The debate over the United States' use of torture, colloquially known as "enhanced interrogation," should have ended decisively in December 2014 with the release of the Senate report on the CIA's use of such techniques against foreign targets.
At the time, I wrote that: "Ignorance is no longer an option. If Americans do not question their national passivity on torture in the face of brutal evidence, the country has foregone the moral high ground integral to contemporary views of American exceptionalism."
I hoped the era of ignorance was over. I was wrong.
During the recent GOP debates and in the wake of the horrendous bombings in Brussels, Belgium, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz have returned, time and time again, to drink from the well of state-approved abuse.
Speaking on CNN on March 22, Trump opined that if Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam--caught in Brussels the previous Friday--had been tortured, he might have provided information to help prevent the attacks. Trump did not know that Belgian officials had failed to take the time to question Abdeslam for more than one hour in any format.
While Cruz has condemned "torture" in the past, his legal definition of torture is so narrow and so flawed that he can confidently state in the face of the CIA report that America "has never engaged in torture," leaving the door wide open to enhanced interrogation tactics.
In seeking to take the moral low ground by looking the other way on enhanced interrogation and torture, it appears that no lessons were learned, no humility gained and no moral conscience developed.
Trump believes that he is not alone in his endorsement of willfully inflicting pain on another human being. He told CNN that many members of the military secretly support waterboarding and other forms of torture, and only oppose it publicly to be politically correct. He is wrong. Yet far too many Americans are open to his interpretation.
To correct the record, 60 members of the Truman National Security Project--hailing from the military, law enforcement and intelligence communities--released an open letter on March 23 unequivocally opposing the use of torture. The core argument of the letter lays out three reasons why the U.S. does not and should not torture:
The United States does not and should not torture for three simple reasons: It's not who we are, it's not what those of us who served signed up to do, and not only does it not work, it makes our troops and our nation less secure.
Our strength as a nation flows from our values, and our values tell us that torture in all forms--no matter what tricky language we use to disguise it--is wrong. We won World War II without resorting to torture and we currently have, by far, the greatest military on the face of the earth. We should be able to beat ISIL without abandoning our values.
Second, every military, intelligence, and law enforcement service articulates its own set of core values. Not surprisingly, many of those values overlap--the repetition of words like Honor and Integrity is not a mistake. We swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States because we wanted to live those values. Torture is incompatible with them all.
Finally, torture does not work - it makes us and our troops less safe. You can see it in study after study--and you can see it in real world examples. You can see it in community leaders who refuse to provide assistance because they've had a family member tortured. You can see it in the detainee who is hardened or broken beyond the ability to provide useful intelligence. You can see it in the mistaken leads and falsehoods provided by someone who has been subject to brutal interrogation techniques. And you can see it when other nations or enemies use it as a justification to torture captured American service members.
Regardless of what Trump, Cruz and the other tough men who have not served a day in defense of their country may think about the joys of inflicting deliberate harm and creating bone-chilling fear in another human being, their stances have not changed the ultimate decision we face.
In January 2015, William Quinn, a former Army interrogator, eloquently condemned torture, writing that:
Our government should not be in the business of state sanctioned brutality against those who are defenseless, no matter what they have done, who they have worked for, or what they may know. Many reasonable people who want nothing more than peace and security disagree. They say people like me are naïve, hopelessly idealistic, and soft. I know America has violent and dedicated enemies. I have met many of them. I know we must defend ourselves against them and dedicate ourselves to the destruction of their toxic ideologies. But we must not lose our identity in the process. We are Americans and we have a unique place in this world. We are duty-bound to reject the promise of a peace founded on cruelty.
The unwillingness of Trump and Cruz to condemn and move the country away from its past endorsement of torture is yet one more reason why they lack the national security qualifications or understanding to guide this country's military and foreign policies.
The open letter from the 60 Truman Project members closes with the following strong words:
[Torture] does not work. It is not what we signed up for. It is not who we are.
We have dedicated much of our lives to defending America and to upholding the code of honor upon which our freedom depends. Candidates who brag about their plans to torture may believe it makes them look tough, but they are only dishonoring themselves -- and proving they lack the strength to serve as Commander in Chief.
It is attractive to plead ignorance, go home and sleep safely at night while the quiet, dangerous men and women do whatever they deem necessary to combat foes--real and imagined, foreign and domestic. That is why those willing to condemn torture--even in the face of widespread fear and uncertainty--are true heroes.