It’s instructive to go beyond the headlines and read the transcript of Donald Trump’s ABC interview. The first thing to note is that he did indeed say, of torture, that “it does work”.
That’s quite a thing for a President to assert – and startling in his use of a frankness which is rare for the topic. Back in the days of the Bush administration, euphemisms ruled the roost. Suspects were acquired via “extraordinary rendition”, definitely not kidnapped, they were taken to “black sites”, definitely not secret prisons, and they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, definitely not torture. “The US does not torture,” the then President declared, arguing that waterboarding was just “tough”. (Christopher Hitchens memorably disagreed with Bush after voluntarily undergoing the “technique” himself.)
Trump deploys no such evasions. In the interview, he doesn’t challenge the term “torture” when it’s used in questions, and switches freely from discussions of the broad concept to the specific idea of waterboarding without the pretence that the two are any different.
That isn’t surprising. He’s a man who prides himself on plain speaking, and who said during the primaries that he’d like to “bring back waterboarding, and [to] bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”. The last few days have already disabused those hoping he would turn out to be a liar (a grim hope to rely on in the first place), and this is just another piece of evidence that his views haven’t suddenly changed since the election.
It’s inherently bad news that the President of the United States thinks torture works – it doesn’t, as his own Secretary of State for Defense, James Mattis, has said – or that even if it did it would be wise to deploy. Torture is not a consequence-free act – it denies anyone who uses it their simultaneous claim to be championing good or freedom, and we have seen vividly in recent years how it hands a propaganda tool to those who wish to destroy us. When Trump says
“…when they’re chopping off the heads of our people and other people, when they’re chopping off the heads of people because they happen to be a Christian in the Middle East, when ISIS is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since Medieval times, would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned we have to fight fire with fire.”
he makes a case for America to act like ISIS in order to defeat them. ISIS themselves, as well as the rest of America’s enemies, already seek to drag the United States down by false claims that it acts like a tyranny. The harm that would be done by the White House making those claims truthful should be obvious. If it isn’t, only think of the two words on the lips of every Islamist the world over: Abu Ghraib (coincidentally, the location where ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was reportedly held in 2004).
If torture worked, reliably extracting vital truths, it still wouldn’t be morally right. If it worked and free nations felt it to be morally right, it still wouldn’t be a good idea to hand an endlessly powerful propaganda card to their enemies – our soldiers and citizens would die in greater numbers as a result. In reality, it fails on all three counts.
But return to the ABC transcript and you’ll find that Trump isn’t as interested in actually reintroducing torture as he is in talking about it. He clearly knows the legal quagmire such a policy would get bogged down in – “I wanna do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally.” And he is willing to defer to his team, who oppose torture, on the topic:
“I will rely on General Mattis. And I’m gonna rely on those two people and others. And if they don’t wanna do it, it’s 100 percent okay with me. Do I think it works? Absolutely.”
If so, why keep asserting that it works? For two reasons – he believes it, and his voters agree with him.
During the pre-inauguration concert, country star Toby Keith performed his hit song, Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, which was inspired by 9/11 and promises vengeance on those behind the attacks. It was a huge hit because it speaks directly to the American soul, paying off with the line “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”. Like the sentiment or not – understand it or not, even – that’s the feeling Trump’s argument about “fight[ing] fire with fire” speaks to. Even if he ends up not doing anything about it, he will take every chance he can get to publicly argue on the topic – it won’t be putting off his fans one bit.