Make America Great Again -- at Torture!

By Mark Shields

February 13, 2016 4 min read

The undisputed front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who, like every other remaining 2016 contender, never volunteered to serve in the nation's military, has nevertheless repeatedly promised to make America great again — in the use of torture.

In the last Republican debate before his smashing New Hampshire primary victory, on the subject of interrogating prisoners, Donald Trump, with all the fury and bluster of the noncombatant he chose to be, had this to say: "I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse." This was consistent. Trump had previously argued that whether they were effective or not, waterboarding and torture should be used, because "even if it doesn't work, they deserve it."

In that debate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was characteristically slippery on the torture subject, denying that waterboarding is torture. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ducked the question. To former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's credit, of all the Republican candidates on the stage, he alone stated that he would honor the existing ban on waterboarding. (And his own brother presided over an administration conducting some of the worst and most damaging torture of prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo and Afghanistan.)

Let us now make clear that the United States of America has in fact officially prohibited cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners. Where? In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the binding Convention Against Torture, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate at the urging of a revered Republican president, to "demonstrate unequivocally our desire to bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture."

That president, whose grand coalition Republicans have been trying, and failing, to reassemble ever since, was Ronald Reagan.

The United States has been long and strong in recognizing the illegality of waterboarding prisoners. After World War II, in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, several Japanese soldiers were charged and convicted as war criminals for waterboarding American prisoners of war. In 1968, an American soldier was court-martialed for having been involved in the waterboarding of a North Vietnamese prisoner.

What Donald Trump and his chicken-hawk friends fail to understand is that torture is not just illegal and morally repugnant; it is also a terribly ineffective way to force information. Simulated drowning and mock executions are so cruelly terrifying that those subjected will do anything, say anything that their tormentors want to hear, in order to stop the pain and terror.

It may, sadly, come as a surprise to some of these would-be presidents that America does not stand for torturing military prisoners. The strongest opponents to torture are found among those Americans who have personally known combat. Former Air Force pilot and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson and former Navy pilots Cmdr. Frederick Baldock and Cmdr. Phillip Butler publicly opposed the United States' use of torture. Collectively, these three patriots endured and survived 21 years and 78 days as POWs in Vietnam.

Sen. John McCain, who knows hourly the pain of combat and of torture, has put it well: "The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don't deserve our sympathy. But this isn't about who they are; it's about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away." Thank you, John McCain.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

Photo credit: Marc Nozell

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