Torture is a dirty word when it comes to international law and policing. The United Nations Convention against Torture, an international treaty drafted, signed, and enacted during the 1980s, defined the practice as the infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering with the intent of punishing an offender or obtaining information under the color of law. The language of the definition leaves a bit of wiggle room—excluding “inherent” or “incidental” suffering—but lays down as clearly as possible a theoretical line of human rights that cannot be crossed; a line deigned contemptuous by any who would consider toeing or even mentioning it.
The United States of America signed the Convention in 1988, ratified it in 1994, and has operated with it as a guiding principle ever since. Of course, practicing what one preaches is always easier said than done; bombshell reports emerged during the Iraq War exposing the CIA’s use of torture tactics at Abu Ghraib prison. Afterward, the implication of other nefarious practices was no long stretch, and the world’s self-acclaimed moral leader found itself embroiled in arguably its most egregious position yet.
Predictably, the reports from Abu Ghraib set off a firestorm of media coverage and public outrage the U.S. will likely never completely wash the stink from. In the years since, America has attempted to clean up its image in regards to torture, with President Barack Obama reversing a position held by the Bush administration that the Convention Against Torture didn’t apply to the U.S. outside its own borders.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, however, torture came back into play when then-candidate Donald Trump said he was in favor of enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, a statement spurned on the heels of terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium. Trump’s comments sparked further media uproar, but played well with his voters, further entrenching his position as the “win at all costs” candidate when it came to fighting terrorism. Following his election, Trump later remarked that he would defer to defense secretary James Mattis when it came to decisions on torture.
In the eyes of Curt Goering, director of the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), the repercussions of Trump’s position would prove far-reaching.
“It’s a terrible precedent, and it turns the role that the United States has aspired to play completely upside down,” Goering tells BTRtoday. “Other authoritarian figures and dictators are emboldened by that. These governments [can say to themselves] ‘well, if the leader of the U.S. can promote torture, we can certainly do that too.’”
Goering acknowledges that Trump’s open advocacy of torture doesn’t necessarily mark the end of America’s proclaimed occupation of the moral high ground, especially given its tactics and dealings of the past. But he does believe it sends the United States into dangerous human rights territory.
“It’s not to say the human rights policies of the United States government were applied equally across the board—there were always inconsistencies,” Goering says. “But at least there was the professed commitment to international rights standards and doing what the U.S. government could to promote them. Now we seem to be walking away from all of that and leading a charge to dismantle the international human rights system of protection that has been so painstakingly built since the second World War.”
In retrospect, it’s no big surprise that Trump’s unconventional stance on torture didn’t sink his ship—in a global survey released late last year (after the election, FWIW), nearly half of Americans believed that torture could be useful, even though the 2014 report on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation proved irrelevant in the obtainment of information.
Therein perhaps lies torture’s greatest appeal, at least to those far removed from it—the appearance that the entities involved are doing everything within their power to gather information critical to our safety and well being. Perhaps if it affected people closer to us, those so heavily in favor of its use might soften their stance.
It turns out torture may be closer to home than many American think. According to a study conducted by the CVT, an estimated 1.3 million victims of torture currently reside in the United States—a number that even shocked Goering when he first heard of it.
“I think even for those of us who have been involved in human rights and the torture rehabilitation movement for a long time were surprised at the number,” he says.
The study analyzed previous research conducted on various refugee populations in the United States and the prevalence rate of torture among them, with some rates—notably those among recent Syrian refugees—far higher than others. Although the estimate isn’t an exact calculation, it does imply that the resources for torture victims are, as Goering put it, “woefully inadequate.”
“The impact of torture is not all that widely understood, and so there are often diagnoses that are incorrect,” Goering explains. “There is a growing field of expertise in this area, however, and nearly 40 torture treatment programs around the United States.”
CVT is the largest of such programs, and aside from specialized treatment for survivors, the program focuses on advocacy and policy of eliminating torture entirely from the world landscape. Perhaps the most important aspect of this work, Goering says, is removing any kind of precedents that even implicitly approve of torture. Once the precedent of using such tactics is set, even if it is explicitly reserved for enemies, it leaves the proverbial door open for much more sinister applications down the road.
“Once that justification is allowed for torture, it leaves the door open for the next situation,” Goering says. “In countries where torture is now systematic practice, that’s how it started, with one exception being made in exceptional circumstances.”
It’s a sobering thought, and one that many might quickly dismiss as farcical. The very idea of routine torture conducted within American borders—let alone on American citizens—understandably comes off as patently absurd. However, as the Trump administration barrels forward and forces the American people to confront social and environmental rollbacks, the president’s position on torture might have us one day reckoning with our humanity as well.