Drewids trace the historical use of torture in recent lecture

by Brooke Winters

LC 28 was packed on Monday, March 20, when guest lecturer Professor Lisa Hajjar from the University of California gave a talk titled, “The Afterlives of Torture: Executive Power versus International Law in the Age of Trump.” Hajjar’s work focuses on the use of torture, international and federal laws, and targeted killing through drone strikes. Students, professors from a variety of departments and members of the Theological School were present to listen to a highly-informative lecture that covered both the historical use of torture and President Trump’s stance on the issue.

This event was co-sponsored by the Political Science and International Relations Department, the Sociology Department, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Middle Eastern Students Association and BOAS. The event is part of a series of speakers for Drew’s Law, Justice and Society program. Professor Lokaneeta, who serves as both the Program Coordinator for the Law, Justice and Society minor and as Associate Professor of the Political Science Department, introduced Hajjar by saying, “She’s been an extremely supportive and inspiring figure for me and many others in the field as well.”

Professor Hajjar began her lecture by detailing how “Donald Trump ran for president on the platform that included the pledge to bring back the torture technique of waterboarding and, as he said, ‘a hell of a lot more.’” She went on to say, “On the campaign trail, Trump would tell his supporters, ‘we have to fight so viciously and violently because we’re dealing with violent people. We have to fight fire with fire before we have no country left.’”

Hajjar also said, “Clearly, Trump was operating on the premises that these techniques work.” She discussed how President Trump’s stance on torture is also rooted in the idea that the people affected by custodial violence, most of whom are Muslim men, deserve to be tortured. Trump’s support for torture stems from what Hajjar dubs a “litmus test” that frames human dignity and human rights as “some politically correct liberal fiction.” Hajjar asserted that Trump’s statements about supporting torture techniques due to popular support from the general public reveal he would not be following the law, “which categorically prohibits and criminalizes torture.”

Hajjar provided a historical overview on the use of interrogational torture. In the 20th century, torture was considered morally unacceptable, and the establishment of human rights post World War II made it clear that international law banned torture. Despite moral and legal objections, torture occurred in conflicts around the world in the 20th century, including the Vietnam War, Korean War and in various civil wars of authoritarian states against opposing non-state groups. Hajjar described the torture that occurred in these conflicts as both interrogative and punitive in nature.

During the Korean War, torture was used by the communist North to quickly break American POWs using a combination of physical torture, mental torture and isolation. These tactics were later adopted by the CIA. These methods carried into the 21st century at black sites utilized by the CIA across the world. Hajjar also discussed the importance of analyzing the actions and inactions of the Bush and Obama administrations regarding torture. The Bush administration restarted the torture program, whereas the Obama administration allowed for a lack of accountability and maintained secrecy. This secrecy allows the false narrative that torture works to thrive in the current political climate, while a lack of accountability serves to undermine international law. Hajjar summed this up by saying, “We’re living in a world when it comes to torture there is neither truth nor justice.”  

Professor Hajjar left a great impression on the Drewids in attendance. After some Q&A, several students described how intelligent and important they thought the talk was.

Ragini Shyamsunder (‘17) was one of such students, describing, “Honestly I’ve never learned so much in an hour and a half before. It was a very intensive [lecture], but it was an incredible experience meeting her first-hand and hearing her speak about a huge phenomena.” Shyamsunder added, “I’m glad she has a stance on this horrible topic, and to know that there are so many loopholes and legality issues was very informative. I’m glad she was here to discuss this.”

Alex Smith (’19) added, “I thought it was a very intelligent discussion about torture and gave me some insight into the topic.”

Maggie Holloway (‘20) reflected on the presentation, saying, “I thought that the lecture was very impressive and very appropriate with all that is going on politically in the United States today. It framed torture as its own issue that should be recognized and made more visible to the American public.”

Drewid Sabrina Chmelir (’19) commented on the promise the lecture shows for the rest of the series. “For the first lecture in a series for Law, Justice and Society, it ties a lot into courses in the minor. The turnout was really great. The questions were really engaging and thoughtful and I’m looking forward to future events from this program.”

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