Op-Ed: Donald Trump’s pro-torture rhetoric could help bring abuse to a neighborhood near you

Victims of torture by Chicago police under the command of Jon Burge, on May 6, 2015 in Chicago. Burge tortured confessions from more than 110 African American men, using techniques similar to those of Americans in the Vietnam War, where Burge served.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

On the campaign trail and now in office, President Trump has made his position on torture very clear: It works, and even if it doesn’t, “they deserve it anyway.”

Trump delivered this applause line at a rally in Ohio in late 2015, and again a few months later in South Carolina. In a debate among Republican presidential candidates early last year, he said he would bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Last month, as president, he affirmed his stance, telling ABC News: “We have to fight fire with fire.”

Until the president signs an executive order on the treatment of terrorism suspects, we will not know what his administration’s exact designs are, or if they are legal or achievable. But in at least one significant way, damage has already been done. Based on my and my colleagues’ analysis of public attitudes toward torture over time, Trump’s repeated pro-torture statements have already created a more permissive atmosphere for torture. The effects may be felt sooner, and closer to home, than we would like to think.


I and my colleagues Paul Gronke and Peter Miller compiled an archive of American and international public opinion surveys on torture, encompassing individual data from 43 polls released between 2001 and 2015.

Trump’s rhetoric can be read by law enforcement as a green light to work outside the rules.

According to our research, support for torture has slowly increased in the United States since 2001. Contrary to media reports, there was no pro-torture majority during the presidency of George W. Bush — 56% of Americans were opposed to torture even in a “ticking time bomb” scenario, while 39% supported its use. Public opinion began to sway in 2009, and data now show that a majority of Americans are accepting of state torture — 58% considered it justifiable in 2015, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Republicans accounted for most of this increase. Indeed, over this same period, torture shifted from a nonpartisan issue to a highly partisan one, not unlike the death penalty. In 2004, four out of 10 Republicans and three out of 10 Democrats supported the use of torture. By 2015, Republican support had grown to roughly eight out of 10, while support by Democrats rose only slightly, to four out of 10.

We discovered that, when it comes to torture, people appear to be driven more by social cues, superstition, resentment and indecision than by philosophy, morality or rational outcomes — whether “it works,” as Trump often claims. In particular, in our controlled survey experiments, so far we have found that respondents who favor torture don’t care whether it produces a positive or negative security outcome.

Although American public support for torture overall was lower under a pro-torture president (Bush) than an anti-torture president (Obama), we also found that presidential signaling was the most powerful predictor of where people would stand on the issue. If a president condones torture, those who favor him will support torture. If a president does not, those who favor him will not. The Republican Party’s base is more likely to take cues from President Trump than from other top Republicans, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain.


Trump’s favorable view of torture may mean that fewer Americans would oppose the reestablishment of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, an idea the administration floated in a draft of an executive order and later backed away from.

That program is unlikely to be reinstated, even if it found its way back into an executive order. (Both Congress and the Supreme Court played a role in shutting it down.) But the “black sites” run by the CIA after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were not the only places where Americans have interrogated and tortured detainees.

Secret interrogation locations appeared domestically decades before the CIA began using them overseas. In the 1920s, police coerced confessions from suspects in “off the books” hotels and homes while their families and lawyers searched for them, as was documented in the 1931 assessment of organized police violence known as the Wickersham Report. (Though it is doubtful, at best, that torture works for intelligence gathering — the Senate report on CIA interrogations concluded the program was ineffective — we know it’s quite effective at producing false confessions.) More recently, in 2015, the Guardian broke the story of a police-run black site in Chicago, Homan Square, noting that the city’s police practices had begun to “echo” the abuse of detainees in the war on terror.

There is a long history of soldiers bringing torture techniques into police departments. American soldiers were introduced to waterboarding in the Philippine-American War, for instance, and police interrogators in the United States began using the “water cure” as these veterans returned home. By 1930, the American Bar Assn. had declared the practice common nationwide.

Wartime contemporaries of the Chicago police detective Jon Burge, who used torture to elicit confessions from more than 110 African American men over 19 years, recognized an electrical technique described by Burge’s victims as bearing a striking resemblance to one used by Americans in Vietnam, where Burge served as a military policeman. Other detectives in Burge’s group also used electricity and other forms of torture, sometimes in “off the books” areas.


Another longtime Chicago police detective, Richard Zuley, has illustrated that police brutality can morph into military misconduct. Zuley exported torture techniques he used over 20 years as a detective on Chicago’s north side to Guantanamo, where he was later stationed as a Navy reserve lieutenant.

As statistical research done by the scholars Avery Schmidt and Kathryn Sikkink has shown, the CIA’s detention program even had deleterious effects on other countries that complied with it. Governments that kidnapped terror suspects for the CIA or hosted black sites subsequently had worse human rights records. Collaboration with the program signaled to local police and soldiers that they may work outside the rules. Call it the Black Site Effect.

Trump’s stance on torture is dangerous regardless of whether he succeeds in reviving its use in the war on terror. His rhetoric can be read by law enforcement as permission to work outside the rules. Fifteen years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, 13 years after the start of the second war in Iraq, and 12 years after the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison came to light, torture may be coming to a neighborhood near you.

Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of “Torture and Democracy,” which won the American Political Science Assn.’s Human Rights Book of the Year Award in 2007.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion or Facebook.