“The Darkness Comes”: Torture in Trump’s America

Consequence 2

“The Darkness Comes”: Torture in Trump’s America

Eight or so years ago, Mark Danner took stock of the American politics of torture following a profoundly different, though no less historic, presidential election. Then, both major party candidates took anti-torture positions. In fact, during the third presidential debate, Barack Obama praised John McCain for showing independence from the Republican Party “on some key issues—torture, for example.”[1] But into Obama’s brief display of bipartisanship something insidious crept. “Torture has metamorphosed,” Danner wrote in early-December 2008, “from an execrable war crime to a ‘key issue.’ From something forbidden by international treaty and condemned by domestic law to… something to be debated. Something one can stand on either side of. Something we can live with.”[2]

Something, Danner might have written, we will be polled on. For a decade and a half, pollsters have dutifully asked Americans about their views of the war crime. Because of those polls, we know that Donald Trump is less popular than torture. Today, a majority of Americans—perhaps upwards of sixty percent—believe that the torture of suspected terrorists is justified.[3] This support is bi-partisan—at least relatively so. Between seventy and eighty percent of Republicans support the practice. And around forty-five to fifty percent of Democrats do.[4] Trump, by contrast, won only about forty-six percent of the popular vote.

In deference to this reality, Trump told the New York Times that his position on torture would be dictated by public opinion: “If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that.”[5]

This is a remarkable admission. U.S. discourse of torture is expansive, accommodating vague, yet menacing phrases—”enhanced interrogation,” “waterboarding,” … “rectal feeding.” But what this discourse refused to admit, at least until recently, is any link between U.S. torture and the illiberal nature of the act. Elected officials and their appointees dared not speak the truth about torture—that it is no normal bureaucratic tool, but “a revenge play that reflects the mass will and interprets the shadowy need of an entire nation.”[6] But Trump? “Believe me, it works,” he said during the Republican primary. “And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”[7]

* * * *

We don’t know yet whether Trump will succeed at bringing back torture. His administration will face, as the New York Times reported soon after his election, several obstacles to doing so.[8] Most of these are legal. All U.S. interrogators are now bound by the guidelines in the Army Field Manual of interrogation, which explicitly prohibits torture. And the Trump administration may also be constrained by revelations about the CIA’s interrogation program. While the Bush administration argued that “enhanced interrogation” techniques did not have lasting effects on detainees and so did not meet the legal definition of torture, the Trump administration confronts a vast documentary record that undercuts this argument.

The law has long been on the side of those who oppose torture; the prohibition was, all this time, absolute. But while legislation may have caught up to torture, other social and political conditions have not. The enemy that Trump calls out in his speeches sounds very much like the one George W. Bush described—it is ruthless, it is barbarous, and it is everywhere. Trump points out, when talking about torture, that the enemy is “chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages.” Then, incredulously, he adds, “and we’re not allowed to waterboard.”[9]

So we have an enemy that we’ll follow to the dark side. We also have the infrastructure to do so. Guantánamo remains open, and the Obama administration affirmed the indefinite detention of detainees suspected of terrorism. The phony experts—Marc Thiessen and James E. Mitchell, among others—are still around and still mythologizing about “enhanced interrogation.”

Torture’s ascendency, trailed by Trump, reveals the error President Obama made when he decided against reckoning with the past in favor of “looking forward.”[10] The country’s torturers were not yet buried. Torture’s ideologues had burrowed into universities, federal courts, and the media. They remained in Congress. Some will likely serve the Trump administration. Senator Jeff Sessions, who once believed in waterboarding, is Trump’s nominee for Attorney General.[11] Trump’s choice for CIA director, Representative Mike Pompeo, has said that those who used “enhanced interrogation” techniques are not torturers but patriots.[12] Both nominees have recently testified to Congress that they would not support waterboarding. But the persistence of the question of torture’s return signals the practice’s unsettled legacy.

* * * *

When CBS first released the Abu Ghraib photographs in April 2004, the United States shuddered. Then, we were uneasy with torture. President Bush, upon viewing the photographs, simply “shook his head in disgust,” at least according to a spokesperson.[13] Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke of “the anguished expressions on the faces” of those in the Department of Defense who had viewed the photos.[14] And he kept torture at arm’s length, telling the press that what U.S. soldiers had been charged with was “abuse,” which, he noted, was “technically different” from torture.[15] Today, it’s easier. The “torture word” is losing its punch. When we speak it, we refer not to its violence; we refer, instead, to the politics that obscure it.

But now and then, torture’s viciousness wills itself out of the forgotten. In early-October 2016, in the New York Times, you encountered Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi, a Libyan man tortured by the CIA at the agency’s secret prisons. Today, “the radio from a passing car spurs rage” in him, “reminding him of the C.I.A. prison where earsplitting music was just one assault to his senses.” And then Younous Chekkouri, a Moroccan man who the U.S. imprisoned at Guantánamo for nearly a decade and a half without charge. Now free, Chekkouri remains captive, fearing “going outside because he sees faces in crowds as Guantánamo Bay guards.” He admits to you, “I’m not normal anymore.”[16]

A few days later, you find yourself with Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a former-CIA detainee. The agency, you now know, sexually assaulted him. Swung him by his neck into walls. Wrapped him in a tarp and doused him with ice water. Beat him. Kept him in boxes. Somehow, still, you could go on, but you find such lists numbing, conveying only the variety and not the depth of U.S. cruelty. Instead, you return to Salim, who tells you, in the English he learned from his American tormenters, “Sometimes I walk, and I walk, and I forget, I forget everything, I forget prison, The Darkness, everything. But it is always there. The Darkness comes.” Salim “cannot talk about his experiences with his wife, who he says worries that the Americans will come back to snatch him.”[17]

Reading these accounts, you are liable to come undone. Here is the human world turning away from its inhabitants. Here is torture forcing itself into the relations meant to sustain these men. Even later, when the stories are put away, you remain vulnerable; you know “somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering.”[18] I have found myself grieving, the surface of the self trembling, for another who I do not know and for his losses, which remain beyond the horizon of my experience.

* * * *

Eight or so years ago, the political scientist Darius Rejali, author of Torture & Democracy, took stock of the U.S. politics of torture following a profoundly different, though no less historic, presidential election. Then, both major party candidates took anti-torture positions. In fact, during the third presidential debate, Barack Obama praised John McCain for showing independence from the Republican Party “on some key issues—torture, for example.” Even still, Rejali wondered, “What time is it now in America?”

His answer: “We are living in a time of forgetfulness. But while elections are for seasons, torture is forever.”[19]



[1] Barack Obama as quoted in Mark Danner, “Frozen Scandal,” New York Review of Books (4 December 2008), http://www.markdanner.com/articles/frozen-scandal (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[2] Danner.

[3] Chris Kahn, “Exclusive: Most Americans Support Torture against Terror Suspects – Reuters/Ipsos Poll,” Reuters (3 March 2016), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-torture-exclusive-idUSKCN0WW0Y3 (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[4] Brittany Lyte, “Americans have Grown More Supportive of Torture,” FiveThirtyEight (9 December 2014), http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/senate-torture-report-public-opinion/ (accessed on 7 January 2017)

[5] New York Times, “Donald Trump’s New York Times Interview: Full Transcript,” New York Times (23 November 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/trump-new-york-times-interview-transcript.html?_r=1 (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[6] Don DeLillo, Point Omega, (New York, Scribner, 2010), 34.

[7] Donald Trump quoted in Jenna Johnson, “Donald Trump on Waterboarding: ‘If It Doesn’t Work, They Deserve It Anyway,” Washington Post (23 November 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/23/donald-trump-on-waterboarding-if-it-doesnt-work-they-deserve-it-anyway (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[8] Matt Apuzzo and James Risen, “Donald Trump Faces Obstacles to Resuming Waterboarding,” New York Times (28 November 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/us/politics/trump-waterboarding-torture.html (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[9] New York Times.

[10] Barack Obama as quoted in Jared Del Rosso, Talking About Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate, (New York: Columbia, 2015), 160.

[11] I wrote this essay before the start of Sessions’ confirmation hearing. During it, Sessions, rejecting earlier positions he’d taken, testified that waterboarding was “absolutely improper and illegal.” I agree with Matt Apuzzo and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times that Sessions’ “remarks provide a steep new legal hurdle that would make it extraordinarily difficult […] for a Trump administration to reinstate” waterboarding. But the gist of this essay holds: the U.S. has not fully reckoned with the cultural and social legacies of torture. And when we indeed confront torture, we more often address the politics of it and not its human costs. Matt Apuzzo and Eric Lichtblau, “Sessions Says Law ‘Absolutely’ Prohibits Waterboarding,” New York Times (10 January 2017), http://nyti.ms/2ifvnXH (accessed on 10 January 2017).

[12] Mike Pompeo, “The Release of the Senate Report on CIA Activities Harms U.S. National Security,” U.S. Congressman Mike Pompeo (10 December 2014), http://pompeo.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=398326 (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[13] George W. Bush as quoted in Del Rosso, 48.

[14] Donald Rumsfeld as quoted in Del Rosso, 47.

[15] Donald Rumsfeld as quoted in Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” New York Times Magazine (23 May 2004), http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/regarding-the-torture-of-others.html (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[16] Al-Maghrebi’s and Chekkouri’s accounts appear in Matt Apuzzo, Sheri Fink, and James Risen, “How U.S. Torture Left a Legacy of Damaged Minds,” New York Times (9 October 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/09/world/cia-torture-guantanamo-bay.html (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[17] Salim’s account appears in James Risen, “After Torture, Ex-Detainee is Still Captive of ‘The Darkness,” New York Times (12 October 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/world/cia-torture-abuses-detainee.html (accessed on 7 January 2017).

[18] J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, (New York: Penguin, 1980), 21.

[19] Darius Rejali as quoted in Andrew Kalloch, “Torture Expert Darius Rejali Warns of American Amnesia,” Harvard Law School Record (19 March 2009), http://hlrecord.org/2009/03/torture-expert-darius-rejali-warns-of-american-amnesia/ (accessed 7 January 2017).


Jared Del Rosso is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology & Criminology at the University of Denver. He is the author of Talking About Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate (Columbia, 2015), as well as several articles and op-eds on the politics of torture.