The Culture of Torture in the Trump Era
“Would I bring back waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. . . . It works. And even if it doesn’t work they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.”
Among the anxieties about what Donald Trump will do once in office is whether the new president will carry through with his threats to bring back torture. After all, a return to torture would be a disaster for the nation’s foreign policy.
Yet, also consider the damage already inflicted on the body politic from Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Words spoken or printed in the public sphere shape the horizon of possibilities so that some actions become thinkable and permissible while others are held to be unacceptable.
There are four ways that Trump’s torture talk has harmed our political culture.
First, one of the most enduring struggles over the powers of government is about legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence. Examples include allowable violence for police and prison personnel, the death penalty, targeted assassinations, and acceptable violence toward enemy soldiers and populations in war zones. These examples remind us that limiting state violence is a work in progress.
Torture is a case in point. Polling of Americans shows that support for torture has increased since the 2001 terrorist attacks and especially since former vice president Dick Cheney and many others openly defended the Bush administration’s torture program. Popular television series and movies have contributed to torture’s acceptance. When Trump pledged to use waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse,” his supporters roared their approval.
Embracing one form of violence in clear violation of the law cannot but help to lower the barriers to other kinds of state violence.
Second, Trump’s torture rhetoric moved seamlessly from instrumental arguments about obtaining vital information to the language of revenge—a well-worn pathway to the acceptance of violence. Trump’s “even if it doesn’t work . . .” comment reveals that he is willing to disregard professional interrogators’ advice that torture is ineffective. Instead, he promotes the regressive human urge to inflict pain for the sake of getting even.
As if torture of terrorist suspects were not enough, Trump also threatened to “take out their families.” Never mind that collective punishment, like torture, is a war crime.
Third, torture is highly symbolic of violence of a particular kind: the violence exerted by the all-powerful upon a helpless victim. The will of the jailor-interrogator cannot be opposed. The sense of vulnerability induced by terrorist violence undergoes a psycho-political reversal via a strongman willing to feed off fantasies of total dominance.
It is this very quality of inflicting torment on a totally helpless victim that has made torture so reprehensible for those who still believe that human dignity is a first principle of human relationships. The US government is legally bound to honor the no-torture principle, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law.
Fourth, the rhetoric of torture reinforces the false assurance that security can be guaranteed only by a willingness to employ “any means necessary” against an intractable enemy. From this premise, moral limits on means must be subordinated to the presumed justification of ends. This is a recipe for civilian, military, and security officials to “take the gloves off” or “go to the dark side”—phrases that still haunt our political culture from the early post-9/11 era of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Tenet.
A torture culture is also constructed by what is not said or done.
President Obama and, later, Congress, did the right thing in acting to abolish the Bush administration’s torture program. Yet, imagine if Obama had supported criminal investigations of the top civilian, military and security officials who authorized and implemented the torture regime. This is what the law requires. If those who so flagrantly violated the law had been held accountable in some open judicial proceeding, would Trump or any other aspirant for high office proclaim his or her affinity for torture?
Accountability proceedings would have sent a strong signal that this form of violence cannot be tolerated.
Finally, the American people cannot begin to grapple with the moral dimensions of torture until they have full knowledge of personal and political consequences of the Bush-Cheney torture years. President Obama could still help by declassifying the full Senate torture report and thereby releasing it to the public.
If the damage caused by Trump’s language of violence is to be reversed, we must not abandon a moral understanding of politics—a politics about what kind of people we want to be, what we want this nation to stand for and the future our children will inherit.
Although the challenges of such a politics are not new, the Trump era imposes an urgency we cannot afford to ignore.