Donald Trump is working away at undermining liberal democracy and its values more efficiently than his friend Vladimir Putin. You might think his telling four congresswomen of colour, three born in the USA, a pluralist, multi-racial federation created by immigration, to go back to the “crime-ridden” countries they came from, is as bad as it gets. Well, it’s not. Advocating the use of torture is worse.
In 2016 while campaigning for the Presidency Trump clearly advocated State use of torture. “Torture works, OK folks” he said. “And waterboarding is your minor form, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding”. He received applause from his audience.
Torture has been used in the past in, or by, the USA to extract information and as punishment: by soldiers in wars, by police, by secretive State agencies, and by criminal militias, in jails, “black sites”, barracks, and, associated with racism by lynch mobs. George W. Bush legitimated its use in his ‘war on terror’.
Like many people, I have always believed torture marks an ethical frontier. Torture is designed to dehumanize the victim, “break them”, take away every last vestige of freedom and human dignity, to inflict a spiritual death as well as physical pain and degradation through “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. It is a fundamental denial of our shared humanity, the ultimate inhumanity, in some ways worse than capital punishment and summary execution. That is the damage to the victim. But what of the consequences for the State, and its representatives, that endorse its use against criminals and terrorists?
Extracting information from terrorists and the CIA’s failure to share critical intelligence with the FBI was the theme of BBC Two’s recent drama-doc television series The Looming Tower, which examines the antecedents of 9/11. The hero is a real-life Lebanese-American Muslim New York FBI agent, Ali Soufan. I travelled with him in Kosovo a few years ago. The real Ali was not your usual picture of an FBI agent. He suffered from car sickness, spoke fluent Arabic and resigned on moral grounds from the Federal Bureau in 2005. Because of the 1993 Al-Qaida attack on the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, the New York FBI became the first to hold the Al-Qaida (AQ) dossier. This was how Ali came to investigate the 12 October 2000 terrorist attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole refueling in Aden, killing 17 US sailors and wounding 39 more, and why he interrogated possible AQ operatives after 9/11. He tells his story in his much redacted The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al-Qaida. Using conventional interrogation techniques, building up a relationship with captured suspect terrorists, and drawing on his knowledge of Islam, Ali Soufan and the FBI obtained much valuable intelligence.
The FBI’s more humane approach came abruptly to an end when the CIA took over, employing “enhanced interrogation techniques”, the favoured euphemism for torture. The then Attorney-General, Steven G. Bradbury, allowed waterboarding of “high value detainees”. The White House legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, placed AQ detainees in the category of “unlawful combatants”, so Guantanamo Bay was outside the legal provisions of the Geneva Convention. Two key AQ operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were repeatedly waterboarded. They had been trained to withstand torture - but not kindness.
There was a laudable reaction in Washington. Despite repeated CIA claims to the contrary, the Senate sub-committee on Intelligence concluded that “enhanced interrogation” had yielded no critical information. Waterboarding has since been banned. Under torture the mind becomes confused, suggested events are imagined. The panic and pain produce false stories just to stop the choking and terror. The US Army Field Manual, in a quiet retreat, banned “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in 2016.
So torture is all in the past then, all down to the trauma of 9/11 and George W. Bush? Maybe. But W. Fitzhugh Brundage in Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition, Harvard University, is far less sanguine. He presents water torture as being as American as motherhood and apple pie, practiced before, during and after the Civil War, in US occupied Philippines, in Chicago jails, in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a difficult read. The excuses for torture have been remarkably consistent: a few bad apples, an urgent need to obtain life-saving information, torture defined narrowly as the infliction of extreme pain such as destruction of a major bodily organ, an inevitable retaliatory feature of warfare, and so on. Torture is, of course, inevitable, if no-one gets prosecuted because successful prosecution would be damaging to morale and would lose votes. It is never politic to tangle with the emotions aroused by American casualties in war. Obama backed off prosecuting members of the Bush government who tried to legitimate torture. Britain’s complicity in CIA rendition of suspects to “black sites” for torture means we cannot be complacent. As Montaigne wrote in the 16th century “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice”. Despite the constraint of the law, torturers will expect the consistent excuses of the past to provide them with near impunity in the future.
The one redeeming feature of this sorry story is that within liberal democracies there have always been institutions and voices to combat the slide into barbarism, seeking to outlaw the use of torture and to seek prosecutions. Trump so far is being contained by the resilience of US institutions. His deceased arch-enemy Senator John McCain should have the last word on the use of torture – which he experienced while captured in North Vietnam. We are “obliged by history, by our nation’s highest ideals and the many terrible sacrifices made to protect them, by our respect for human dignity to make clear we need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war”. Senate Intelligence Report on CIA Interrogation Methods 9 December 2014.
Sadly Donald Trump seems to have no concept of national honour in his moral compass. Would that the Republicans had the courage to field someone of McCain’s stature to fill the moral vacuum that Trump is occupying.
See TheArticle “By Advocating Torture Trump fundamentally undermines Liberal Democracy” 18 July 2019