Trump’s ‘tough’ talk on torture is nothing to laugh about

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Trump’s ‘tough’ talk on torture is nothing to laugh about

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At first, I thought it was pretty funny. I laughed at his absurd quotes, his talk show appearances, his South Park parody episode.

Then, as the months dragged on and nothing seemed to change, I thought, okay. Enough is enough. Like many people, I grew less amused and more disgusted with his antics. His comments became less comical, and more sexist, racist and xenophobic. Worse, he had found a following; he was growing in the polls, and they were taking him seriously. He had inadvertently tapped into some dark, murky undercurrent running through American society, and he wasn’t going to stop pumping up the sludge until it flooded the surface. Somehow, the idea of him as president didn’t seem so funny any more.

Now Donald Trump is talking about torture, and I’ve stopped laughing altogether.

“I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he boldly claimed at the latest GOP debate.

What disturbs me is not Trump saying something preposterous. What disturbs me is how we—candidates, reporters, voters—have allowed the issue of torture to enter the messy realm of partisan politics. Not one of the other GOP candidates has bothered to challenge Trump’s comments. In fact, many of them have expressed varying degrees of support for a return to Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” tactics. Now, at the provocation of Trump, the presidential hopefuls are trying to “outdo” one another on the issue of torture.

The early years of the war on terror were a dark time in American history. If the GOP candidates are serious about returning to it, they should at least have an inkling of what they are talking about.

In a famous 2008 article for Vanity Fair called “Believe Me, It’s Torture,” journalist Christopher Hitchens voluntarily underwent waterboarding and described his experience firsthand. The process was conducted by members of U.S. Special Forces, who normally trained American soldiers to resist if waterboarded by enemy captors. Hitchens had a hood placed over his head and was strapped to a table in the decline position, with his head towards the ground and his feet in the air. Three heavy, damp cloths were placed over his face. He describes as the soldiers pour water over the cloths, which clung to his open mouth as he struggled to breathe. Panicking, he was unable to tell if he was breathing in or out and gave them the signal to stop. Even though his participation was voluntary, investigative and carefully monitored, Hitchens lasted only a few moments.

When details about waterboarding first emerged, the U.S. government did its best to obfuscate the nature of waterboarding. But Hitchens was unequivocal about what it really was: “You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, that it ‘simulates’ the feeling of drowning. That is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The ‘board’ is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered.”

But Trump doesn’t want to settle for just waterboarding. He’s been promising something a “hell of a lot worse.” So far he has refused to elucidate his comment with specifics. Fortunately, there’s plenty to choose from in the CIA’s torture toolbox.

Is he thinking of stress positions, in which prisoners could be shackled and forced to maintain postures designed to place all of their body weight on one or two muscles for more than 40 hours?

I’m curious, would Trump prefer his prisoners’ cells to be kept pitch-black, or flooded with bright lights and white noise to force sleep deprivation for up to 72 hours?

Perhaps he’d like to chain half-naked detainees to a cold concrete floor, until they literally freeze to death, like Gul Ruhman did in 2002.

What about more physical violence, such as slaps or punches? Or medically-unnecessary rectal feeding and hydration? Threats to kill prisoners’ children and sexually assault their mothers?

If these descriptions disturb you, they should. These are all forms of “enhanced interrogation” prisoners have experienced at the hands of U.S. forces around the world, in places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the CIA black site codenamed “Salt Pit.”

Waterboarding is not an “enhanced interrogation.” It is not a campaign buzzword or partisan promise. It is not an opportunity for saber-rattling, talking tough, or pissing contests. It is not a word to be thrown around lightly.

It is torture—legally, ethically, definitively.