Trump to America: ‘Let’s Make Torture Great Again’
Not since President Barack Obama banned the use of torture in 2009 have we been so close to practicing it again. In early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump said, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” In over a week from now, Gina Haspel – the long-time CIA official who oversaw the torture of two suspected terrorists in Thailand and who destroyed related evidence – may be confirmed as Director of the CIA.
This is worrying news – especially for those currently held in Guantanamo, for Muslims and people of color who are by default suspected of being terrorists and for those who fight to protect and promote human rights in the world. The use of torture, a use of force that is illegal in every circumstance under federal and international law, is a blot on the record of a country that prides itself on its promotion and protection of human rights.
Granted, it is harder today to practice torture as official US policy than it was during the time of the Bush administration. In 2015, Congress passed the McCain-Feinstein amendment bill, which removed legal loopholes to make deliberate misinterpretation and misreading of the law extremely difficult. Should we worry, then, about the government using torture again?
Unfortunately, trust and over-reliance on legal mechanisms can be flawed, and we know this already. Torture was still expressly illegal during the time of the Bush administration, yet officials, well aware of this fact, found brazen and manipulative legal strategies to give torture tactics a garb of legality. They went so far as to create terms like “enemy combatants” (a term that does not even appear in the Geneva Conventions) to argue that the convention’s laws against torture do not apply to suspected terrorists. How can we not expect such manipulations of legal wording from current officials in power? This administration, after all, continues to challenge established constitutional norms and institutions in alarming ways.
The lack of accountability for those involved in torture is no less worrying. Even the most egregious cases of torture were closed to inspection because of President Obama’s efforts. It is precisely because of such impunity that individuals like Gina Haspel can be even considered to be nominees for the position of CIA Director. Torture is illegal, true, but it is now an open secret that anybody who practices it will not have to face legal consequences in the future.
Current officials have numerous other ways to bring back torture. The McCain-Feinstein amendment bill states that only those interrogation techniques that exist in the Army Field Manual can be used. (The Manual prohibits all forms of torture). However, as Robert Chesney, a professor of law and legal expert, points out, the secretary of defense can still change the contents of the Army Field Manual, which is subject to review every three years. In addition, though this is a less likely possibility, Congress can just pass another bill to overturn the amendment bill.
The success of these bureaucratic and legal efforts depends on the dominant discourse around torture. After all, if it is well-established (and it is) that torture does not work, then it is harder for authorities to justify using it. After President Trump claimed “torture…absolutely works,” numerous media outlets published opinion pieces from psychologists, legal experts and others who responded by penning pieces like “No, Mr. Trump, Torture Doesn’t Work.” The prevailing discourse, then, has been about the efficacy of torture.
This discourse is not only irrelevant; it is also dangerous. Critics of torture must call for its end on moral and legal grounds rather than debating over questions of effectiveness. After all, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights all ban torture with no exceptions, even “when national security is threatened, or during other public emergencies.” For whatever reason, if there is a study in the near future that finds a link between the use of torture and the prevention of some atrocity, will we then justify and practice torture again?
Nor is public opinion fully against torture. In fact, more people today believe that torture is justified in some circumstances than they did before. According to a poll conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2016, nearly half of Americans believe it is acceptable to torture enemy combatants; 24% were unsure or willing to answer. In 1999, the last the time the poll was conducted, 65% of Americans said that the US could not torture suspected terrorists and fighters. The poll numbers suggest a hardening of public attitudes on torture, a trend which authorities keen to use this inhuman and degrading tactic are closely watching.
We are in a danger zone. This is a uniquely precarious time in which torture may return as official policy not only in the US but also in the rest of the world. Other countries that look up to the US as a global political leader may soon begin justifying and practicing the use of torture, with disastrous consequences. Unless we are vigilant about the ways we discuss torture and about holding the Gina Haspels of our country accountable, we may see the return of conventional torture techniques, and shocking as it may be, things that are “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”