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Trump might be ‘fine’ with torture, but most Americans aren’t

The alleged popularity of torture is based on flawed polling

February 22, 2016 2:00AM ET

In the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz said he would bring back “enhanced interrogation techniques” if the U.S. faced “an imminent terrorist attack.” Frontrunner Donald Trump went even further, saying that waterboarding is “fine” and “much tougher than that is fine.” But Congress has outlawed the Central Intelligence Agency’s enhanced techniques, while professional interrogators say they’re ineffective, and the agency might well refuse to employ such methods again.

Why, then, are politicians continuing to propose them?

The answer appears to be simple: Most Americans support torture. Pew, for example, found in 2005 that 45 percent of Americans approved of torture (versus 52 percent opposed). By 2007, that number had risen to 48 percent and, by late 2009, to 54 percent. The release of the Senate’s torture report in 2014 made no difference: Pew’s most recent poll found that 58 percent of Americans said the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” could be justified.

Support for torture is particularly strong among Republicans: In the 2015 poll, for example, a hefty 73 percent came out in favor, compared with 46 percent of Democrats. Moreover, after the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino late last year, Americans are particularly concerned about national security. No wonder, then, that Trump, Cruz and their GOP rivals support harsh interrogation: They are reflecting the preferences of most Republican voters.

But there is more to these polls than meets the eye. Those who do back torture tend to support its use in exceptional circumstances, such as the “ticking time-bomb” scenario, when a bomb is about to go off and torture is required to find it. When politicians say they will reauthorize the rough stuff, it is usually for such restricted situations. While this might amount to occasional support for harsh methods, it is hardly the same as unqualified enthusiasm. So, a CBS poll from 2014 found that 49 percent of Americans thought enhanced interrogation techniques were “sometimes justified,” versus 36 percent who did not.

Apologists for waterboarding often emphasize that it was used “sparingly,” by the CIA as former Gov. Jeb Bush said recently, which points to an underlying belief that such tactics should not be routine. At the New Hampshire debate, for example, Cruz said he wouldn’t bring back enhanced interrogation in any sort of “widespread use” because “bad things happen” when it spreads. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he is comfortable with the current legislative ban on torture, but feels there could be a “Jack Bauer moment” when harder methods are needed.

Jack Bauer is, of course, not a real person, but the fictional hero of the TV series “24,” who often tortures captives to find ticking bombs before they detonate. But the “ticking bomb” hypothetical is just that — a hypothetical — which, according to veteran FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan, “doesn’t happen” in reality. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in its long study of the CIA’s interrogation program, “never found an example of this hypothetical ticking bomb scenario,” said its former Committee Chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Besides, even if such situations did arise, there is no reason to believe torture would help. Jose Padilla, for example, was suspected of planning a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack in the U.S., but he was caught thanks to intelligence from non-coercive FBI interrogations, not from CIA sessions. Indeed, veteran interrogators, backed up by burgeoning scientific research, insist that coercion doesn’t provide reliable information.

If Americans are presented with facts, their attitudes to torture change dramatically.

Polls have often presented respondents with ticking-bomb-type scenarios, assuming that torture is the only way to get time-sensitive information. Faced with such loaded questions, it is unsurprising that many come out in favor of hard measures. But when questions are rooted in reality, not fantasy, the results are very different. For instance, a 2015 poll commissioned by the Constitution Project asked Americans if they agreed with the statement “Our government should not use torture if we think there may be other ways to obtain information about terrorists.” Seventy-six percent of respondents (including 69 percent of Republicans) agreed. In short, if Americans are presented with facts, their attitudes to torture change dramatically.

Furthermore, when Americans are asked about specific torture techniques, support dips. Polling data from 2004 and 2005 recorded consistent opposition to most of the CIA techniques, including waterboarding. A 2014 YouGov survey showed that most respondents disapproved of all but one of the harsh measures. True, the same poll concluded that attitudes to torture were strongly divided along partisan lines, and that majorities of Republicans backed individual interrogation tactics. But the Constitution Project found in 2015 that “large majorities” of the public opposed specific methods: 71 percent disapproved of waterboarding, for instance, while only 23 percent approved (importantly, Republican respondents were split, with 48 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving of the method).

Although the American public appears to be uneasy about the use of waterboarding, Trump has vowed to authorize a “hell of a lot worse.” He has not specified exactly what he means by “worse,” and there is minimal polling data for more extreme techniques. However, two polls in 2004 asked respondents what they thought of torture with electric shock — which the CIA never used — and the answers were overwhelmingly negative, with 82 percent opposed and 17 percent in favor in one of the studies. A 2014 YouGov poll found that most Americans, and most Republicans, disapproved of “rectal feeding,” which was not one of the original “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Trump recently reiterated his pro-torture position in an op-ed at USA Today and at a gathering in South Carolina. Given that respondents in polls are divided about waterboarding, would they really favor using harsher methods? As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote, Trump’s views “suggest a willingness to push the envelope beyond perhaps where even most Republicans would be comfortable going.”  

Americans have often been derided as backward and violent. Oscar Wilde, for one, quipped that “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” The idea that most people in the U.S. support torture plays into this stereotype, but the reality is more complicated.

Rupert Stone is a London-born independent journalist working on national security and counterterrorism. Before becoming a journalist, he studied classics at the University of Oxford and philosophy at the University of London.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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