Nearly all the Republican presidential candidates favor a relaxation of America’s ban on torture. If one of them wins the election, the brutal practice will once again become business as usual.
The first primary election takes place a week from now in the state of Iowa. By this summer, Democrats and Republicans alike, across the nation, will decide on their presidential candidate.
A good dozen Republicans are competing against each other. To hear them talk is inevitably to be transported back in time to the year 2002: the era of the devastating terrorist attacks and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.
Suddenly, a new subject pops up, one assumed to have been long since settled. Because of global terrorist threats made by the Islamic State, al-Qaida and others, many Republican candidates are advocating for a relaxation of the strict anti-torture prohibitions President Obama put into effect in 2009, at the start of his second term.
As president, Donald Trump – real estate billionaire and, according to surveys, the far right candidate with the best chance of winning the nomination – would, for example, bring back the banned practice of simulated drowning, otherwise known as waterboarding.
Jeb Bush, Florida’s ex-governor – the favorite of the Republican establishment and brother of “torture president” George W. Bush – won’t categorically exclude torture as an interrogation technique. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t even consider simulated drowning to be torture at all.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, currently in third place among the candidates, goes even further, saying anything goes in order to get information from suspected terrorists.
Exactly seven years ago, in January 2009, President Obama prohibited certain brutal practices the CIA was using to carry out interrogations. Legally, these practices constituted torture and, therefore, were strictly forbidden. Along with waterboarding, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation were also classified as torture.
But an executive order isn’t a law passed by Congress, and it is therefore potentially subject to reversal by Obama’s successor. Congress recognized that distinction and, while Democrats still had a majority, passed the anti-torture measure as a law, with support from some Republicans.
The Senate Intelligence Committee released a harrowing report in December 2014 concerning the CIA’s use of torture. Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein, at that time the committee head, described the use of torture as “far more brutal than people were led to believe.” Briton Ben Emmerson, U.N. Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, described it as a “criminal conspiracy.”
However, to date, no one has been charged with torture in an American or international court. And neither is likely to happen in the future. A majority of Americans still believe torture is permissible under certain extreme circumstances. Up to now, Bush and the others responsible for ordering these brutal interrogation measures show no sense of guilt. On the contrary, they still insist their actions were legal.
John Yoo, a law professor and a member of the Department of Justice advisory team that helped formulate the infamous torture guidelines, maintains to this day that one can only talk of torture when the pain caused reaches the level of serious physical damage such as organ failure, bodily injury or even death. Or when the intended mental suffering was considerable and lasted months or even years.
Yoo and his colleagues provided detailed written guidelines of the actions that, in their opinion, were permissible. These ranged from slapping with an open hand and spread fingers to days of sleep deprivation and simulated drowning.
A majority of the Republican presidential candidates share that interpretation, with only one dissenter: Ted Cruz, who in regard to other political matters is far to the right of the rest of the field and who is currently running in second place behind Donald Trump. He says, “America does not need torture to protect ourselves.”
It leads one to suspect Republicans only respect the constitutional prohibition concerning cruel and unusual punishment if such inhumane acts are committed against themselves or their families.
In his biography, Cruz describes how Batista’s henchmen beat his father: “They bashed in his front teeth until they dangled from his mouth.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, is an outspoken opponent of torture. As a prisoner of war, he was severely tortured by the North Vietnamese.
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