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The Scarlet & Black

Column: Life During Wartime

By Max Fenton


In the aftermath of World War II, the United States embarked on an aggressive campaign of finding, prosecuting, and executing Axis war criminals. In the years after Japan surrendered in August 1945 and the Allied military occupation began shortly thereafter, a series of war crime tribunals were founded to try Japanese military officials. Arguably the most well-known of these courts, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, tried over 5,700 Japanese officials for conventional, common crimes against humanity and wartime atrocities.


One of the most “conventional” of these crimes was torture. Records and testimony show that multiple Japanese military officers utilized a wide array of cruel torture methods. One such method of torture reported by Allied POWs in Japan was the dreaded “water torture” or “water treatment,” wherein massive amounts of water were poured onto victims whose faces were often covered with cloth.


This was to simulate the experience of drowning, and ultimately inflict psychological and physical damage to elicit a confession or information. Court records and eventual convictions indicate that this “water torture” was considered one of the most despicable and serious of torture methods, and several Japanese generals were eventually executed for ordering its use.


70 years later, “water torture” became a topic of great discussion once again, though it is no longer known by that name. It has since become known as waterboarding, infamous for its endorsement by the Bush Administration during the failed War on Terror. The authorization for such atrocities came from the highest echelons of the Department of Defense and the CIA.


Since the revelation of torture and other atrocities committed by American soldiers during that lengthy conflict against an imaginary, amorphous enemy, the United States no longer has the moral high ground when it comes to the issue of torture. Grainy photos and testimony of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and other American detention centers are seared in the collective memory of the global community.


Five years after Abu Ghraib came to light, the Obama Administration prohibited waterboarding and several other similar interrogation methods in 2009. Civil liberties groups worldwide hailed the administration’s move. Despite this step in the right direction, all bets are off with the incoming Trump Administration. On January 24, the Senate confirmed Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) to be Director of the CIA. Though the current interrogation methods used must be listed in the Army Field Manual, Pompeo’s command opens the possibility of policy change for the worse.


When asked by Senators whether he would bring back waterboarding and other such “enhanced interrogation techniques,” he answered that he would strongly consider it. Considering also that in 2014 he described CIA operatives who tortured detainees as “patriots,” it is looking increasingly likely that policies like waterboarding and other previously banned interrogation methods will be reinstated. Though fears that Pompeo may restore torture seem overblown, one only need look at his rhetoric to grow worried. Pompeo also claims that American Muslim leaders are complicit in terror attacks like 9/11 because they “didn’t speak out,” a claim which is demonstrably false. He has been a frequent guest on noted racist Frank Gaffney’s anti-Muslim radio show, and has characterized the War on Terror as a battle for good (Christianity) and evil (Islam) drawn on religious lines. Guess which side he falls on?


The fact that our stance on torture has regressed in the last 70 years is unbelievably worrying. The same tactics we once executed foreign military officers for using are in fair play in the era of Trump. But where is the outrage? Mainstream media has only lightly touched on Pompeo’s torture record as part of a larger campaign to normalize his presidency.  Even more worrying are the spineless Democratic senators who voted for Mike Pompeo in spite of his disgusting record, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.


If the Democrats and their Senate leader cannot mount a challenge to someone who condones torture, can they really be trusted to resist the more worrying aspects of Trump’s campaign promises? Hopefully Senate Democrats will grow a backbone and resist the injustices of the Trump Administration, especially as they relate to human rights issues.

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