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Story highlights

Trump's statements that U.S. should kill families of terrorists and torture are un-American, says Gayle Lemmon

This is a country of laws that represent a basic set of values, says Lemmon

Betraying our values does not strengthen us, it diminishes us and mocks the Founding Fathers

(CNN) —  

Terrorists struck Europe Tuesday and claimed the lives of at least 30 people in two separate attacks in Brussels. And in the United States the leading Republican presidential candidate turned to torture as part of the response.

“Waterboarding would be fine,” Donald Trump told NBC. “If they can expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding.”

Said Trump, “We can’t be soft and weak. You have to get the information and you have to get it rapidly.”

The statement was hardly new. Late last year Trump raised the idea of killing the families of those caught plotting against the United States. “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Courtesy Gayle Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

And in November he told a crowd: “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would — in a heartbeat. … And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, OK? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.”

“And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”

But in the words of Clint Eastwood in “The Unforgiven”: “Deserve has got nothing to do with it.” When it comes to torture, it is not about them, it is about us.

Torture is simply un-American. Recently I met Syrians who had lived under ISIS. Living in poverty and trying to reassemble their lives in southern Turkey, they understood intimately the horrors they had just experienced under a regime composed of sadistic criminals who tortured, maimed and killed without hesitation.

One young woman, now working as a translator, told me of her 60-something-year-old neighbor executed in the street outside his home by an ISIS soldier for failing to follow one of ISIS’ rules. She described a madhouse in which children watch public executions.

Life for women under ISIS was especially brutal, she said. Many were forced from their jobs because of their gender, and girls were barred from getting anything but the most basic education. Women and girls were shoved indoors and forced to more fully cover themselves in public, though few felt safe out of doors

Another woman I spoke with fled for her life from ISIS to safety in Turkey. Now an activist running a women’s center in Turkey, she described a regime that threatened to kill – and often followed through – anyone who dared to speak out against it, including citizen journalists like herself.

This week one Yazidi teen who escaped slavery at the hands of ISIS after being captured by the group at age 15 told of the hell they inflicted: “The worst thing was the torture in Mosul. We were beaten and raped continuously for two weeks,” said Nihad Barakat Shamo Alawsi. “Girls were taken from their families and raped constantly and then they were handed out to ‘emirs.’ “

Against this foe that tortures, enslaves, assassinates, drowns and bombs its enemy, Trump believes we need to do more and to be tougher. I agree. But the answer is not to become more like them.

“It’s very hard to be successful in beating someone when your rules are very soft and their rules are unlimited. They have unlimited: They can do whatever they want to do,” Trump told reporters at a Florida press conference last weekend.

“It’s ridiculous that we have laws and ISIS doesn’t,” he said in Orlando.

But it is not ridiculous. It is American. Because America stands out from other nations because of its adherence to a rule of law. Because it is a nation of liberty, freedom and justice for all. Because its founders believed that it would be governed by laws, not by the whims of any one ruler.

I have covered American wars and written at length about the service, the sacrifice and the valor of its soldiers. And seen the torture and degradation inflicted by America’s enemies.

What makes America different is its values.

In the words of one of its Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson: “Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the Earth, if other regions of the Earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”

And in the words of distinguished veteran and survivor of torture Sen. John McCain on the floor of the Senate just last month: “When we fight to defend our security, we fight also for an idea that all men are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights – that’s all men and women. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves, even momentarily.”

“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”

I could not have said it any better. Betraying our values does not strengthen us, it diminishes us. And it makes a mockery of the monument of which Jefferson spoke.

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