By Rebecca Gordon | (Informed Comment) | – –
Why do Republican candidates for the presidency keep promising to commit war crimes? Donald Trump guarantees he’ll torture terrorists and “take out their families.” Ted Cruz offers to carpet bomb ISIS (and anyone else in their vicinity) to oblivion. Even kindly pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson—when pressed by the moderator at a Republican debate on whether he was “tough” enough to be “okay with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian[s]” —replied, “You got it. You got it.”
Perhaps the reason that those who want to run our country believe that (war) crime does pay is that no one from previous administrations has been held accountable for the last round of torture and murder. Not one of the high government officials who ordered, approved, justified, and/or covered up torture, extraordinary rendition, and even homicides, committed in the “war on terror” has been prosecuted for any of those crimes.
In consequence, people running for office today feel free to campaign on the promise to commit a few more.
“Would I approve waterboarding?” Donald Trump asked a cheering crowd at a November rally in Columbus, Ohio. “You bet your ass I would,” he answered, “in a heartbeat.” And Trump assured his audience that he “would approve more than that” — leaving to their imaginations whether he had in mind sleep deprivation, threats of rape, days spent in excruciating stress positions, or perhaps that enhanced interrogation technique the CIA so delicately describes as “rectal rehydration.”
“Don’t kid yourself, folks,” the Republican frontrunner continued. “It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.” Or perhaps a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But for Trump it doesn’t really matter whether torture “works” in the sense of producing actionable intelligence. The point, he told that Ohio crowd, was that the very existence of the Islamic State means that someone, somewhere needs to be tortured. “If it doesn’t work,” he said, “they deserve it anyway.”
That was Trump in November. After the horrific attacks in Belgium on March 22, the frontrunner doubled down on torture and its usefulness. Before those attacks the Belgian police had in custody a man named Salah Abdeslam, who they believed had helped to plan last December’s terror attacks in Paris. He appeared to be cooperating with the authorities, but Trump knew how to speed things up. He told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “he may be talking, but he’ll talk faster with the torture.”
When Blitzer pointed out that what Trump was proposing would actually violate several laws, the candidate was ready with his answer. “We have to be smart” about such legal niceties, he said—unlike those “eggheads that came up with this international law” against torture. If laws get in the way, “we have to change our laws,” Trump explained, because “we have to be able to fight at least on almost equal basis.… They have no laws whatsoever that they have to obey.”
One might have thought that adherence to international laws is an important aspect of what separates us from terrorist organizations like ISIS.
Trump is right about one thing, however. It doesn’t matter whether or not torture “works.” It is against the law. In addition to our federal anti-torture statute, the United States has ratified an international treaty prohibiting torture. Under Article VI of our own constitution, that makes the U.N. Convention against Torture the supreme law of this land. The convention’s text is very clear that this treaty applies under all conditions: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
If torture is so clearly illegal, why do we find that former high-level government officials like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and Michael Hayden consistently trumpet its benefits in their memoirs and public appearances? Why do our media treat as if it were legitimate political discourse views like the Republican frontrunner’s that adherence to international law makes the United States “weak,” that obeying the law is, in effect, for sissies?
One answer lies in our failure to adhere to another of the Convention against Torture’s provisions: that the ratifying states must bring to justice those who violate its terms. Sadly, President Obama set the tone for this failure when in 2009 he told the nation that, with regards to the crimes of the previous administration, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” As a result, we may very well have Donald Trump to look forward to.
Rebecca Gordon teaches in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, and American Nuremberg: The US Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes