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by TISARANEE GUNASEKARA 

IN THE UNITED STATES, the Republican primaries are becoming more surreal, more grotesque, from day to day, from tweet to tweet. It is hard to predict what new low Donald Trump will plummet to next, eagerly followed by his fellow Republican candidates.

Trump is singular because he says what a sizeable section of the American populace, including political leaders and opinion makers, believe but do not voice. He has been able to make statement after outrageous statement and suffer no diminution in his support levels (not just among registered Republicans but also among a segment of the US electorate which identifies itself as independent), because his antediluvian and extremist opinions are not a fringe phenomenon.

Some of Trump’s obnoxious statements are expressions of bad taste; but others, many others, have a bearing not just on US policy but also on global developments.

A prime example is his stand on the use of torture.

The US has a history of condemning the use of torture in public forums while enabling and even practicing torture behind closed doors. Euphemisms are employed to mislead the public and to provide torture with a respectable, acceptable, patina. The most recent example is the term “enhanced interrogation techniques”, used by the second Bush administration to provide legal cover to waterboarding and other forms of torture.

Donald Trump cannot be bothered such verbal hide-and-seek. He defends the use of torture openly and says he will use torture to prevent Paris/Brussels type attacks on American soil. “Frankly, the waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if changed the laws or had the laws, waterboarding would be fine,” he said, soon after the Brussels attacks. “I would do a lot more than waterboarding. You have to get the information from these people.”

Not only does Trump defend torture he also attacks international regulations against torture. Recently he claimed that these regulations were developed by “eggheads,” an outstanding insult in the anti-intellectual Trumpian universe.

Fortunately for the US and the world, it is unlikely to the point of impossibility for Donald Trump to become the next occupant of the Oval Office. But his ‘in your face’ politics have exposed a disturbing truth about the American electorate: a substantial portion of American voters approve of the use of torture on anyone seen as a security threat, and believe that torture is both good and effective when used on enemies.

This pro-torture mindset is not an American malaise. It is truly a global malady. And as so-called Islamic State (IS) intensifies its acts of terror, the number of those who believe in torture will grow. This growth cannot but affect political opinion and government policy across the globe.  

IS AS TRENDSETTER

IS will defeat itself, eventually. But before that final outcome, it will do much harm, not just physically, not just in the form of lives, limbs and property but also mentally, by changing opinions and attitudes for the worse. As the atrocities committed by IS increases, those who believe that aping IS methods is the only way to defeat IS are likely to become more numerous. And politicians, especially ones on their way up, will step in to give voice to these opinions, to demand that these attitudes be reflected in policy.

Donald Trump and his open advocacy of torture are omens of this future.

In justifying the use of torture, Trump not only mentioned the terror threat from IS but also the horrendous methods of execution used by IS. He defended the reintroduction of waterboarding by using a particularly gruesome IS practice – putting prisoners in cages and submerging the cages in water. If the IS can kill people by drowning, why can’t opponents of IS use a little drowning on suspected IS operatives to obtain information – this appears to be the Trumpian logic.

Aside from death by slow drowning, IS also practices death by slow burning and death by quick explosion. It puts prisoners in cages and sets them on fire, puts prisoners in vehicles and fires missiles at them. Will we have Trump-like politicians arguing that these barbaric IS practices justify the controlled and moderate use of fire and explosives as methods of torture? If that sounds outrageously impossible, the prospect of the leading contender for Republican nominations using the IS practice of drowning prisoners to publicly justify waterboarding would have seemed preposterous too, just a couple of weeks ago.  

Come November, Donald Trump will be defeated. But that will not make those people who believe in torture go away. As with Trump, facts or evidence do not work with these people. There is a general consensus among intelligence and military communities in the US and elsewhere that torture does not work, it is not effective. But those who support torture pay no heed to such expert opinion. They are as deaf to voices of reason, to facts, figures and logic, as Climate Change Deniers or Creationists are. With each IS atrocity, especially outside the Arab and Islamic world, their intensity will grow and so will their numbers. Sooner or later, we will hear democratic politicians in the US and elsewhere justifying a little bit of torture to prevent terror attacks, to save lives. Unlike Trump, they will sound reluctant. Unlike Trump, they will use suitably worded euphemisms. But torture, by some other name, will become less illegal, less abnormal, less unacceptable, part of policy, part of a new normal.

Great artists can glimpse the future, sometimes. “Terror does not evolve except towards a worse terror,” warned Albert Camus in Resistance, Rebellion and Death. If the democratic nations of the occident and the orient allow IS to become a trendsetter, the world will become a far more barbaric place than it is today.