Tortured Public Opinion

By Matt Zeitlin

Jamelle (and Jonathan Bernstein for that matter) are certainly right that, short of trials and investigations of both torturers and the officials who outlined the torture policy, something like a truth and  reconciliation commission is a good idea. But such a thing would only work in “rebuilding the American consensus against torture” if there actually is an American consensus against torture. Such a question of course partially depends on your definition of consensus, but it’s hardly clear that anything called a consensus exists today.

There were  a spate of polls on torture and torture trials in 2009 and they basically showed the country split on whether or not to investigate torture. This Gallup poll showed 51% supporting an investigation and 42% opposing one and 55% saying that “harsh interrogations techniques” were justified and 36% saying they were unjustified. So, it’s seems like that not everyone who supports an investigation necessarily thinks torture is wrong, or at the very least there isn’t a consensus about it. A Pew poll at around the same time showed that 49% of respondents thought torture to gain information was often or sometimes justified and 47% thought it was rarely or never justified. More importantly, if you wanted to show a consensus against torture, you might just look at the percentage of people who said “never,” which was 25%.

It’s clear that a wide swathe of those in power and in Congress — basically all Republicans and a good number of Democrats — is opposed to investigations in a way that’s out of sync with roughly half of the population which supports them (or at least did in April of 2009), but it’s far from clear that there’s any sort of consensus that torture is generally wrong or that it was wrong when used by the Bush administration since 9/11. In such an environment, it’s hard to see how a truth and reconciliation style process could work; it might very well just give Dick Cheney and his acolytes a bigger forum from which to convince more Americans that they’re right.

Also, here’s a good paper by Darius Rejali and Paul Gronke that discusses torture and public opinion.