Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Opinion on Torture

The political science journal PS: Political Science and Politics has, in its new issue, a symposium on terrorism and human rights, with seven articles -- and they've made it freely available (via, by the way, John Sides at the Monkey Cage -- I haven't received my issue, yet).   From the editor's introduction:

Can governments prevent terrorism while also respecting human rights, or must authorities trade off some human rights to reduce terrorism?  If the latter is the case, which human rights can or should be sacrificed for the goal of stopping terrorism?
I've only read one article so far, on public opinion and torture.  John Sides sums it up nicely, so I'll send you there for that.  The interesting, and certainly depressing, part of their data is that public opinion, after opposing torture throughout the Bush administration, is now moving in favor of torture (although only in limited ways, and based on limited data).  The last two polls reported in the article, from June and November 2009, showed slim majorities favoring torture.  As I check, doesn't list any new polls since then. 

The article focuses on the question of why people believe(d) that there was strong support for torture despite polling that showed otherwise.  I think they have a good argument, but I think that the article understates the changes in the rhetoric surrounding torture over the years -- a change that regular readers of the news know about, but which as far as I know has not really been carefully documented.  Remember, before the revelations about Abu Ghraiib in spring 2004, there was really no public hint of American torture.  The debate -- and there was a debate, since otherwise no one would have polled on the question -- was discussed as if it was hypothetical: if there was a ticking bomb situation, then was torture OK; Jack Bauer and "24" had debuted in November 2001. 

The next phase, after Abu Ghraib, also evoked close to unanimity.  Almost everyone agreed that the story of Abu Ghraib was one of horrible abuse; the question was whether it was, as the president and other high administration officials maintained, a case of a few misbehaving soldiers, or whether higher-ups were responsible as well.  Again, I'm relying on memory here, but while if I recall correctly there was a bit, around the fringes, of talk about how Abu Ghraib wasn't quite as bad as all that, for the most part anyone taking opinion leadership from the White House would have strongly opposed torture in 2004. 

Only after that, as more and more was revealed, was opinion leadership more ambiguous.  In 2004, it was perfectly possible to fully support George W. Bush while fully opposing torture.  Over the next couple of years, much of the conservative response to revelations of torture consisted of denial, not defense; this was all just liberal media exaggerations.  It took time for Republicans in and out of government to shift to an (almost) full defense of torture, although there was still a split between defending specific actions and defending the general category of torture, which was still strongly denounced by the president.  That's the context of the notorious decision of the New York Times and others to avoid describing actions by Americans as torture.

By 2008, the only way to fully support George W. Bush was to oppose torture but to either ignore the vast evidence of what the United States had done, or to oppose torture but define it narrowly to exclude virtually everything that had every been considered to be torture.  And after the election, the emphasis shifted again, and while few have explicitly said that "torture" per se is good, the disclaimers are increasingly, as far as I can see, less and less prominent.  The old debate about whether the revelations were true, a very live debate through the middle of Bush's second term, is long gone, and explicit torture supporters (explicit in supporting everything but the actual word) dominate conservative discussion of the issue.

What I'd emphasize here is just how recent all this is, and how well the data described in the article match changes in opinion leadership.  The authors find virtually no change in support for torture from late 2001 through about 2005, followed by gradual gains for support of torture beginning in around 2006 and continuing through last year. I agree with the authors' conclusions of where we are now:
We believe that torture may have become a partisan symbol, distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, that demonstrates hawkishness on national security in the same way that being supportive of the death penalty indicates that a person is tough on crime.
I continue to believe that this was preventable, and reflects a serious error by the Obama Administration.  There are many prominent Republicans who (almost certainly) share the traditional American consensus about torture, and there are steps Obama could have taken to amplify their voices, and to marginalize the torture apologists.  Of course, prominent Republican opponents of torture bear a heavy responsibility as well.  They could have spoken up, regardless of the consequences to their own careers within the party.  They could still speak up now.


  1. Wow. This is important work. Much to read and chew on. I've been waiting for this kind of work. I am relieved, as a layperson, to know that there is a named and examined concept for my extremely frustrating experience of debating reputable beltway journalists of known good will who considered me a far leftwing freak (on the political scale) for my stated opposition to torture. False consensus. They were, of course, inundated by constant and aggressive pushback by Bush Administration officials and their allies, and sincerely believed that "everyone" thought these techniques were okay. They had been convinced that these "mild" techniques such as "slapping" (otherwise known as "beating") and the "dunk in the water" (otherwise known as controlled drowning) wasn't really torture like pulling out fingernails.

    I have only one quibble with your thoughts here, Jonathan, when you say "Remember, before the revelations about Abu Ghraiib[sic] in spring 2004, there was really no public hint of American torture." Yes. There was. Mere weeks after 911, a number of trial balloons were floated about how acceptable torture would be to the American public. Here's a piece by Walter Pincus: Silence of 4 Terror Probe Suspects Poses Dilemma ( but it was a subject of shocked and disbelieving debate for a number of months thereafter. A number of unlikely people jumped in with full-throated approval. Right around that time came word of the deaths of Dilawar and a couple of other prisoners. Only the most naive of people wouldn't know that they were torturing people (to death) in Afghanistan.

    Thanks for bringing this work to my attention. I would have missed it if I didn't read Plain Blog.

  2. You're very correct to point out how quickly this all changed. When the Abu Ghraib revelations came out, I can't recall a single person saying that torture was acceptable, either within the Bush administration or elsewhere. Within five years, virtually every Republican who opined on the issue, up to the outgoing president himself, said that torture was not only acceptable but necessary.

    If nothing else, you'd think the press would call them out for their hypocrisy.

  3. And now, there really is a ticking time bomb: the inquiry that the new British government just launched. That's almost certainly going to produce revelations to which American political and opinion leaders will be obliged to react. So Obama's not done with this issue yet, much as he apparently wishes he could be.

  4. Rush Limbaugh fiercely defended the Abu Ghraib perpetrators, with scorn for those who criticized them.

  5. Well, good for Rush. He may be a vile, amoral monster, but at least he's consistent about it.

    Actually, that's probably a pretty good reason why torture support became so quickly widespread among the GOP.


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