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Trump’s Stance on Torture Is Still Dangerous

Even if the president doesn't bring back black sites, his rhetoric is a menace unto itself.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In March 1900, a member of the 32nd United States Volunteers stationed in the Philippines wrote a letter that was later published in his hometown newspaper, the Omaha World. He’d been ordered to question Filipino insurgents about secret weapon stashes. “Now this is the way we give them the water cure,” he wrote of his favored interrogation method. “Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot. Then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose...They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it’s a terrible torture.”

Although the letter sparked outrage in activist circles, many public officials brushed the accusations aside two years later during Senate hearings investigating the atrocities committed in the Philippine-American War. Even Theodore Roosevelt seemed nonchalant. “The enlisted men began to use the old Filipino method of mild torture, the water cure,” he wrote to a German friend in 1902. “Nobody was seriously damaged.”

Within decades, the water cure—an excruciating technique used during the Spanish Inquisition—began showing up in police investigations across the United States. Military personnel used it on conscientious objectors during the First World War, and police in the 1920s inflicted a similar technique, called pumping on prisoners. When Herbert Hoover convened the Wickersham Commission in 1929 to look into the rapid expansion of organized crime syndicates in the United States, it found rampant use of torture in American police departments. They called it “the third degree.”

Almost a century later, President Donald Trump has shown that he, too, is open to torture. “We have to fight fire with fire,” Trump told ABC News. In late January, the Associated Press and other news organizations obtained a leaked draft of an executive order that asked for recommendations on whether to reopen the CIA’s black sites, where detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the early years in the Bush administration.

The debate has centered around the black sites themselves, secret detention centers scattered across Poland, Romania, Morocco, and other countries, where detainees were shackled, forced to remain awake, locked in confined spaces, subjected to waterboarding, chained to a floor overnight, even frozen to death.

But those sites, which were shuttered in 2009 by former President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13491, may not be the most pressing issue at hand. Most politicians and scholars now agree that Washington did not collect reliable national security intelligence through torture during the so-called war on terror. Now, there’s strong opposition to the practice within the national security community. James Mattis, the incoming secretary of defense, has told Trump that waterboarding is far less effective than a “pack of cigarettes and a couple beers.” Former CIA Director Michael Hayden was even more blunt last spring: “If you want somebody waterboarded,” he said in February, “bring your own damn bucket.” Even the Trump administration has backed away, for now, from the possibility of reopening the black sites via executive order.

But Trump’s stance on torture is still dangerous, and the consequences may be far closer to home than most people realize. As Theodore Roosevelt did in 1902, Trump has created what scholars call “a permissive atmosphere” for torture. And because Americans tend to look to their leaders to tell them what’s acceptable on issues like torture, Trump may have opened the door for law enforcement to use harsher tactics in police interrogations. There are plenty of recent examples of secret detention facilities in the United States, where law enforcement officers used torture on their prisoners. The danger is that Trump’s reckless language could spark a resurgence.

Darius Rejali, a political science professor at Reed College, has been studying a phenomenon called transference for years now. Soldiers exposed to torture during wartime occasionally bring those techniques back to the United States when they reenter civilian life as detectives, correctional officers, or private security guards. As Rejali recounts in his 2009 book Torture and Democracy, transference happened once after the Philippine Insurgency, and a second time in Chicago when a commanding officer named Jon Burge and his detectives used torture to extract confessions from over 200 suspects between 1972 and 1991.

As investigative journalist John Conroy has reported, Burge had served in Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta, where soldiers routinely used army field phones to shock prisoners. When Burge returned to Chicago and joined the police force, he and his cronies used similar devices to shock their suspects. The scandal so compromised law enforcement that a decade after the Chicago Police Department expelled Burge from the force in 1993, George Ryan, the Illinois governor, commuted the death sentences of all 167 death row inmates in the state.

Still, these tactics have continued to be in use. In 2015, the Guardian reported that Richard Zuley, a former detective who left the Chicago force to conduct interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, had practiced many of the same interrogation techniques on prisoners in Chicago between 1977 and 2007. Also in 2015, the Guardian uncovered evidence that Chicago detectives were stashing prisoners away at a black site called Homan Square, where they conducted interrogations without booking suspects or allowing them access to a lawyer.

Trump has only heightened the risk that these domestic black sites could crop up with greater frequency. “He’s a true believer in torture, a sincere believer, and is completely untroubled by any moral qualms about its use,” says Alberto Mora, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights. That’s worrying because, according to Rejali, people tend to look to public figures to tell them what to believe on thorny moral issues like abortion, the death penalty, and, in this case, torture. This is the danger of Donald Trump telling people, “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would, in a heartbeat...Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.”

Rejali estimates that hundreds, possibly thousands, of the soldiers returning to the United States from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw torture firsthand. As always, many will find work as police officers or in security services, and Trump’s example might prompt some of them to consider using harsher tactics in interrogations. This is just one of the reasons that Trump’s strange assertion that Mattis’s views on torture will “override” his own just isn’t good enough.

More disturbing still, public support for torture is already at the highest levels it’s been in decades. “The Bush administration broke the back of the norm against torture,” Mora says. “Before September 11, this was not an issue. The people believed that we should not use torture either internationally or domestically.” In fact, according to recent research, support for torture never exceeded 50 percent in the Bush era. Since 2009, however, a majority has thought it should be allowed. The shift is most pronounced among Republicans: In 2004, only four in ten Republicans supported it. By 2012, eight in ten did. Trump has played to that growing segment of his base on the campaign trail, voicing their desire for retribution. “It works. Believe me, it works,” Trump said in Columbus, Ohio, in November 2015. “And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”

“All our research shows that people look to their leaders for cues,” Rejali said. “By taking the position that he does, Trump has created a permissive atmosphere for violence to occur. It’s a standard problem. When a leader says, ‘Yes, we can do this,’ there’s a cultural shift in what’s permissible.”

It is looking more likely that torture will not be the official policy of the Trump administration, and that’s a relief. At the same time, the unofficial endorsement of torture creates a different set of problems, encouraging law enforcement officials to go around rules that the president has deemed to be ridiculous, unnecessary, or even a threat to safety. Torture may be illegal in America, but that didn’t stop officials in the Bush administration, and it certainly seems like a flimsy legal safeguard in the Trump era.

The solution is to not only win the debate over torture, but to discredit its most prominent champion. Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, says we have “to recognize and explain over and over again that the debate about effectiveness is a debased debate. Torture is always illegal and immoral.” Furthermore, the work that’s been done to resist Trump on all fronts—from the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., to the rallies at airports across the country—has both pushed the needle on issues like the Muslim ban and pulled down Trump’s approval ratings to unprecedented lows. Delegitimizing Trump may help counter his stance on torture, too, associating the practice with his special brand of corruption. “The skepticism and rejection of his extreme policies, especially with regard to the Muslim ban, hopefully continues to cross over in this context,” Shamsi says.