Torture Stance of US as of January 27, 2017

From The Guardian’s report of the press conference yesterday with Prime Minister Theresa May and the President:

“Trump also appeared to moderate his stance on torture, suggesting that while he still believes ‘enhanced interrogation’ works, he would defer to the views of his defense secretary, James Mattis, who has previously said he does not believe such methods are effective.

Referring to Secretary Mattis, Trump said: ‘He has stated publicly that he does not necessarily believe in torture, waterboarding, or however you want to define it. I don’t necessarily agree, but I can tell you that he will override me, because I’m giving him that power.'”[1]

My first reaction on reading this today was gratitude for this small ray of hope that the United States will not brazenly, boastfully, and defiantly publicly return to a policy of torture.

Of course, there are a few nuances that temper that bit of hope:

1. The argument is framed on whether torture works, not on whether it is wrong. Therefore, it implies that if torture did work, well, then, the fact that it tramples on international understanding of human rights law and basic minimum respect for human dignity would not matter. It implies that the dangerous reciprocal repercussions for our own people who may find themselves in unfriendly hands would not be enough reason to disavow the practice. It implies that we would be willing, as a nation and a people, to embrace and nurture that element of darkness.

But, if Secretary Mattis knowingly selected that as the most effective of the arguments against torture for this current situation, then perhaps he chose wisely.

2. The President demonstrated a need to shore up his public claim of absolute power and control. This is seen in the last sentence of the quote — in both its words and its structure. The reassurance offered to the international (and national?) community that Secretary Mattis has the power to override the President on the issue of torture is sandwiched between two negating statements. The sentence ends with the words “because I am giving him that power,” reminding us that what the President giveth, he can taketh. To underscore that possible taking away, the sentence begins with the President’s statement of personal belief: “I don’t necessarily agree [that torture is ineffective].”

3. The President twice qualifies Secretary Mattis’ position on the ineffectiveness of torture. He says “[Mattis] has stated publicly [the President wants us to wonder what Secretary Mattis has said privately, behind closed doors — does he have one public position and a different private position?] that he does not necessarily [negating the rest of this sentence] believe in torture.” While the use of the words “not necessarily” do fit with the President’s previously demonstrated speech patterns, the effect is clear — the President has us wondering, “Well, does Secretary Mattis believe or not believe in the effectiveness of torture? We don’t know. If his beliefs are not firm, could he be swayed to change them by the President?”

Mind you, this is not Secretary Mattis speaking for himself. This is the President telling us what is in the mind of Secretary Mattis. Only Secretary Mattis can speak to that with authority.

4. Finally, the President is dismissive of the gravity of the subject (torture). The compound description of the subject, “torture, waterboarding, or however you want to define it,” is a method of minimization. It is equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders and a casual “whatever” response to a voiced concern. The President’s message is, “Relaaaaxxx. It’s no big deal.”

It is a big deal. It is a big deal for the victim, the person ordering it to be carried out on a specific individual, the person inflicting it on a fellow human being pursuant to such an order, the witnesses, the family and friends of all of these aforementioned individuals, and the society that accepts and, therefore, condones it.

Even if the argument centers on effectiveness rather than dignity and morality, I prefer this direction, disavowing torture, especially if it is strengthened and demonstrated in our corresponding behavior in the days ahead.


[1] Heather Stewart, Theresa May says Nato has 100% support of Donald Trump, The Guardian, Kindle Edition, January 28, 2017, at Top Stories.