One age-old rule of politics, when looking for issues to run on, is never rip the scab off of a loser from an earlier time. Donald Trump, of course, is rewriting all the rules, including this one.
The Donald has dragged up waterboarding, saying that not only will he bring it back into use, but that he will double down and authorize much worse. He doesn’t say what “worse” is, but promises it will be terrible. No one will be able to withstand it, but that is OK because “they deserve it anyway.” In a few key venues, the media’s hair is on fire and the cognoscenti are piling on. But their uproar does not seem to be collecting any steam.
There should be no room for political grandstanding here, and the outrage growing at Trump’s remarks ought to be overwhelming. Torture is morally, legally and rationally wrong. The morality and legality issues have been thoroughly litigated elsewhere. The only conceivable avenue for discussion here is on rationalization – if necessary to save lives, can torture, even though wrong, be justified? Can the illegality and immorality of this tool be rationalized away if it will make the world safer?
In a word, the answer is “no” – not “no” as an alternative response to a legitimate option, not “no” as one answer to an acceptable political question, but “no” because the underlying premise of the entire issue is demonstrably false.
Torture is not designed to get at the truth. Torture is designed to get an answer the interrogator wants. As has been repeatedly established in history, there is no assurance, and no way to gain assurance, that what is revealed under torture will be the truth. Today, every country that recognizes due process of law refuses to accept confessions extracted under torture. The problem compounds in military intelligence, where false information can be more dangerous that no information at all. Given the high degree of probability that information produced by these methods will not be true or reliable, and given the absence of any accurate basis upon which to determine what is and what is not reliable, torture is useless as an intelligence tool.
This conclusion was reinforced in December of 2014, when a Senate select committee on intelligence issued a declassified summary of a 6,700 page report on the CIA interrogation program in Iraq. According to the report, none of the information produced by any of the harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, used by the CIA throughout the period of the Iraq war was of any use. None of it.
Finally, waterboarding is torture. There is no basis to keep this question open to debate. It can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damages, and death. The immediate effect of waterboarding is a gag reflex that shuts off breathing and creates a sensation of drowning. The gagging can trigger vomiting, which may then be inhaled. Death from aspirated vomit is a significant risk.
Following World War II, Japanese officers were prosecuted for waterboarding prisoners of war. Some were hanged. When it was first revealed that the United States was waterboarding al Qaeda suspects during the Iraq war era, the country was appalled. President Bush initially tried to contend that waterboarding was not torture, but faced with overwhelming revulsion from all corners, he was forced to concede. He finally signed an executive order banning its use in 2006. Waterboarding was declared torture under international law by a United Nations Convention against Torture, which was then confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights in 2008. The international ban is absolute and without exceptions. President Obama has consistently declared waterboarding to be torture, and continued the executive order banning it in 2009.
Trump’s promises are pointing the United States directly into the international criminal courts at The Hague. The entire world may well be aghast at this hyperbolic, unfocused wall of doubletalk as Trump continues to try to dismantle the aura of international good will Obama has spent the last seven years rebuilding. Nobody knows what to do with any of this stuff, and nobody knows what’s coming next.
This brings to mind the ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.