I have been knee deep in torture recently. No, I haven’t been tortured nor have I tortured anyone. I have been reading about torture. I recently wrote about torture in my review of Taxi to the Dark Side where I collected links to my previous writings on the subject as well. I also discussed US public opinion about torture a few months ago.
With the recent release of the OLC torture memos, the torture debate has restarted again. There have been calls for prosecuting those who carried out the torture and/or those who made the policy decisions. Obama has called for looking forward instead of backward (imagine if every criminal had the same attitude). Senator McCain is against investigating torture or prosecuting anyone.
I am generally of the opinion that if the state must fall it must fall but we should get to the truth. However, after reading a lot about torture I have a distinct feeling that there is not going to be any prosecutions and even if there are, the chances of acquittal are very high. I find myself agreeing with most of the points Tyler Cowen makes against prosecution. The public opinion just isn’t there against torture (more on this in a bit). Hence, I believe it is more important to build a consensus against torture than to prosecute, as Matt Yglesias argues.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. For starters, we should make sure that the architects of the torture policy, like George Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, etc. are kept far from the levers of power. Therefore, I support efforts to impeach Jay Bybee, former head of OLC and currently a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Also, we need a commission or some other mechanism to make public all the details about torture as practiced during the Bush era.
There are some who think that it was the higher echelons of the Bush administration that was responsible for torture. I think it’s clear now that this is wrong. Democratic leaders might not have ordered the torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) but some of them knew about it and some even approved. Similarly, other Western governments or their intelligence agencies were complicit, directly or indirectly, in renditions, torture, black sites, or sharing intelligence.
While there were courageous people in the military, government and civil society who opposed torture and did try to stop such practices, there were also a lot of others, lawyers, military commanders, CIA personnel and others, who were fully complicit in requesting, approving and implementing torture. I am about to finish reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and it makes the case in detail. See, for example, former CIA counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer’s response or Condi Rice’s defense of imperial powers for the President.
That’s why I found the case of abolishing the CIA to be worth considering. CIA has a history of illegal activities (see Family Jewels and Church Committee Report and Iran-Contra report). Spencer Ackerman argues against abolition of CIA, but I found Quincy Adams and Matt Yglesias more convincing.
As for arguments about torture and its efficacy, I think torture is wrong regardless of whether it can yield any useful information or not. It is possible for torture to extract true information, though typically there’ll be lots of false confessions as well. However, it’s inhuman and morally wrong and that’s why we shouldn’t do it. As Obama said recently:
waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. […] And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways — in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.
I agree wholeheartedly with Kevin Drum’s reasons for opposing torture.
I don’t care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law. I don’t care about the difference between torture and “harsh treatment.” I don’t care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists. I don’t care whether it “works.” I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.
The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement. But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn’t be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn’t be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.
On other things there’s no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide. Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great. Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eye blink.
Let’s look at recent polls about torture and investigation.
In the NBC/WSJ poll, 50% disapprove of Obama ordering the closing of Guantanamo detainee prison and 53% disapprove of the release of the OLC torture memos. 53% think that the Bush administration used torture while 30% say that they didn’t. 46% say that the harsh interrogation helped the US extract information while 42% think it hurt the US by undermining its moral authority. And only 33% want a criminal investigation of the Bush torture policy.
In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, 53% support Obama’s release of the torture memos. 48% think there are cases when torture should be considered and 51% support an investigation of the treatment of detainees.
In a Gallup poll, 51% favor an investigation of harsh interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration, but 55% think such treatment of terrorism suspects was justified.
30%, seem to agree with Cheney’s position that the ends justified the means and that no investigation is necessary. Nearly as many (25%), though, would appear to side with many congressional Democrats who say the techniques should not have been used and an investigation is warranted. Twenty-three percent think the techniques were warranted yet still favor an investigation, while 10% think the methods should not have been used but nevertheless oppose an official inquiry.
66% of Democrats favor an investigation while only 48% of independents and 37% of Republicans do. 39% of Democrats think use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects were justified while 55% of independents and 80% of Republicans agree.
In the New York Times/CBS News poll, 37% say waterboarding and other aggressive techniques are sometimes justified to extract information from a suspected terrorist while 46% disagree. Interestingly, only 16% of African Americans think they are justified. Only 71% consider waterboarding to be torture. 34% want Congress to investigate torture and warrantless wiretapping. 47% want to keep the Gitmo prison while 44% want to close it.
As you can see, there is some variation in these surveys. Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman try to explain why that is. While support for torture investigation varies from 33% to 51% in the various polls, the other numbers are a bit more consistent. The country seems to be almost equally divided on whether the torture memos should have been released and whether the Gitmo prison should be closed. Those who think torture is sometimes or always justified seem to vary from 37% to 55% while opposition to torture never reaches majority status either.
Looking at my previous writing on public opinion about torture, there doesn’t seem to have been any big change in public opinion in the US.
|Often justified||Sometimes justified||Rarely justified||Never justified|
|White non-Hispanic Catholics||19%||32%||27%||20%|
|White mainline Protestants||15%||31%||22%||31%|
|Attend religious services at least weekly||16%||38%||19%||25%|
|Attend religious services monthly||18%||33%||23%||23%|
|Attend religious services seldom or never||12%||30%||27%||26%|
Only a quarter of Americans are against torture under all conditions. This is astounding, but even worse is that only one of six white evangelicals and one in seven Republicans thinks torture is never justified. Even if we are generous and add up the numbers for those who think torture is rarely justified to the “never justified” ones, only 47% of Americans are against the use of torture. But only one-third of white evangelicals and 35% of Republicans are opposed to torture. I guess we could call these people the American Taliban.
While the Pope has come out against torture, among his followers American White Catholics a bare majority believes torture is often or sometimes justified. I wonder if any priest will deny communion to these torture-supporters.
The only groups (among those listed) with a majority who think torture is never or rarely justified are White mainline Protestants (53%), the unaffiliated (55%), those who seldom or never attend religious services (53%) and Democrats (60%). It’s disappointing that even these numbers are so low.
It can be argued that this support of torture by the religious is not a result of their being religious but rather due to the fact that those who are more religious are more likely to be Republicans in the US. I would agree with that, however, if religion can’t even get the deeply religious to oppose such an inhuman practice as torture, what use is such religion?