Trumping Terrorism with Torture?

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

10 Responses

  1. The nebulous “State Secrets Doctrine” – created by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1953 decision – applies to CIA torture methods and prohibits judicial review.

    Torture not only violates the U.S. Constitution – but is of questionable effectiveness.

    Here are some links:

    link to

    link to

    • “Torture not only violates the U.S. Constitution – but is of questionable effectiveness.”

      There is ample evidence that torture does work. It does not work all the time, and it does not work on all people. But it works often enough to suggest that those who say, “Torture doesn’t work because those undergoing it will say anything,” are simply wrong.

      To cite two examples: There is a great deal of evidence that during World War II the Germans in occupied France tortured captured members of the French resistance and elicited information that often led to the breakup of resistance cells. And during the Battle of Algiers in 1957, both sides have acknowledged that torture resulted in the French capturing Algerian resistance leaders and decapitating FLN cells, and that it was a crucial factor in the French prevailing in that battle.

      This is not an argument in defense of torture, but to cut off all discussion by categorically stating that “torture does not work” is intellectually dishonest and simply wrong. Torture should be banned based on moral and ethical considerations, not by cutting off the debate by denying it can be effective.

      • The Germans lost France and the French lost Algeria. Practically speaking, the torture did not work in the sense of providing intelligence you could win with.

        • You are correct in the long-term strategic sense of winning the war or keeping Algeria. But in the two cases I mentioned, it had value in providing actionable intelligence in the tactical sense of rolling up resistance cells. Of course, it takes much more than that to prevail strategically. And the Germans in France and the French in Algeria were not going to win given the opposition they eventually faced in each case.

          And it has been noted, by Alistair Horne in his book, “A Savage War of Peace,” about the Algerian War (among others) that torture did as much damage (psychologically) to the torturers as it did to their victims.

          My point is that, tactically, torture has worked in some cases, and it is dishonest to shut the debate down by saying it never works. Torture should be condemned on moral and ethical grounds, not by shutting off debate.

  2. In the USA, if you help commit the crime, are you not equally guilty as those who actually do the crime?

    Would that include those who covered up, or pardoned, or failed to prosecute the crime?

    If so, then can’t Bush et al be joined by Obama et al in the Hague for the crime of torture?

    Of course, we’ll have to wait for someone else to impose justice. It’s quite rare for the rich and powerful to face justice in this world. Isn’t it?

  3. President Obama mainstreamed torture when he immunized and impunified practitioners of torture and order-givers for torture ( Cheney and bush) with his famous “look forward not back” policy.

    Republican officeseekers running on more torture are merely building on the achievement of President Obama in normalizing torture and are merely walking through a door which Obama very carefully and deliberately left open for them.

  4. As for punishment for “mainstreaming” torture in the execution of U.S. foreign policy:

    John Yoo, who as Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the U.S. wrote the “torture memos,” is now the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

    John S. Bybee, who as Assistant Attorney General, head of the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of the Justice, signed the “torture memos,” is now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, appointed by President Bush in 2003.

Comments are closed.