Of all the things I ever anticipated about the pursuit of opinion journalism, having to argue against torture was not one of them.
And yet here we are again. The Bush-Cheney White House took advantage of the panicked aftermath to 9/11 to make the torture of captured Islamic extremists national policy, and had the CIA put together a secret international gulag in which to work their will out of sight.
There’s probably a psychoanalytic explanation for all this—Bush and Cheney’s guilt over failure to prevent the deaths of so many Americans; perhaps panic over the blow to their masculinity delivered by the terrorist attacks. It doesn’t really matter, because what does count is what we knew then and since have relearned: Morality and humanity aside, interrogation under torture just doesn’t work.
That hasn’t kept support for torture from becoming one of those symbolic macho markers that would-be tough guys use to identify themselves as alpha dogs in the political pack.
In Saturday night’s televised Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump (has there ever been a candidate who spent as much time telling us how tough and smart he is?) said that, if elected, he will resume the use of torture. On Sunday, he told ABC’s “This Week” host, George Stephanopoulos, that he would not only authorize waterboarding, but also “worse than that.”
When Stephanopoulos asked whether the blowhard developer thinks the United States can defeat terrorists by being “more like them,” Trump had this to say: “Yes, I’m sorry. You have to do it that way. We are living in a time that is more evil than any time that’s ever been.”
I guess Trump was out making money—or perhaps boning up on the bankruptcy laws—the day his history class learned about Babi Yar, Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau. Since he seems to have missed the entire Nazi reign of terror and genocide, it’s probably too much to expect him to recall a little detail like the appalling case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was the Al Qaeda mastermind behind 9/11, as well as numerous other notorious terrorist attacks, including the first bombing of the World Trade Center. He also personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. For the past 13 years, he has been sitting in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Our government hasn’t been able to bring Mohammed to trial because after he was captured in Pakistan he was subjected to various forms of torture, including 183 waterboarding sessions. The only thing the CIA interrogators got for their trouble was an elaborate series of lies, which—according to a Senate report on the case—had our anti-terrorism units chasing their tails on at least two continents. His confessions to 9/11 and Pearl’s murder were not obtained under torture, but the fact of his treatment has made the worst terrorist villain ever to fall into our hands untriable in any U.S. court.
In this case, the only person to benefit from torture has been Mohammed the murderous terrorist.
Meanwhile, over the past eight years, the Obama Administration has brought a whole series of violent Islamic extremists to trial in ordinary federal criminal court, made a case against them according to the rules of due process and convicted them one after another.
Sunday, Trump told Stephanopoulos that waterboarding is no big deal anyway because terrorists don’t consider it “real torture.”
As my former colleague Dexter Filkins reported in the New Yorker, “The details of Mohammed’s interrogation, described. . .by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, make for grim, even sickening reading. During Mohammed’s waterboarding sessions, C.I.A. officers reported that he ‘yelled and twisted, seemed to lose control,’ and became ‘somewhat frantic.’ The purpose of the waterboarding appears to have been to bring Mohammed as close as possible to death without actually killing him.
As one C.I.A. medical officer who presided over the torture wrote, “In the new technique we are basically doing a series of near drownings.”
“On March 12, 2003, during a waterboarding session, so much water was forced into Mohammed that his ‘abdomen was somewhat distended and he expressed water when the abdomen was pressed,’ the Senate report says, quoting from a C.I.A. cable. One of the medical officers present said that, even though Mohammed was vomiting during the sessions, his ‘gastric contents’ had become so diluted that he was ‘not concerned about regurgitated gastric acid damaging KSM’s esophagus.’”
Instead, the medical officer said, he was worried that Mohammed had been filled with so much water that there was a danger that the electrolytes in his blood had become dangerously diluted; the officer requested that C.I.A. interrogators use salted water during the waterboarding sessions.”
Trump told ABC that the terrorists “think we are so stupid, you have no idea.” Actually, yes we do, since it’s clear that Republican presidential candidates think the same.