Be Afraid, be very Afraid! The Lunatics have taken over the Asylum.
One of the greatest horrors about torture is exactly what President Trump claims, that it works, but not for the reasons that he thinks. It is deeply chilling that the man in charge of the greatest military machine on the planet can make such a frightening claim.
As a person who has worked for half my adult life, getting on for 30 years, to try to eradicate torture, to help the victims of the deliberate infliction of harm, and to give efficacy to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, I am so deeply disturbed at this view. Even more disturbed that he claims that this is supported by his “intelligence chiefs”.
In a country that continuously claims the moral high ground internationally, this cannot be allowed to go unchallenged, but we must remember that this the country that will not ratify the Convention Against Torture nor the Rome Statute. The rationale was bluntly put by a senior official in Madeleine Albright’s office, in answer to a question of mine – about why the US was averse to the ICC – that the US would not recognize any law higher than the US Constitution. My comment in turn was US foreign policy could then only be based on expediency and not moral principle.
However, it does appear that torture is ambiguously forbidden by the US Constitution, and the prohibition against torture has been upheld by US courts since 1890 at least. And internationally, torture has been repudiated by all democratic countries for the very good reason that it does work. It works not because it is a reliable method for getting at the truth or getting information, rather because it is a highly efficient method not only of terrifying people into submission, but even better at causing very long term psychological damage. It is for precisely these reasons that torture has been making a comeback after the halcyon days of the 1990s and the Vienna Conference in Istanbul, a time when many of us thought that we could eradicate the evil.
Torture has terrible long-term effects, and these have been documented in thousands of studies, case reports, human rights reports and court cases. We are in no doubt that torture is a highly effective method of making people very unwell and for a very long time. It was precisely because of torture that Augustine Pinochet was arrested in London and an extremely important case detailed so clearly why torture could never be condoned and was always unlawful.
Ignore the physical effects – the broken bones, the head injuries, the muscular trauma inflicted by falanga (beating on the soles of the feet), the fistulas caused by rape, etc. – not because they are unimportant, but because most of these injuries can be healed or alleviated by good medical treatment. Focus on the psychological damage: post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. Focus on the devastating effects on the family of victims. Focus on the destruction of communities afflicted by organized violence and torture. And focus on the moral collapse on nations in which torture becomes an endemic part of life, and, put all these together, see what is happening in so many countries in the world. And see why transitional justice (which America seems so frightened of) is a preoccupation for so many countries, Zimbabwe included.
Hannah Arendt, in her important analysis of Nazi atrocities, pointed out that evil can become banal, routine even, and this is the frightening prospect of what lies behind Trump’s immensely stupid statement. Where is the line drawn in the use of torture? Well, only for terrorists? Or, how about violent criminals? Or, how about drug pushers and human traffickers? What about illegal immigrants who might be violent criminals, or drug merchants or human traffickers? The slope is exceedingly slippery, especially when the state begins to define itself in opposition to enemies rather than in pursuit of principle, morals and values.
It is for this reason that civilized nations made the prohibition against torture absolute: there are no exceptions ever, not even in time of war or severe threat to the state. As the international declarations, covenants and conventions all state this, you cannot use torture ever!
Never mind the evident stupidity in Trump claiming that it “works”, and the notion behind it that it will help in fighting “terrorism” when the terrorists that he and so much of America fear are willing to kill themselves willingly. So the fantasy that a captured Muslim “terrorist” will spill the beans on his plans and his associates because he is tortured is just arrant nonsense, and it was the same argument that the Israelis used to justify “moderately severe treatment” in the 1990s. The civilized world condemned that virtually without exception. But I suppose that hooding Donald Trump and pouring water over his head until he starts suffocating probably would work, but then he might not be the epitome of a dedicated activist just an over-privileged and over-opinionated narcissist, as Judith Herman and other mental health professionals have pointed out.
In 1948, and driven by the immense energy of a remarkable American, Eleanor Roosevelt, the world took a deep breath and began the process with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of agreeing to stop the growth of barbarism that had emerged in the world. In 1998, 50 years later, the US Congress passed a bill, sponsored by Chris Smith from New Jersey, which became the Torture Victims Relief Act, and has been the source of the majority of assistance to torture victims across the world. Through support to organisations in the US offering treatment to tortured refugees, through the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture, and through USAID and other channels, tens of thousands of victims have been able to overcome the disabilities inflicted by torture.
Nearly 70 years later, another American begins to unravel it all. We can only hope that the wise heads will prevail and this idiocy will go the way of much of the other idiocy that Trump promises the world. “America First” should be a slogan for leading the way in development, human rights and good governance, not a third-rate slogan for buying cars. Would you buy a used car from this man? I wouldn’t.
Tony Reeler 27.01.17