc Thiessen as a speechwriter. This was all when George W Bush was president, one of the worst in history. In addition to Bush, Rumsfeld, and Thiessen there were other dimwitted and immoral people in charge of running the government. One thing that dimwitted and immoral people do when under pressure is decide that lashing out with a kind of dimwitted and immoral violence is going to help them. Consequently, they got the dimwitted and immoral idea that they ought to torture people with techniques they got out of techniques the US government has developed to train soldiers in torture-resistance.

This was a bad idea, so they were warned that it was a bad idea. Instructor Joseph Witsch told a Pentagon working group on interrogations “The physical and psychological pressures we apply in training violate national and international laws … I hope someone is explaining this to all these folks asking for our techniques and methodology!” They established a Behavioral Science Consultation Team at Gitmo that was told “Bottom line: the likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the delivery of accurate information from a detainee is very low.”

But Marc Thiessen and his friends aren’t very smart and they are very immoral. They love inflicting violence. So they went ahead and tortured. One technique they used, waterboarding, bears a great deal of similarity to the so-called “tormenta de toca” from the Spanish Inquisition. Since the Spanish Inquisition is famous for its cruelty, sometimes critics of the kind of dimwitted cruelty beloved by Marc Thiessen and his pals point out the similarity. But Thiessen doesn’t like this comparison so earlier today he called me out for making it, observing:

Apparently, Yglesias has not bothered to read Courting Disaster. If he had, he would know better than to make this ridiculous argument. Even a basic review of the facts makes clear Yglesias is completely uninformed.

Courting Disaster is Thiessen’s book, and if he wants me to read it he’ll have to force water down my throat to induce the sensation of drowning. But having summed that up, we come to Thiessen’s big point. It turns out that during the Spanish inquisition, in addition to the basic “water cure” elements beloved by Thiessen they also used “Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves.” So you see, it’s totally different—when Thiessen and friends were running the show, they did tie people down to boards (like in the Spanish Inquisition!) and they did pour water on them (like in the Spanish Inquisition!) but in the Spanish version they used the cords to cause additional painful torture whereas in the more refined Bush/Rumsfeld/Thiessen era the water torture itself was deemed sufficient!

And that, my friends, is the advance of civilization over time.

I suppose the natural question to ask, though, is why these kind of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge and the Korean War-era People’s Liberal Army seem to bother torture advocates so much. The basic point made by torture advocates (when they’re not quibbling about whether or not you should call techniques poached from a torture resistance manual “torture”) is that the problem with liberals is that we’re not sufficiently willing to engage in brutal treatment of prisoners in order to compel their cooperation. But do you know who really didn’t shy away from brutal treatment of prisoners? The Spanish Inquisition! The Khmer Rouge! These are people who knew how to get the job done and it strikes me as deeply hypocritical of torture fans to turn around and get all squeamish and liberal when they hear that the inquisitors added a garrote or two into the torturing fun. The core element of the water torture is the same, even though different iterations of it are conducted in somewhat different ways—that’s the point of the Inquisition comparison.

I’m the kind of weak-kneed liberal who thinks that the government of a free people neither must nor should seek security through torture, so I’ll concede that I’m not nearly as well-versed in the precise ins-and-outs of different ways of torturing as a sicko like Thiessen is. But what’s the point. If torture in the name of a good cause is as awesome as Thiessen says it is, then why is it such a point of pride to try to maintain that what he advocates isn’t quite as brutal as what was done in the Inquisition? Could it be that somewhere lurking beneath the defensiveness, the partisanship, the blinkered worldview, and the immorality is a little nub of a conscience?