How Americans Think About Torture - and Why

In recent weeks, new revelations about the harsh interrogation and torture of detainees during the Bush administration years have made headlines and stirred controversy. The positions of prominent advocates and opponents on each side are clear. But what do we know about how the American people in general have come to view the use of torture by the U.S. government?

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has been polling Americans on this key question for almost five years. Since 2004, representative samples have been asked, "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?" The results over this time period have shown only minor fluctuations. The most recent numbers, from last month, reveal that 15% of Americans believe torture is often justified, 34% think it is sometimes justified, 22% consider it rarely justified, and 25% believe torture is never justified. So not only do 49% consider torture justified at least some of the time, fully 71% refuse to rule it out entirely.

Further insight into these numbers can be garnered from a different poll conducted a few months ago, in January 2009. Fox News/Opinion Dynamics asked a national sample of Americans, "Do you think the use of harsh interrogation techniques, including torture, has ever saved American lives since the September 11 (2001) terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?" The results: 45% "Yes" and 41% "No" (with 14% responding "Don't Know"). In other words, almost half of Americans think torture "works."

Polling data on how Americans view specific interrogation techniques that were part of the Bush era arsenal are harder to find. But a national Gallup poll in January 2005, about eight months after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, sheds some light here. The following question was posed: "Here is a list of possible interrogation techniques that can be used on prisoners. Do you think it is right or wrong for the U.S. government to use them on prisoners suspected of having information about possible terrorist attacks against the United States?" In order of approval percentages, the survey found that 50% approved of depriving prisoners of sleep for several days; 36% approved of threatening to transfer prisoners to a country known for using torture; 29% approved of threatening prisoners with dogs; 18 % approved of forcing prisoners to remain naked and chained in uncomfortable positions in cold rooms for several hours; 14% approved of strapping prisoners on boards and forcing their heads underwater until they think they are drowning; and 13% approved of having female interrogators make physical contact with Muslim men during religious observances that prohibit such contact.

Based on this sampling of polling results, it is easy at first to be surprised and troubled by the degree to which Americans have expressed support for the inhumane treatment and torture of detainees. But public sentiment on such matters does not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it often reflects the influence of carefully orchestrated marketing campaigns by powerful vested interests eager to shape opinion in support of a specific agenda or facts on the ground. Certainly it is now well known that the Bush administration embraced the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in national security settings. It is therefore instructive to carefully consider the five-pronged message that they and their backers promoted to create a citizenry supportive of torture.

The first component involved fostering a "war on terror" environment of pervasive fear in which the prospect of massive, catastrophic harm was repeatedly given center stage. Spurred on by improbable ticking time-bomb scenarios where every second matters, perceptions of an urgent need to protect the country from looming disaster created a "whatever it takes" mentality in which efforts to extract crucial information through harsh interrogations and torture became a "no brainer."

The second element advanced the view that we need not be helpless against this threat because through torture--and torture alone--we can learn what we need to foil the plans of evildoers. Unsubstantiated evidentiary claims, hidden from inspection by veils of secrecy, were used to argue that specific interrogation techniques--regardless of how they might repulse us--were ultimately the only way we could protect ourselves.

Third was the frequent assurance that those we subjected to torture were themselves guilty of having participated in heinous acts of injustice that caused the loss of many innocent lives. This argument served to diminish concerns the public might have felt over the treatment these individuals received while in custody. Even in the absence of legal proceedings, the detainees could be deemed deserving of the physical and psychological pain inflicted upon them--they were responsible for their own suffering.

Fourth was the repeated assertion that the United States has a finely tuned moral compass and engages in torture only with regret and discomfort, only as a last resort, and only in the service of a far greater good. Sharp contrasts were drawn between "them" and "us"--between the detainees' innate evilness and our inherent goodness, between their vile aims and our righteous purpose. In this context, the interrogators were presented as courageous and heroic, worthy of praise rather than criticism.

The fifth and final component was a concerted effort to stifle open debate when questions about the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" arose. Standard strategy here involved painting skeptics and critics--including human rights leaders and organizations--as untrustworthy, irresponsible, misinformed, weak, or unpatriotic. In so doing, the public was encouraged to discount, ignore, or condemn these voices of concern, and important words of warning therefore went unheeded.

In sum, this seemingly successful campaign of mass persuasion depended upon convincing the public to believe five things: (1) our country is in great danger, (2) torture is the only thing that can keep us safe, (3) the people we torture are monstrous wrongdoers, (4) our decision to torture is moral and for the greater good, and (5) critics of our torture policy should not be trusted. And all the while, the marketers painstakingly avoided using the actual word "torture"--and contested the word's use by anyone else. Of course, this strategy is by no means unique to the selling of torture. A similar approach, designed for hawking war, was used with devastating and tragic effect in building public support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Admittedly, we cannot be sure that torture would be less popular with Americans today if the Bush administration had not worked so hard to promote it. But there is good reason to think this might be the case. After all, the combination of an outsized public relations budget, an overly accommodating mainstream media, and an unwary audience of millions is every marketer's dream. In similar fashion, we cannot really know whether there would now be even greater public support for torture if not for the efforts of those who have steadfastly spoken out against our country's interrogation abuses. Looking ahead, as still more information emerges through declassification of documents, high-level investigations, or congressional hearings, we should expect to hear this five-part sales pitch over and over again from Bush-era torture advocates. But hopefully this next time around, far fewer of us will still be buying.

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