Jane Mayer Takes Down Marc Thiessen

by Kevin Jon Heller

In case you haven’t seen it, make sure to check out Jane Mayer’s demolition of Marc Thiessen’s book-length apologia for torture, “Courting Disaster.”  As her review demonstrates, it’s much easier to defend torture when you distort nearly everything.

UPDATE: This, I think, is the money quote:

The publication of “Courting Disaster” suggests that Obama’s avowed determination “to look forward, not back” has laid the recent past open to partisan reinterpretation. By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it.

I have always been skeptical of claims that trials are well-suited to creating enduring historical narratives.  But it is clearly the case that convictions can help prevent certain narratives from becoming accepted.  The conviction of even one CIA torturer or a member of the Torture Team for waterboarding would effectively end the ability of people like Thiessen and Stuart Taylor to sell their claim — both historically revisionist and legally wrong — that waterboarding is something other than torture.


9 Responses

  1. Why would anyone in their right minds write a book supporting torture?  What was Thiessen thinking?

  2. @ Joe,

    I think that Thiessen, Cheney and others are just keeping up the same line since the beginning of these policies: 1) It’s not torture; and, 2) It kept us [the US] safe.

    They’re probably wrong on both, but they lose nothing by sticking to their narrative. To do otherwise, to show repentance or to equivocate, would certainly ‘prove’ that they had been wrong to support these policies all along.

    I fully agree with the post: failing to try those who conceived, authorized and carried-out these policies will have lasting harmful effects in the US, and in US standing abroad.

  3. What’s most sad is the double standard applied to the USA. If someone is tortured in Saudi Arabia, everyone is up in arms and denouncing it without hesitation. When it happens in the USA, everyone instead has a philosophical debate about the ‘nature of torture’.

    It’s as if there is mass denial of the possibility of the USA engaging in torture so the default response is to try to excuse or rationalise it.

  4. robert,
    I think it’s assumptions or arguments about “necessity” that rule people’s minds (the archetype here being the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario) rather than a state of denial in this instance. Thus we have frank acknowledgements of and justifications for “dirty hands.”
    But “states of denial” are no less ubiquitous and remain relevant to the torture “question,” in this case with regard to the “novelty” or putative un-American nature of the recent apologias for torture.
    For an introduction to the topic of “dirty hands,” please see here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2010/03/the-religious-left-beyond-dirty-hands.html
    For the intransigence and ubiquitousness of states of denial, please see Stanley Cohen’s book, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2001). On the relevance of this to the torture “debate” (I cringe every time I write that), please see John T. Parry’s book, Understanding Torture: Law, Violence, and Political Identity (2010).

  5. [I made a comment with a link so I suspect it’s waiting approval.]

  6. What is it about “no torture” that people like John Yoo, Marc Theissen and Stuart Taylor don’t understand?

    Kevin, your points are well taken.  I do want to respond to your skepticism re: your statement that you “have always been skeptical of claims that trials are well-suited to creating enduring historical narratives.”  Justice Jackson’s prosecution at Nurmberg was, as I understand it, calculated at preserving a historical record of what the Nazis did.  Similar narratives have emerged from the ICTY and the ICTR and will soon emerge from Cambodia.

    Prosecutions serve not only to punish, where guilt is established, but to “set the record straight” and to produce a historical picture of what really occurred.  That is why trials and other efforts at disgorging the truth, e.g. truth commissions, must take place now, while memories are still fresh and we are still close to the living pulse of these events.

    Thanks a gain for your post.


  7. Trials work for crack dealers and should work for “torture crack” dealers that we have heard spew nonsense for many years.

  8. One wonders if, many years from now, the government will make a similar argument, stating that “If it wasn’t torture back in 2001, it isn’t torture now.”

  9. Response…
    I thought that it was unusual that a tax professor (who now also teaches int’l trade), or any professor, had tried to justify torture in 1987 — in 19 Conn. L. Rev. no. 4 (1987).  Maybe the torture abettors will start citing him!

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