During the presidential campaign, one of Donald Trump’s big applause lines was about the use of torture on our enemies, particularly terror suspects. During a February 2016 GOP debate he said,
I would bring back waterboarding. And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.
Not long after that he repeated his belief that torture is effective as an interrogation technique, telling a South Carolina audience,
Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works. Okay, folks? Torture — you know, half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works. Okay?
But torture doesn’t work, as most military members and intelligence officers will tell you. And on January 6 almost 200 retired flag rank military officers (generals and admirals) sent the incoming commander in chief a letter asking that he formally renounce the practice.
The January 6 letter starts by noting that the signers have a combined 6,000 years of experience in the military. It goes on to speak of the signers’ strong belief in the “values and ideals that our country holds dear.” Then it cuts to the heart of the matter.
For these reasons, we are concerned about statements made during the campaign about the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. The use of waterboarding or any so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” is unlawful under domestic and international law. Opposition to torture has been strong and bi-partisan since the founding of our republic through the administration of President Ronald Reagan to this very day.
These officers understand several things from experience that Trump just doesn’t get. Not only is torture, by whatever name it is called, unlawful, it simply doesn’t work. General James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Defense Secretary, told Trump that, and these officers agree with him. They call torture “unnecessary” and “counterproductive.”
It increases the risks to our troops, hinders cooperation with allies, alienates populations whose support the United States needs in the struggle against terrorism, and provides a propaganda tool for extremists who wish to do us harm.
The letter ends with an appeal to Trump’s patriotism.
Most importantly, torture violates our core values as a nation. Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution. Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture or detainee abuse of any kind.
Whether Trump will listen to the appeal is anybody’s guess. He has famously said that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. He has criticized current military leadership, even as he prepares to stock his administration with a number of former military leaders.
Trump did waffle a bit on his promise to bring back waterboarding after meeting with Mattis in November. According to reports, Trump was surprised to learn that Mattis doesn’t think very highly of the practice, telling Trump that he has always had more success in interrogations with “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.”
All things considered, it’s likely the letter and Mattis’ comments will do little if anything to change Trump’s mind for one depressing reason: To a certain segment of the population, the thought that American troops are torturing confessions out of terrorists and saving the world like a scene from the show “24” is a positive thing. It makes them feel good. “Core values?” Who cares about core values when you’re attaching electrodes to some terrorist whose core values don’t match yours? A sizable portion of Trump’s followers have a frightening blood lust. Trump, with his boundless desire to be loved by his basket of deplorables, appears more than happy to appease them.