Trump boasted in the campaign that he would order the US military to use worse than waterboarding. It was part of his trademark brutal rhetoric. Was it just rhetoric? It was pointed out to him that the military might refuse to follow unlawful orders. ”Trust me they will obey my orders” he said. Trust is one thing that Trump definitely does not deserve.
Trump says that torture works. He is right that it sometimes works. Some people in the British intelligence services have made the unashionable observation that sometimes torture does elicit real information. If you arrest a suspect and ask her where the explosives are hidden and she gives you a location which you then search. You would then verify that she spoke the truth and torture would have been effectual.
It is the case that torture can induce people to invent things. A person will say anything to abate the agony. This is why many people are opposed to torture on grounds other than moral ones. Some people argue that quite apart from torture being unethical it is also ineffectual.
Is waterboarding torture? It surely meets that standard as set out in the Convention Against Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment. It causes severe mental suffering.
One of the most disturbing aspects of waterboarding by the US is that it was used on innocent people. If it had only been employed against very wicked men as we were certain that these individuals were the guilty ones then it would not unsettle me much. 25% of those waterboarded were later proved innocent. PROVED INNOCENT! That does not mean that the other 75% were all guilty. Some of that 75% were guilty but some were proved neither guilty nor innocent. The presumption of innocence must work in their favour. The % of those waterboarded who were blameless was over 25%. Shockingly Cheney said he lost not a wink of sleep over this. This exhibits a ghastly and callous attitude to the willful infliction of acute suffering.
Torture can bring out life saving information. That does not necessarily make it ethical. That is certainly insufficient to make it lawful. I do not understand how the United States can argue that water boarding is lawful. No country is entirely law abiding and the USA is by no means the worst. The US has at least told the truth that it has used water boarding. It has tried to come up with a legal rationale for it. These decisions have been scrutinised in Congress. For all this the United States deserves a little credit.
Leon Pannetta the former head of the CIA is one of those who had spoken out vehemently against waterboarding. He says that is leads to a suspect spewing out disinformation just to induce the water boarder to desist. Moreover, waterboarding alienates world opinion. It means that US troops who fall into enemy hands can expect similar treatment. Some pro water boarders say this happens anyway but does it? The very few US troops captured in Afghanistan and Iraq were seldom if ever subjected to torture. The use of water boarding by the United States would run the risk of the whole CAT structure falling apart. Some countries breach the CAT flagrantly. However, on the whole the world is moving against torture. If Trump takes a retrograde step it could cause the world to move back towards the dark ages.
In an armed conflict one always acts in a morally suboptimal manner. One cannot always avoid killing civilians. If a war could be shortened by hurting people – maybe psychologically and not physically – would that be ethical? I argue that it would. These distasteful methods of fighting could save lives perhaps countless lives.