Bringing Torture to US Neighborhoods

On the campaign trail and now in office, President Trump has made his position on torture very clear: It works, and even if it doesn’t, “they deserve it anyway.”

Trump delivered this applause line at a rally in Ohio in late 2015, and again a few months later in South Carolina. In a debate among Republican presidential candidates early last year, he said he would bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Last month, as president, he affirmed his stance, telling ABC News: “We have to fight fire with fire.”

Until the president signs an executive order on the treatment of terrorism suspects, we will not know what his administration’s exact designs are, or if they are legal or achievable. But in at least one significant way, damage has already been done…Trump’s repeated pro-torture statements have already created a more permissive atmosphere for torture. The effects may be felt sooner, and closer to home, than we would like to think.

I and my colleagues Paul Gronke and Peter Miller compiled an archive of American and international public opinion surveys on torture, encompassing individual data from 43 polls released between 2001 and 2015.

According to our research, support for torture has slowly increased in the United States since 2001 …

… We discovered that, when it comes to torture, people appear to be driven more by social cues, superstition, resentment and indecision than by philosophy, morality or rational outcomes … In particular, in our controlled survey experiments, so far we have found that respondents who favor torture don’t care whether it produces a positive or negative security outcome …

… [W]e also found that presidential signaling was the most powerful predictor of where people would stand on the issue. If a president condones torture, those who favor him will support torture. If a president does not, those who favor him will not. The Republican Party’s base is more likely to take cues from President Trump than from other top Republicans, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain …

… There is a long history of soldiers bringing torture techniques into police departments. American soldiers were introduced to waterboarding in the Philippine-American War, for instance, and police interrogators in the United States began using the “water cure” as these veterans returned home. By 1930, the American Bar Assn. had declared the practice common nationwide …

…Chicago police detective, Richard Zuley, has illustrated that police brutality can [also] morph into military misconduct. Zuley exported torture techniques he used over 20 years as a detective on Chicago’s north side to Guantanamo, where he was later stationed as a Navy reserve lieutenant.

As statistical research done by the scholars Avery Schmidt and Kathryn Sikkink has shown, the CIA’s detention program even had deleterious effects on other countries that complied with it. Governments that kidnapped terror suspects for the CIA or hosted black sites subsequently had worse human rights records. Collaboration with the program signaled to local police and soldiers that they may work outside the rules. Call it the Black Site Effect.

Trump’s stance on torture is dangerous regardless of whether he succeeds in reviving its use in the war on terror. His rhetoric can be read by law enforcement as permission to work outside the rules. Fifteen years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, 13 years after the start of the second war in Iraq, and 12 years after the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison came to light, torture may be coming to a neighborhood near you.

Darius Rejali is a Professor of Political Science at Reed College and the author of “Torture and Democracy”. This is an abridged version of an LA Times opinion piece, 19 February 2017. You can see the full version here.

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