Lisa Hajjar Speaks About US Torture and its Legacy

On Thursday, Nov. 10, University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Lisa Hajjar visited Scripps to speak to students about how the United States should address the torture of captured terror suspects.

Hajjar is a professor of sociology with an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a PhD in Sociology from American University. She was the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut from 2014 to 2015.

Hajjar spent much of her speech reviewing the history of torture in the 20th and 21st centuries and the United States’ torture program, including how the Bush administration officials deemed it legal, how it was carried out, and the motivations behind it.

Hajjar focused heavily on the fact that the U.S. torture program ran contrary to many post-WWII and Cold War agreements of which the US was apart.

“Radical right wingers used 9/11 and the War on Terror as an opportunity to eviscerate post-World War II restrictions on the ability of nations” to violate basic human rights, Hajjar said.

Overall, she blamed the creation of the torture program on “realpolitik in international affairs” and the “ideological history of right-wing animus toward international law” on the part of Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush administration.

According to Hajjar, Bush administration officials used or created legal loopholes to legalize torture.

Unlike authoritarian regimes, which regularly carry out torture with impunity, “a political democracy in which the government is accountable to the people does not have the luxury of disregarding the law, so officials did not disregard the law, but reinterpreted it,” Hajjar said.

According to Hajjar, these “reinterpretations” included narrowing the definition of torture, creating a new category of “unlawful enemy combatant” to classify terrorists as neither civilians nor enemy combatants, and asserting that Article 2 powers allowed the President to authorize anything he deemed necessary to protect the United States.

Hajjar also addressed the United States’ failure to hold those responsible for committing and enabling the torture of terror suspects.

The Obama administration has “blockaded accountability for officials responsible for gross violations of international law and…justified it as a means of avoiding a partisan battle,” Hajjar said.

The government has also “taken an unprecedentedly punitive approach to whistleblowers” during Obama’s presidency, Hajjar added.

Hajjar believes that the Obama administration’s failure to hold those involved in the torture program responsible for their actions have helped to change Americans’ attitudes towards torture in a negative way.

The lack of action against those involved in torture has “fostered public ignorance about the failures of the torture program, fortified public indifference … and contributed to the coarsening of public attitudes about torture,” Hajjar said.

In addition, Hajjar took note of the impact that Donald Trump’s election may have on the U.S. torture program. Trump claimed that, as President, he would bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” during his campaign.

 “Given the posture of the next president, we very well might see a return to torture,” Hajjar said. She emphasized that the re-prohibition of torture under Obama was carried out “under the shaky grounds of an executive order” which could be repealed by Trump.

Moreover, while Congress passed a law in 2015 affirming that all interrogations must be carried out under the Uniform Law of Military Justice, which prohibits torture, this code could be altered by a pro-torture majority in Congress, according to Hajjar.

Hajjar believes that the U.S. must take steps to acknowledge and properly respond to its history of torture and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

We “need to construct a new narrative about our history [of torture] and its consequences” that “integrates lessons from mistakes and deeply flawed politics,” Hajjar said. This must involve “more declassification, more litigation, and more civic education,” Hajjar added.

Hajjar closed her speech by comparing resistance to torture to the abolitionist movement of the 1800s.

It is “incumbent on all of us to create analytically sound arguments against torture and those who support it…Given the outcome of the elections, civic education and activism against torture may become the 21st-century version of the abolition movement,” Hajjar said.

Hajjar’s talk was the penultimate in a series reflecting on the War on Terror designed to “look critically at the last 15 years of the War on Terror” and “assess its consequences for people living in and outside of the US,” Scripps anthropology professor Lara Deeb said. 

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