Are We Moving Backwards on Torture?
“It works. Believe me, it works. And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”
Amazing as it might seem, those are the words of the presumptive nominee of one of America’s two major political parties with respect to something simply and unequivocally wrong: The practice of torture.
When I first learned about the abuse of prisoners by American troops at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq back in 2004, I was, to put it mildly, alarmed and disgusted. Surely, I thought, this is an isolated failure of leadership that doesn’t reflect our country’s values. That proved to be wishful thinking when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its damning report at the end of 2014, exploring a laundry list of inhumane treatments of detainees at Guantanamo Bay (GTMO).
Now, in this roller coaster ride of a presidential election cycle, torture is back in the spotlight—but with far too many candidates embracing rather than condemning it. As far as I’m concerned, we’re moving in the wrong direction.
Contrary to Trump’s repeated and vigorous assertions, torture doesn’t work. National security professionals know what a real estate mogul with no experience in combat, intelligence, or psychology doesn’t: torture produces unreliable and faulty information, it desensitizes detainees and makes them less responsive, and it actually harms the organizations that choose to use it. Accordingly, military, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals have stepped up to denounce the practice, and there is talk of fierce resistance and mass resignations if a commander-in-chief willing to violate fundamental human rights so cavalierly should be elected.
Our enemies used Abu Ghraib as a propaganda tool to recruit, and the blood, sweat and tears our troops invested into winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi populace – a key component of any successful counterinsurgency strategy – was severely undermined. Terrorist groups have already used Trump in a propaganda video and surely they relish the idea of a Trump presidency, as his policy on torture would drive more towards and not away from extremism.
As for suspects ‘deserving it’ anyway, I would argue that patriotism by way of sadism is not a virtue to be applauded. And that’s to say nothing of the innocents who have been detained—and killed—at GTMO.
Some candidates, like Trump’s rival Texas Senator Ted Cruz, don’t believe the treatments outlined in the Senate’s report meet the “definition of torture.” This allows him to issue blanket condemnations of torture, but leave wiggle room for specific tactics and ever-popular hypothetical scenarios. I am not sympathetic to this kind of legalese when it comes to questions of our shared values. Until such time as Sen. Cruz himself experiences stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, or forced rectal feeding and hydration, he doesn’t get to tell us what is and isn’t torture.
The problem with advocating for torture—aside from that it flies in the face of what it means to be the global force for good and that it doesn’t help us complete the mission more effectively, of course—is that it presents a false choice. “We must do this,” Trump and his kind bellow, “or your children will not be safe.” But this simply isn’t true. Rapport-based interrogation works. Human intelligence gathering works. Investing in everything from prevention and messaging to the best capture and kill capabilities works.
We can be strong because of, not in spite of, our values. In fact, that’s exactly what we are.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who bravely suffered through years of brutal torture at the hands of his captors during the Vietnam War, elegantly stated in a speech on the Senate floor that “we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer,” and it does not.
The United States must not torture. Fear in an uncertain world is justified, but we cannot let it drive us to bad policies that do nothing to keep us safe and make us forget who we are as a nation. We must continue to insist that those who wish to lead the free world proudly and unequivocally share our values. Anything less only takes us backward.
Derrik Gay is a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Iraq vet, and a JD/MBA student at Northwestern University. He is also a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. He lives in Chicago and the views expressed are his own.