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Torture is only debatable because Obama didn’t hold Bush admin. accountable

Torture is a subject of debate in the 2016 GOP presidential primary campaign.

Last week, republicans debated whether waterboarding is torture (it is), and whether they would “bring it back” if they were elected president. Donald Trump said he would not only “bring back waterboarding;” he “would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he boasted. I wonder what Trump meant by that. Drawing and quartering, as illustrated above? Crucifixion? Ripping out toenails and fingernails? Rape?

Harvard Law School graduate Ted Cruz, for his part, said torture is wrong, but that waterboarding is not torture. It’s simply “enhanced interrogation,” Cruz said. (After World War Two, the US government executed Japanese officials for committing war crimes against US soldiers. Among those crimes was waterboarding.)

It’s grotesque to see popular US presidential candidates talking so blithely about war crimes. But let’s be clear: The only reason this sickening “debate” is happening is because the Obama administration failed to hold Bush officials accountable for their crimes. Torture is illegal under both US and international law. The people who orchestrated an official torture program under the last administration should have faced criminal prosecutions for their crimes. Instead, the Obama administration didn’t bring a single prosecution against any of those officials—not even against CIA officials who tortured detainees to death.

So judge the republican presidential contenders for their depraved ideas about torture, yes. But understand that it’s a predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s abdication of its responsibility to hold torturers accountable.

The role of holding Bush officials accountable, it seems, has fallen to the ACLU, which is currently litigating multiple federal court cases related to the Bush torture scandals. But the ACLU cannot prosecute torturers—and that’s the only thing that would stop a future administration from doing exactly what Bush did, or worse.

As my colleague Jameel Jaffer wrote in 2014, 

The danger isn’t simply that some future administration will revive the methods that the Senate [torture] report discredits. The larger danger is that our failure to hold accountable the people who authorized torture will send the message that any conduct, however unlawful and abhorrent, will be excused if it is executed in the name of national security. If we fail to hold accountable the torturers, we risk entrenching the dangerous view that the intelligence agencies responsible for protecting the nation’s security are beyond the reach of the law.

The point of holding officials accountable for war crimes isn’t to make us feel good about ourselves. It’s to ensure abuses don’t happen again. By refusing to hold Bush administration officials accountable for their crimes, Obama has all but guaranteed that similar crimes will happen in the future. That’s why presidential hopefuls like Trump and Cruz feel safe to get up in front of the world and brag about how, if elected, they would consider torturing people.  

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.