The Spectre of Torture Returns



There are many scary and objectionable things about the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. In terms of foreign policy, the most odious is his belief that America should re-adopt torture as a legitimate method of operation.

The 2008 election was meant to mark the end of the dark period during the War on Terror in which the United States of America openly endorsed practices of torture. Then-senator Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain both explicitly repudiated the Bush-era practices of “enhanced interrogation” including waterboarding, long periods in solitary confinement, and sleep deprivation. President Obama, on his third day in office, issued an Executive Order entitled ‘Ensuring Lawful Interrogations’, re-stating his belief that the use of torture was contrary to the United States Constitution, the War Crimes Act, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. It seemed, for a moment, that the nation and its people had seen the error of their ways and had walked back from the moral abyss. Fast forward eight years, with the rise of ISIS, a series of terrorist attacks in Europe, and the emergence of a former reality TV show host as a legitimate presidential candidate, talk of torture has unfortunately re-entered the American political discourse.

Throughout his brazen presidential campaign, real estate mogul and presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump has repeatedly stated that a Trump Administration would consider torture legitimate. He promised in a debate in February that if elected president he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”. Later that month he explained his simple rationale: “Torture works”. These are not merely off-the-cuff remarks designed to generate media buzz – the candidate laid out a detailed explanation of his views in an op-ed in USA Today in which he argued that having a President willing to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” would “make America great again”.

This is actually not that out-of-step with mainstream Republican thinking. Former presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie all encouraged the re-introduction of waterboarding believing it would help keep America secure. An internal campaign memo to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney encouraged the candidate to endorse a return to “enhanced interrogation” because of its use in “generating intelligence to save American lives”. Indeed this opinion is not really out of step with American popular opinion – a Rasmussen poll in 2014 found that more than twice as many Americans believed that the CIA’s torture programs “provided valuable information that helped the United States and its allies” compared with those who felt that it did not provide valuable information.

There is only one problem with this – it’s simply not true. “The use of torture… is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear”. Is this from Michael Moore? Noam Chomsky? Perhaps Obama on the campaign trail in 2008? In fact, it is from the United States Army Field Manual on Interrogation. Similarly the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture began its executive summary, “the CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees”. The unreliability of information obtained from the use of torture is undeniable from numerous academic studies and the reflections of people who have either tortured people or been tortured themselves. Despite what Trump and a majority Americans think, torture simply does not work.

When Donald Trump advocated torture in the primary campaign, it was the republican base, 73% of which supports the use of torture practices, that he was talking to. Will he moderate his tone come the general election when he begins to address the wider American electorate, of which 58% support the use of torture techniques? Presidential races are primed for false expressions of machismo and American exceptionalist bluster, both of which are suited to Trump’s advocacy of torture. Combined with the broader geo-political context of rising dangers in Europe and growing global anxiety, the United States is prone to falling back into the morally corrupt atmosphere that saw them condone and excuse torture. The world can only hope that Trump faces a principled opponent in November who will not cravenly concede the point that torture is the path to making America great again.

Mitchell Robertson is the U.S. Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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