No Comeback for Torture – It’s Never Gone Away

Donald Trump used his first nationally televised interview as president to declare his firm belief that “torture works.” Of course, as innumerable studies have shown, torture doesn’t “work” at all – if by “work” you mean the gathering of credible information. However, for Trump's purposes, torture will work very well indeed.  Thomas Jones, writing in the London Review of Books, points out this apt quote from Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation by Professor Shane O’Mara:

“The usual purpose of torture by state actors has not been the extraction of intentionally withheld information in the long-term memory systems of the noncompliant and unwilling. Instead, its purposes have been manifold: the extraction of confessions under duress, the subsequent validation of a suborned legal process by the predeterminedly guilty (‘they confessed!’), the spreading of terror, the acquisition and maintenance of power, the denial of epistemic beliefs.”

Gosh, it sorta makes you wish there had been some magical way for somebody -- say, the most powerful man on earth -- to have prosecuted American torturers during the last eight years, setting a clear, public example that such blatant evil would never again be tolerated in a civilized society. It's just so unfortunate that the White House and Justice Department were left empty from January 2009 to January 2017, and there was no one around to, you know, actually uphold the law. Darn the luck, eh?

But of course, there WAS someone in the White House during those years — and he and his minions used torture on an extensive scale. For example, it has been well documented that many thousands of children (and adults) have been psychological scarred by living under the constant threat of drone attack. This has been particularly true in Pakistan, where medical staff tell of children traumatized by the fear of the drones that constantly bombarded remote villages, especially in the earlier years of Obama’s presidency. Often the drones would simply sit in the sky above a village for hours on end, coming back for days on end, floating, buzzing, liable to let loose carnage at any moment. It is an exquisite form of torture, the equivalent of tying someone up then walking round and round them day and night while pointing a hair-trigger pistol at their head. And Obama inflicted this on hundreds of thousands of people, day after day, year after year. To what purpose? Why, the “spreading of terror,” of course.

It was also done on a smaller scale. Take the case of Chelsea Manning. The use of solitary confinement has been ruled an act of torture. Manning was subjected to this torture repeatedly. (As are thousands of ordinary prisoners across the country every day.) There was no other reason for the use of this torture in the high-profile Manning case than “the spreading of terror”: a stark warning to anyone else who might be thinking of revealing American war crimes to the world. Obama’s treatment of Manning was repulsive, base and evil — yet you’ll never see Meryl Streep waxing with moral outrage about it.

(And now Trump too has been bashing Manning, labelling her outright as a “traitor,” although of course she wasn’t charged with or convicted of treason. Trump’s words — the President publicly calling someone a traitor — could easily lead to Manning’s death, as some “patriot” out there takes it upon themselves to carry out the “proper” sentence for a “traitor.” She could also face death or maltreatment even before being released — due to Obama’s bizarre decision to delay her release until May, giving her five months under Trump’s tender care.)

But let’s be clear: whatever he does, Trump will not be bringing torture “back”: it’s never gone away.