During the Republican primary campaigns, we heard heavy criticism of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump for their views on torture. Since Cruz withdrew and Trump wrapped up the nomination, these criticisms have shifted to Trump the Man. Trump’s argument is that if ISIS uses torture, we should be able to use it, too. He says that we fight at a disadvantage if we do not use the same methods they do. He implies one-hand-tied-behind-my-back comparisons with boxing: if you fight a strong opponent at a significant disadvantage, you can’t win.
We have seen this argument applied to warfare many times. We say that’s why warfare so readily becomes nasty – it is the purest descent of human behavior into hell due to tit-for-tat behavior. Imagine a reverse golden rule: to win, do unto others what you would never, ever want them to do to you. If both sides fight by that rule – and they do: for revenge, intimidation, and because a fight to the death doesn’t rule anything out – little significance attaches to who initially violates rules of war. Both sides fight as dirty as the other, no matter how the turpitude starts, and the ugliness rapidly becomes worse.
Trump says we should recognize this reality and fight accordingly. If ISIS tortures their prisoners, why shouldn’t we torture ours? Do we want to win or not? I do not agree with Trump’s view, or his reasoning. I just want to state the position less crudely than he would. Then you can begin to think about the consequences of fighting this way, whether it actually does make victory more likely, and whether inviolable moral prohibitions exist that preempt these consequential and pragmatic considerations.
I’m not going to pursue those arguments here, though. I only want to compare reporters’ criticisms of Cruz and now Trump, during the Republican primary campaigns, with the restraint these characters showed back when people at the top of our government advocated torture, independent of our enemies’ behavior. Where were the righteous journalists then? Why didn’t we hear them criticize these advocates when it mattered, before we set a precedent that could never be reversed?
Recall that Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush, Antonin Scalia, Donald Rumsfeld, and many other top officials in Bush’s administration said that torture is both justified and effective. They did not base their position on our enemies’ behavior at all. As they suggested in one piece of propaganda after another, it’s all about us.
First they tried to argue, through John Yoo’s torture memo and other documents, that what they wanted to do was not torture at all. They played legal word games to define torture as something else. When that didn’t work, they essentially said, “Look, it doesn’t matter what you call it. We have to do these things because it’s the only way to prevent the next attack, and to punish the people who have already done so much damage to us.” They intended torture as a legitimate tool for prosecution of their war on terror. Don’t tell us we can’t do it, they added.
These high officials apparently expected prospective critics in the media to keep their mouths shut, and for the most part they did. Only alternate commentary showed how their ideas about treatment of prisoners is utterly indefensible, morally vicious, and plainly false. Two factors explain most of this mainstream silence: 1) you don’t argue with the president or the president’s lackeys; 2) the Manichean vision of foreign affairs after 9/11, which high officials deployed to remind everyone else that if you’re not with us, the gods on Olympus, you’re against us.
Donald Trump is not on high yet, so he’s more vulnerable in everything he says. His reasoning differs from the Bush crowd’s reasoning, though it is no more tenable. Significantly, journalists hold him to account when he supports waterboarding and other torture methods that masquerade as interrogation. They did not do so with our president and his stooges the first time around, more than ten years ago. That makes you think, if Trump were to become president, they would hold their pens the second time around as well. For them, deference to high officials seems to precede their own ideal: to hold people in power to account for what they do.