U.S. Elects Torturer in Chief
So…we are about to inaugurate a president who has openly and repeatedly announced that “we’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable. Torture works, OK, folks? But we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Even Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and war hero, had to take issue with that one. Torture’s “not the American way,” he said. McCain himself was tortured during the five years he was held in a North Vietnamese prison, but to Trump,“He’s not a war hero…I like people who weren’t captured.”
But, “torture’s not the American way?” That’s not exactly – or even approximately – true. American use of waterboarding was documented at least as far back as our war in the Philippines, around 1901. But we only have to look a few years back, to the George W. Bush administration, for the seeds of our current ethical morass. Bush and his coterie did their best to make torture acceptable, but Donald Trump apparently aims to make it an American value.
In responding to Trump’s “torture works” comments, the first question would have to be, “works for what?” Virtually all reputable research indicates that torture rarely if ever yields worthwhile intelligence. To take just one example, Factcheck.org’s post, Trump on Torture, summarizes a recent article by researcher, Shane O’Mara, Torturing the Brain, which analyzes the “folk psychology…motivating enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques.”
“Solid scientific evidence of how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions,” he writes, “suggests that these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.” The use of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, O’Mara writes “appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect.” (An abstract of O’Mara’s article is available online.)
The recent report by New York Times writers Matt Apuzzo, Sheri Fink and James Rizen, How U.S. Torture Left a Legacy of Damaged Minds, makes clear how very little the “enhanced interrogation” techniques inflicted on our prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere really had to do with intelligence gathering – and how very little intelligence they yielded. But maybe Trump has at least done us the favor of cutting through the bullshit over what torture is really about – he rarely makes any pretense that it has anything to do with intelligence gathering. And Trump makes no pretense at all that he has any concerns about humanitarian issues, international law, or world opinion either.
(NY Times photo: Lutfi bin Ali. by Mohamed Ben Soud.)
In a recent Nation Article, Sasha Abramsky asks what exactly Trump means by “much stronger” torture: “He never defines exactly what sorts of state-sponsored torture he is advocating, exactly what actions he seeks to make the courts, the military, and the general public complicit in. If history is any guide, however, when a powerful state embarks down this road of torture, things get ugly very quickly.” Abramsky concludes her piece by saying, “You’ll find the American people aren’t nearly as perverted as you take them to be.” I hope she’s right, but that remains to be proved.
What Trump’s talk of torture does do is to give displaced and disenfranchised working and middle class citizens – which is most of us – a false narrative about who is to blame for their loss of control over their lives, someone to blame for shuttered factories, deteriorating neighborhoods, chaotic schools, and the repo man. If we torture our prisoners in Guantánamo, we’re showing that we can’t be pushed around, that the losses of our young men and women in senseless wars overseas made sense after all. We’re showing that we’re still tough, still standing tall.
UPDATE: While I was in the middle of working on this post, The Intercept reported that Trump may appoint Jose Rodriguez as head of the CIA. Rodriguez was director of the National Clandestine Service under Bush II, and shared responsibility for for human rights abuses including the establishment of CIA “black sites,” where detainees were tortured. He’s most remembered, though, for having been responsible for the destruction of 92 videotapes documenting the torture by waterboarding (183 times) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. According to a declassified CIA email, Rodriguez thought that if the tapes were revealed to the public, the response would be “devastating.”
Related reading (extra credit…)
The Strategic Costs of Torture: How “Enhanced Interrogation” Hurt America, by Douglas Johnson, Alberto Mora, and Averill Schmidt, in Foreign Affairs (September-October, 2016). The authors are associated with Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights.
This is an interesting and authoritative perspective on how the use and acceptance of torture has damaged America’s sense of what it stands for, and its world reputation. The authors note that, while Congressional Democrats argued that U.S. use of torture during the “war on terror” had not produced unique or reliable intelligence, Republicans claimed the opposite. Both sides, they noted, “share one key assumption: that whether the torture was good or bad depends on whether or not it ‘worked.'”
Instead, the researchers found, “Washington’s use of torture greatly damaged national security. It incited extremism in the Middle East, hindered cooperation with U.S. allies, exposed American officials to legal repercussions, undermined U.S. diplomacy, and offered a convenient justification for other governments to commit human rights abuses…In the words of John Hutson, a retired U.S. navy rear admiral: ‘Torture is the technique of choice of the lazy, stupid, and pseudo-tough.’ We can – we must – do better.”
“Leaving aside the very real human and legal consequences of torture, a truly comprehensive assessment would also explore…how it shaped the trajectory of the so-called war on terror, altered the relationship between the United States and its allies, and affected Washington’s pursuit of other key goals, such as the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.” (From “The Strategic Costs of Torture”)
“Torture is the technique of choice of the
lazy, stupid, and pseudo-tough”
Doug Johnson, now the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was formerly the Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, in Minnesota, one of the sites featured in my film, Refuge. An interview with Johnson opens that film.
Also now at the Carr Center, Alberto Mora was a State Department Foreign Service Officer, and General Counsel to the USIA in the first Bush administration. During Bush II, as General Counsel of the Navy, he opposed the use of “harsh interrogation” at Guantánamo. Averell Schmidt is a fellow at the Carr Center, researching the costs and consequences of U.S. use of torture following 9/11.« Confronting Gun Violence