In late March 2016, a series of powerful bomb blasts killed nearly three dozen people at the international airport in Brussels, Belgium, as well as in a train carriage pulling out of one of the central city’s busy stations.
Within hours of the atrocity, then–presidential candidate Donald Trump had taken to the airwaves and to Twitter. He didn’t make statements expressing moral and emotional solidarity with the victims and their families. Nor did he talk about the extraordinarily complex political and intelligence challenges confronting multicultural Western societies in the face of the ISIS attacks. Instead, he used his platform to proselytize for torture. Salah Abdeslam, the recently captured suspect in the previous year’s Paris attacks, would, said the presidential hopeful, have talked “a lot faster with the torture,” and in doing so might have spilled the beans on his confreres in Belgium before they could launch their own attacks.
Torture had, by that point in the campaign, become Trump’s leitmotif—and he did far more than applaud the waterboarding sanctioned by George W. Bush’s administration, as if that weren’t bad enough. Time and again, Trump urged his crowds of supporters on by dangling before them the prospect of violence for violence’s sake. Time and again, he flaunted his contempt for international norms by embracing torture—the word, for so long taboo, as much as the deed—as an official policy of state.
And yet he never defined exactly what kind of state-sponsored torture he was advocating, or exactly what actions he sought to make the courts, the military, and the general public complicit in.
More than half a millennium ago, as the Spanish Inquisition gathered steam, the fanatical grand inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, wrapped himself in the mantle of faith and declared that he would torture to save souls and destroy heretics. The Inquisition began by liberally employing tormento del agua (a technique the US military and intelligence agencies rebirthed after 2001 with the label “waterboarding”). When this method failed to extract the desired response, Torquemada’s team moved on to more drastic methods, such as the strappado, in which the victims had their hands bound behind their backs and then were hung by them from a rope; and the infamous rack, on which the victims were stretched slowly, dislocating joints and destroying muscles, ligaments, and bones. The list of the Inquisition’s torture techniques is long, and its legacy wafts through the centuries—a potent reminder of the horrors that a handful of fanatics can unleash on a civilization. More than five centuries later, Torquemada’s name still evokes cruelty and extremism.