At the Republican Presidential Town Hall this week Donald Trump talked about the new moral climate that has been introduced by ISIS:
“They’re chopping off the heads of people. This hasn’t happened since medieval times. We need a certain toughness….”
First off, if Donald Trump believes the kind of barbarism being perpetuated by ISIS has not existed since medieval times, then his disconnection from the world is only a step or two away from Marie Antoinette’s infamous (and blessedly apocryphal) quip: “Let them eat cake.”
But more to the point: how does Donald Trump plan to respond to this barbarism? He already gave an answer. It was during the New Hampshire debate when the topic of waterboarding came up.
However, before we proceed, just what is waterboarding?
Waterboarding is a procedure which seeks to induce the sensation of drowning in the victim. It was adopted by US intelligence in the wake of 9/11, apparently a product of Dick Cheney’s infamous quip of September 16, 2001: “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will.”
In 2008, during the height of the debate over whether waterboarding constitutes a form of torture, journalist Christopher Hitchens submitted to being waterboarded. His response was unequivocal: it is torture. Here is the video of the procedure to which he was subjected:
Is it really any surprise that the experience of drowning constitutes a form of torture?
Ted Cruz the Liar
However, when Ted Cruz was asked about waterboarding at the New Hampshire debate he expressed his reluctant willingness to employ it as a method. But lest you think this means Cruz endorses torture, he then added that it isn’t torture based on the following statement: “Under the law, torture is excruciating pain equivalent to losing organs and systems.”
Note the wordsmithing here. What is “equivalent to” supposed to mean? On one interpretation, Cruz means that torture requires the actual destruction of organs and bodily systems. But that’s a ridiculous definition, one which isn’t recognized by the UN or the Red Cross. And think about this: on this interpretation, ramming bamboo shoots under your fingernails doesn’t constitute torture. But this is absurd. (If you don’t believe me, ask somebody to ram bamboo shoots under your fingernails and then get back to me.)
So what’s the other interpretation of “equivalent to”? On the second interpretation, it could mean a degree of suffering that approximates the kind of intense suffering that would regularly lead to the loss of system function, even if in this case it doesn’t do so. But note how highly subjective this is. Who is to say that the repeated experience of drowning is not equivalent to the kind of suffering that would lead to the loss of system function?
Ted Cruz has a very long and distinguished legal career. In other words, he knows what he’s saying. He’s no buffoon. His words are well chosen. Consequently, he knows that this answer is ambiguous and that the ambiguity in question cannot pratically be teased apart and rebutted on the debate stage.
In short, his answer amounts to an intentionally ambiguous response that is either obviously false (first interpretation) or unjustified and probably indefensible (second interpretation). And he provides this deplorable response as a way to appear both humane and tough on terrorism all while endorsing the barbarism of waterboarding. This kind of response should be called out for what it is: misleading and thus deceptive. Since he knows full well what he is doing, this makes Ted Cruz a liar.
Donald Trump the Brute
What about Donald Trump? Thankfully here things are more straightforward. The Donald doesn’t need to worry about idiosyncratic and deceptive definitions of torture. Instead, he boldly insisted in the debate that he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”. In other words, Trump promises that simulating drowning is nothing compared to what he will do to suspected enemy combatants. (Just make sure they really are guilty Donald, unlike that poor cabbie that was tortured to death by American soldiers.)
But hold on. What does “a lot worse” mean, Mr. Trump?
Well, Mr. Trump, if you’re lacking for ideas, perhaps you might want to revisit the medieval era, the same period where they were regularly chopping off heads. You see, those medievals developed a range of other means of persuasion which make waterboarding look like child’s play. The “pear of anguish” is very clever in the way it metes out suffering on its hapless victim. The “breaking wheel” is as agony-inducing as it sounds. And don’t forget the “heretic’s fork” (though you might want to rename it: the “enemy of freedom fork” sounds much better).
And won’t it be deliciously ironic when you can visit your medieval tortures on the barbarians themselves? You might even call it, an eye for an eye.