Even the most cursory reflection on history demonstrates how blinkered this argument is. Were the Americans who fought World War II but objected to torturing knowledgeable German and Japanese POWs therefore radical pacifists? Are decorated combat veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq suddenly transformed into pacifists when they raise objections to waterboarding? [...T]he obvious and incontrovertible fact [is] that plenty of people who demonstrably aren’t pacifists oppose it.
Notice also how Thiessen apparently regards the entire Catholic just war tradition as "radically pacifist." That tradition can justify war in certain circumstances as a necessary evil. But torture, within that same tradition, can never be justified. The distinction - and it's staggering that one of the key defenders of torture has yet to grapple with it - is in the critical context of coercion.
Let me explain some basic just war principles to Thiessen. Force and violence can be defended morally in war as the least worst option in a world where evil exists, and where the enemy is at large and fully capable of killing you. But when you have captured the enemy, when he is utterly under your control, tied naked to chair by shackles in a cell, the morality of the use of force shifts dramatically. When you unleash violence against him when he cannot defend himself, you have crossed a core moral line.
Everyone can appreciate the distinction between inflicting violence on an enemy who can inflict violence back and inflicting violence on someone who is already captured, restrained and under your control. Opposing the latter is not pacifist, let alone radically pacifist. It is simply moral, and reflects a moral distinction that I'd wager comes as close to natural law as we are ever going to get (and as close to a core Christian principle if ever there is one).
The Christian distinction Thiessen and Cheney reject - and the core of the heresy they embrace - is that between self-defense and cruelty. Because they believe that the US is inherently good and its enemies inherently evil, they cannot conceive that they themselves are just as capable of evil as al Qaeda. But you are, Dick, you are. Yes: calm, old, unruffled old Cheney - just as prone to absolute evil as Osama bin Laden or me or anyone mortal. It is not conservative to believe that human nature has changed just because you now have power. It is not conservative to believe that the threat you are grappling with is somehow uniquely different from every other threat ever made against a free people and therefore merits the secret but irrevocable trashing of ancient norms of morality and central pillars of a just war. That's as radical as it gets.
Real conservatives - not the neo-fascist version favored by Cheney and Yoo and Addington - know this. They know they are not inherently good, even when they are fighting evil. They therefore protect themselves and their own civilization from the cancer of torture.
Churchill, to cite an obvious example, opposed torture absolutely and insured that captured Nazi spies in Britain were interrogated humanely even as Britain was being bombed without mercy; and he was not a radical pacifist. Reagan opposed torture in all circumstances, fought the Cold War and also signed the UN Convention against torture; and he was not a radical pacifist. John Paul II opposed torture in all circumstances; and he was not a radical pacifist. The entire just war tradition rules even contemplating torture as out of bounds - and its entire point is to construct a non-pacifist Christianity, to make the evil of war defensible, to restrict violence at all times to strong moral boundaries because wars so easily slip outside moral strictures and engulf us all, and yet wars are also sometimes necessary. In grasping this, as he has done from the start and proved most memorably in his Oslo speech, it is Obama who is currently rescuing the conservative tradition from itself.
Thiessen's premise, of course, is also open to extreme challenge.
We simply do not know because we do not have access to all the data what torture did or did not reveal as it was deployed by Cheney and Bush in every theater of war against hundreds of prisoners of war. Many with direct access to the data dispute Cheney's chief hagiographer on these counts. But even if it were true, it would still not prove that other traditional means of intelligence gathering could not have gained exactly the same intelligence, without all the lies and red herrings that torture always conjures up.
But to my main point: I oppose torture because I am not a pacifist; because I believe that evil exists in the world and needs to be challenged by force at times; because I believe that maintaining civilized restraints and rules for the use of that force is essential if it is not to slip out of our control; and because I believe that the power to torture so poisons the line between truth and falsehood, so blurs the distinction between good and evil, so empowers tyranny within a system dedicated to human freedom ... that it threatens to destroy the soul and civilization of all those who wield it, let alone those who wield it with pride and certainty and utter lack of accountability, as Cheney and his neo-fascist goons did.
This is an ancient and eternal human struggle against the temptations of power. It is what Tolkien was writing about when he constructed the concept of a ring of utter power that destroys those who wield it. And yet Thiessen and his cohorts on the neo-fascist right do not merely regard the ring as rightly and eternally theirs' but they show no compunction whatever in using it, in attempting to integrate it within the system of American government, and on insisting on its routine use as a means of tackling something as vague as what Thiessen calls "active threats".
That is as evil as the forces we are fighting. And it fatally wounds the moral basis of the fight. We fight not just to win at any price. If we were to become a fundamentalist police state that deployed torture at home and abroad against Muslim threats, the war would already be over, and al Qaeda would have won. We fight for certain profound and enduring principles - of freedom of religion and conscience and the inviolable dignity of the individual human being. We cannot defend those principles if we trash them at the same time. And no one - no one - is morally pure enough to survive the temptation.