Ryan Sager's new neuroscience blog (an idea whose time has surely come) cites a fascinating study on how strongly we react to torture. A lot of it depends on who is being tortured - and people with brown skins, beards and funny names don't fare so well:
“Pursuing moral outrage: Anger at torture,” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (PDF here; HTML here), looked at people’s responses to fictional accounts of torture (presented as actual news reports of torture), one scenario featuring a U.S. Marine being tortured by Iraqi insurgents and the other featuring a Sri Lankan soldier being tortured by Tamil rebels.
The results were stark, if not entirely unexpected given what we know about human nature.
While the participants in the study (48 psychology students at the University of Kansas) rated both the torture of the U.S. Marine and the Sri Lankan soldier as morally wrong (around a 7 in both cases, on a scale from 1-9, with nine being totally immoral), the level of anger they reported in response to the two scenarios was wildly divergent. Basically, the torture of the U.S. Marine made them angry (a 4 on a scale of 1-7), while the torture of a Sri Lankan soldier was of less concern (a 2 on a scale of 1-7).