Donald Trump’s position on waterboarding deserves a followup

Donald Trump had a wild weekend. From insisting that New Jersey Muslims cheered on 9/11 (a widely-discredited rumor) to retweeting a racist meme that originated from a neo-Nazi twitter account to endorsing supporters of his who choked and repeatedly kicked a Black Lives Matter protestor at one of his rallies, it was — once again — hard to keep up with what amounted to a personified and slightly more fascist than usual Breitbart comments section.

But one of Trump’s statements in particular flew (slightly) under the radar, buried under the rest of his steaming pile of white nationalism that he’s dumped on the country since the Paris attacks. When asked on ABC’s The Week if he would bring back waterboarding, among other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are widely classified as torture, Trump answered with an emphatic yes. As he said, quoted by Politico, “I would bring it back…I think waterboarding is peanuts compared to what they’d do to us, what they’re doing to us, what they did to James Foley when they chopped off his head. That’s a whole different level, and I would absolutely bring back interrogation and strong interrogation.”

Trump is far from the only Republican candidate — in both this and previous election cycles — to either endorse or refuse to rule out waterboarding, but his rationale for why he supports waterboarding suspected terrorists is new. And scary. Usually, Republican candidates (and presidents) justify waterboarding by insisting that it isn’t torture. The United States doesn’t torture, they say, but we can waterboard because it doesn’t count. It’s a matter of semantics.

For Trump, however, the semantics don’t matter. The question as to whether waterboarding is just, to say nothing of effective, to say nothing of whether it qualifies as torture, is measured not by our own actions but rather by those of our enemies. He didn’t say that waterboarding is fine because it isn’t torture; he said that waterboarding is fine because the Islamic State is beheading people. It’s a matter of proportionality and revenge.

By this logic, nothing is off the table. Donald Trump didn’t just endorse waterboarding with his answer; he implied that we can do pretty much whatever we want, up to and perhaps including the most barbaric atrocities our enemies would do to our soldiers. Sustained beatings? Burning and freezing? Electrodes? The rack? Beheadings of our own? All presumably fair game in Trump’s book, as long as he can say the other guys are as bad or worse. What’s more, torture may be illegal under the Geneva Conventions, which the United States has signed on to, but Donald Trump is notoriously unbothered by contractual obligations. There is absolutely no reason to believe that, if elected, he would give a first thought to whether kneecapping suspected terrorists is in violation of international law, let alone waste his time getting his administration to write up a legal justification for it.

All this is to say that Donald Trump’s justification for waterboarding as an acceptable interrogation technique merits a followup. One of the many reporters following him around the country needs to ask, point blank, if he supports torture. Trump’s initial answer to the waterboarding question suggested no concern for the moral question of whether torture is wrong (it is), or the practical question of whether torture is effective (it isn’t).

That complete disregard for what we like to say separates the United States from the Islamic State is as if not more concerning than his repetition of an outdated and discredited anti-Muslim conspiracy theory.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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