Trump and Carson Defend Waterboarding, Again. It's Not as Bad as It Sounds

Ben Carson, right, watches as Donald Trump speaks during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorad
Ben Carson, right, watches as Donald Trump speaks during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

In a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, Donald Trump said he would "absolutely bring back" waterboarding, which he described as "peanuts compared to what [America's enemies] do to us."

Not to be outdone, Ben Carson followed by equating opposition to the practice with political correctness in the face of "an enemy who wants to destroy you." He then declined, in his own interview with Stephanopoulos, to tell "the enemy what we're going to do and what we're not going to do."

These were not off the cuff remarks, hastily made in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris. In early August, both candidates took pro-waterboarding positions, offering the same defenses as they're giving now. "When you see the other side chopping off heads," Trump told ABC News' Jon Karl then, "waterboarding doesn't sound very severe."

Carson, when asked about waterboarding during the first Republican debate, said he "wouldn't necessarily be broadcasting what we're going to do" and denied that there is any "such thing as a politically correct war."

This is bad news for opponents of torture. Trump and Carson are among the Republican Party's leading candidates for president. Both have proven themselves able, through the alchemical power of their words, to alter the agenda of the other Republican candidates. Jeb Bush, for instance, staked out his own pro-waterboarding position soon after Trump and Carson originally offered theirs.

But a close look at what Trump and Carson have said about waterboarding should give critics of torture reason for optimism. When talking about the practice, both candidates have relied on stock defenses.

Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in the spring of 2004, Republicans have downplayed, as Trump has, the severity, illegality and immorality of U.S. torture by favorably comparing the country's practices to the atrocities of our enemies.

Carson's position, on the other hand, is just a reboot of Mitt Romney's. During the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Romney supported "enhanced interrogation" techniques while refusing to "lay out a list of what is specifically referred to as torture." All that Carson has added to Romney's position is the flourish of "political correctness."

Both Trump and Carson owe their popularity among Republicans to their rhetorical extremes. Trump inexplicably jump-started his campaign by calling immigrants from Mexico rapists. Carson has said he would not "advocate" for or "agree" with the country electing a Muslim president. Yet neither has transformed the debate about waterboarding, preferring instead relatively safe and tested justifications of the practice.

More importantly, neither Trump nor Carson actually admits that waterboarding is torture and defends it as such. As nearly all advocates of "enhanced interrogation" do, both candidates sidestep this issue. They also overlook evidence, such as the cables quoted in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA interrogation, that shows just how cruel waterboarding and other "enhanced" techniques are.

America's torture advocates, it seems, have few moves left. The most brazen of them are not brazen enough to offer anything but well-worn defenses. None dares admit that they believe U.S. security requires us to commit acts of extreme brutality.

Amid campaigns in which nothing is off limits, torture remains beyond the pale.