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Trump on torture

10 February 2017

THE advice about President Trump is generally sound: do not react to what he says; wait, instead, and see what he does. His unguarded, stream-of-consciousness form of expression served him well during the election campaign, as right-leaning voters approved not only what he said but his willingness to say it. Wait until he’s in office, commentators advised. For one thing, he will have to work within the restraining influences of his party and the organs of government. For another, much of what he said was said for effect, and not intended to be turned into policy.

His first days in office have not been auspicious. The fact that much of the debate about his ban on travellers to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries has been about its bungled implementation should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the whole conception of the ban is bizarre and offensive. It is true that other countries have legitimately imposed travel restrictions on politicians from violent or corrupt regimes. But the argument that ordinary citizens are suspect because of the activities of their governments or of individuals who share their nationality is impossible to sustain. This is particularly true of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, clear victims of government action. If the US is determined to prosecute a war on terror, it ought to look with more sympathy on the victims of such terror, not less. It is to be hoped that the appeals-court suspension of the ban will prompt a rethink. Talk of a referral to the Supreme Court suggests not.

There is one area, however, where what the President says is important, regardless of whether his administration acts upon it. This is his personal sanctioning of torture as a means of extracting information from suspects in detention. It is not enough for him to plead that he has appointed a military chief who disagrees with him, and that therefore his view might well not prevail. It is not the United States military that concerns us, but the governments around the world who will hear approval and support for their violent treatment of prisoners. If the so-called leader of the Free World can set aside the moral case for the proper treatment of detainees, the subject of UN agreement since 1948, and ignore all the evidence that torture is ineffective, it bodes ill for those held by governments less careful of human rights than the US has been hitherto.

Furthermore, it means that any country that professes itself to be a close ally of the United States, by, say, inviting President Trump to enjoy the honour of a state visit, will find itself tarnished by such an association, however many disclaimers government ministers produce. Moreover, it will be placed in jeopardy: talking tough on terrorism, far from a deterrent, has proved to be a goad to those with evil intent against the West. It is foreseeable that the “special relationship” with the US could rapidly become a liability.

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