U.S. presidential candidate Donald J. Trump is known around the world for his controversial statements, but one of his recurring claims stands out from the rest. “Torture works,” The Washington Post quoted Mr. Trump as declaring to forceful applause at a campaign event on February 17. His declaration came only a few days after he published an op-ed in USA Today condoning the use of torture, under the thinly-veiled moniker of “enhanced interrogation”:
I have made it clear in my campaign that I would support and endorse the use of enhanced interrogation techniques if the use of these methods would enhance the protection and safety of the nation. Though the effectiveness of many of these methods may be in dispute, nothing should be taken off the table when American lives are at stake. The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind.
Torture, Mr. Trump believes, is a “trump card” the United States should use to defend against ISIS and end the terror group’s brutality. His support for torture is, however, a dangerous miscalculation with potentially devastating consequences for the United States.
Mr. Trump’s position rests on the idea that torture produces life-saving information. The 2014 report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which assessed the CIA’s interrogation tactics, is only the most recent study to dismiss this notion.
The CIA had previously defended torture as a method that produced otherwise inaccessible information that could prevent terror attacks. As The New York Times illustrated in a write-up of the declassified 525-page summary, the report found no evidence to support these claims. This means that, for the years torture was used by the United States, there is no evidence it made the country any safer.
The “dispute” Mr. Trump mentioned in his op-Ed, therefore, consists of speculation in support of torture versus years’ worth of evidence against it.
While exaggerating torture’s counter-terrorism efficacy, Trump has also glossed over its value to America’s enemies. ISIS is an example of one such group that has capitalized on the United States’s use of torture.
Scenes of torture, like those carried out by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, play prominently in ISIS’s anti-Western narrative. In a 2014 issue of the group propaganda publication, The Revived Caliphate, the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib is invoked three times. Indeed, the publication has legitimized ISIS’s vision for a caliphate by casting it as resistance to injustices at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. This claim helped bolster ISIS’s military sweep from Syria all the way to Fallujah – located only 20 miles from Abu Ghraib – in 2014.
Similarly, the terrorist group has used symbols linked to Guantanamo Bay to its advantage. The U.S. facility has been synonymous with conditions “tantamount to torture” since a 2004 report was leaked to The New York Times. The image of Guantanamo detainees dressed in the now-notorious orange jumpsuits has been turned on its head by ISIS. The group has forced its Western hostages, like American journalist James Foley, to wear those same jumpsuits during their videotaped executions. As Reuters reported in February 2015, top Defense Department officials have stated it is “no coincidence” that ISIS kills its victims wearing these articles of clothing.
Whether cultivating sympathy or spreading terror, groups like ISIS harness the fear and hatred engendered by torture for their own benefit. With his full-throated support for such measures, it seems clear Trump is more likely to embolden terrorist movements than to deter them.
No leader aiming to defeat ISIS and protect Americans should pursue such ineffective and dangerous tactics.