Since the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report, numerous commentators have gestured to opinion polls that show significant levels of public support for the practice. They conclude that the American people are at least partially responsible for the fact that torture was (and probably will be again) formal U.S. government policy. Christopher Ingraham argues in The Washington Post that most Americans are "fine" with torture, while Peter Beinart argues in The Atlantic that torture is "who we are."
These arguments are partially correct. A majority of Americans (especially Republicans) do support torture in the abstract. And Beinart is particularly correct to note that America's historical legacy is violent in the extreme — torture and a dozen other brands of systematic violence are central to American history. The fact that nobody in power is going to enforce the law, for the obvious reason that it would be politically inconvenient, is a great stain on American democracy, as David Simon, the creator of The Wire, argues.
But it's something of a cop-out to blame the American people. In fact, political and media elites are to a very great degree responsible for the state of public opinion on torture. Insofar as torture has been partially legitimized as an American practice, elites are deeply implicated.
But first, we need to deal with the question of the efficacy of torture. There is an ongoing argument among anti-torture advocates about this question, with one side arguing (as Dan Drezner does) that making this case is important on the merits, and the other side (including Nathan Pippenger) saying that such a debate inherently legitimizes the practice. The implication is that if it did work, we would have to consider supporting it.
If torture were, in fact, a great method of producing intelligence, then this would be a queasy question indeed. But we don't live in such a world. In fact, torture is absolute garbage for intelligence work. This fact is firmly established; look no further than Darius Rejali's massive book on torture, which is the last word on the subject. I think it would be rather foolish to ignore this, given how solidly we know it to be true. As Daniel Larison writes, we can hold two thoughts in our head at once: "torture is absolutely wrong and absolutely useless."
But Dick Cheney and many other Republican elites are out there loudly defending torture as good practice. Those assertions, baseless as they are, are reflected in the polls — but that's not the half of it.
Polls are also at fault. In a fascinating and highly disturbing study from 2010, Rejali and several co-authors compiled a comprehensive list of every poll that asked people about the use of torture against suspected terrorists. They established that when polls provide specific descriptions of the worst kinds of CIA torture, anti-torture sentiment spikes dramatically. When the truth is spelled out, as opposed to being wrapped in the generic term "torture," the American people are much more strongly opposed to what the CIA has done than is popularly supposed.
It gets worse, though. The authors found that these surveys strongly loaded the questions in favor of torture:
Crucially, in these surveys, the respondent is not asked whether they think torture is effective. The effectiveness of torture is presumed in the question. Respondents are told that the person in custody may be a terrorist and may have information about future terrorist attacks... These are conditions in which it would seem almost patriotic to affirm torture (and dangerous to oppose it). [Symposium: Terrorism and Human Rights]
As we know, this is a false presumption. What it means is that for the last decade mainstream American polling organizations have essentially been conducting pro-torture push polls.
The American entertainment industry has been behaving in a similar fashion. Movies, TV shows, and videogames are swimming in depictions of torture as a quick and easy way of gathering reliable intelligence. A recalcitrant detainee giving up the goods after being beaten is now a reliable action movie trope. The show 24 is probably the worst offender, but there are hundreds of other examples, including Zero Dark Thirty, which claimed, as a matter of the historical record, that torture led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Even Captain America 2, which takes a strong civil liberties stance, has a mock execution sequence. (24 also popularized the ticking time bomb scenario, which we also now know isn't remotely connected to reality.)
Knowing as we do that torture does not work like this, such depictions and polls are ethically monstrous. The American political and media elite have been, in effect, conducting a blatantly false, pro-torture propaganda campaign, one which, unfortunately, did not stay in the popular culture sphere. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate years ago, "The lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited [24's Jack] Bauer more frequently than the Constitution."
In another piece, Rejali, Paul Gronke, and Peter Miller note that though pro-torture opinion has trended upwards a bit in recent times, Americans are still strongly against techniques like waterboarding, electric shock, and sexual humiliation. They chalk up the conventional wisdom that Americans support torture as "false consensus...a coping mechanism long known to psychologists whereby we project our views onto others."
Instead of blaming the American people for the mainstreaming of torture, political and media elites should acknowledge their own guilt.