Why Trump Should Forget About Waterboarding

Military police at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, bring a detainee to an interrogation room, on February 6, 2002. Gijs de Vries writes that detention without trial in Guantánamo and the abuse of detainees by American military personnel in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison have done incalculable damage to the reputation of the United States. Waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” had a similar effect: America lost the moral high ground. Human rights violations by Western countries serve as a recruitment tool for Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamist militant groups. Marc Serota/reuters

This article first appeared on the London School of Economics site.

Between 2009 and 2013, 38 people died in attacks in European member states, while several Europeans were kidnapped or killed by militant groups around the world. In 2014, four people were killed in Europe in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Then came 2015. A terrible year, in which 151 people died and over 360 were injured as a result of attacks in the EU. Europol counted 211 failed, foiled and completed attacks in six member states: Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

More than 1,000 people were arrested in the EU for terrorism-related offenses, of which 424 were in France. European courts issued 527 verdicts to 514 individuals tried on terrorism charges.

This year, the attacks have show no sign of abating. In March, 32 people were killed in suicide attacks in Belgium at an airport and on a subway system, and in July, a "lone wolf" killed 84 people in Nice by driving a truck into a crowd—to mention simply the deadliest attacks that have taken place.

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Further attacks may be in store as a consequence of the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq. Europeans who joined ISIS and other militant groups in Syria and Iraq and who have since returned could pose a risk to Europe, either by using their ISIS training to carry out attacks themselves or by facilitating attacks, for example by raising funds or procuring false passports.

ISIS hopes that these foreign fighters will pose as role models for young aspiring jihadists. Some of them are minors, cynically trained by ISIS to become the next generation of killers. There is a heightened risk of militant attacks in Europe during the end-of-year holiday season.

Europe faces its highest terrorist threat in a decade. Although many attacks have been prevented, Europeans still worry about their security, and governments are under pressure to respond.

National police forces and security agencies play key roles in counterterrorism, as under EU law (Article 4:2 TEU) national security remains the "sole responsibility of each Member State." The EU supports, coordinates and complements national efforts on the basis of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

Successful counterterrorism is about more than law enforcement alone. Governments must not only stop and arrest today's militants, they must also prevent the next generation of militants from being radicalized. However, identifying possible future militants has proven difficult and governments struggle to find the most effective means of countering radicalization.

One of the psychological factors that contributes to radicalization among young Muslims is a sense of not truly belonging to European society. Arguably the least successful strand of the EU's counter-radicalization policy is its commitment to combat social exclusion and discrimination.

Xenophobia and discrimination on grounds of religion are rife across the Union. Combating such prejudice must be an integral and visible dimension of counter-radicalization. As part of that response, opinion leaders must refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, decision-makers must maintain a sense of proportion and governments must fight terrorism in ways which uphold human rights.

Often the most useful information about individuals at risk of becoming radicalized comes from bystanders, peers and family, so it is essential for governments and the police to retain the loyalty of the communities from which potential militants emanate.

Muslim communities must be enlisted, not alienated. Yet many Muslims, in many European countries, feel that politicians and the media treat them as second-class citizens who cannot be trusted. Linking Islam and terrorism is a fallacy, and Muslims—as all members of other religions—must not be tarred with the same brush.

Politicians who fan the flames of xenophobia, such as Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders, should know they are playing into the hands of ISIS-inspired extremists.

Second, European governments must keep a sense of proportion. Terrorism poses a very serious, murderous threat; the` attacks suffered by Belgium and France in the past two years were the deadliest in decades. But the risk of terrorist acts in Europe, though significant, is far lower than elsewhere in the world.

In 2015, according to the Global Terrorism Index, 32,658 people died in attacks. Five countries accounted for 80 percent of the casualties: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. The deadliest militant group was Boko Haram, in Nigeria. In fact, in the past 15 years only 2.6 percent of deaths by terrorism occurred in Western countries—and that includes the almost 3,000 victims of 9/11.

As long as nuclear attacks can be prevented, terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the countries of Europe—contrary to what former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron alleged.

Let us therefore be careful in how we speak about terrorism. These are vicious, unprincipled, murderous criminals. They are not the noble resistance fighters that they claim to be.

We should not pay them the compliment of treating them as legitimate soldiers. We are not at war. We are fighting one of the most insidious forms of crime. This is why the EU, contrary to the Bush administration in the U.S., has never spoken about a war on terror.

It was unfortunate that President Hollande spoke about war after the Paris attacks. Governments must fight militants with utmost determination, but without unintentionally legitimizing them.

ISIS and similar groups are in the business of stoking and exploiting fear. Their purpose is to provoke the West into a counter-reaction that undermines its core values. Here, again, the response must be commensurate but careful. Above all, it is essential that counter-terrorism policies respect the rights and liberties that militants seek to undermine.

The British Prevent strategy defines nonviolent extremism as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs." Schools, universities and doctors, among others, are invited to refer individuals that hold such views to the authorities.

Professor Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford University and a world authority on terrorism, has said that if Oxford University would refer everyone, "we would have to burn all our books by Plato and refer half our philosophy department who question these matters." Counterterrorism should counter violent extremism, not views with which we reasonably disagree.

But there is another barrier that governments must not cross: the prohibition of torture. During the campaign for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed support for waterboarding (simulated suffocation by drowning) as a technique to use against presumed terrorists. He claimed that not using such techniques made America look weak.

The use of waterboarding on detainees was banned by President Obama in 2009. For the United States to reintroduce it would be a dangerous mistake. Torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment are prohibited under international law.

Under the terms of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States, waterboarding is illegal. Information obtained by such techniques may not be lawfully used by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. If the United States were to reintroduce this or similar techniques it would impede much-needed intelligence sharing between the U.S. and its European partners.

Detention without trial in Guantanamo and the abuse of detainees by American military personnel in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison have done incalculable damage to the reputation of the United States.

Waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" had a similar effect: America lost the moral high ground. Instead of winning hearts and minds in the fight against militarism, America sacrificed credibility. Human rights violations by western countries serve as a recruitment tool for Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamist militant groups.

Waterboarding is, first and foremost, immoral and illegal. It is also counterproductive in the fight against such groups. For President Trump to reintroduce it would make both America and Europe less secure.

Governments should not waver in their determination to fight these groups, whether they be Islamist, right-wing or other groups, but western politicians must guard against over-reacting. Fear of terrorism can do as much damage to the fabric of Western society as terrorism itself.

Gijs de Vries is a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is a former EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and a former member of the Dutch government.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP–American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.

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