Who cares if American intelligence agents or private contractors tortured terrorism suspects? That is not a rhetorical question. A widely discussed, 2009 Pew Forum poll suggests that the public is evenly divided over the use of torture, with 49% agreeing that it is "often or sometimes justified" and 47% objecting that it is "rarely or never justified." These results may have been skewed by assumptions about torture's effectiveness in extracting information implicit in Pew's multiple choice question: "Torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists is justified... often, sometimes, rarely, never."
What if Pew has posed some variation of this question: "Torture is likely to produce important information from suspected terrorists that might not be produced by other means (often, sometimes, rarely, never)?" What if Pew had asked "Is torture more or less likely to gain important information than other means?"
Still, public support for torture seems likely to reflect partisan allegiances, however questions about it are posed. As Pew noted, "party and ideology are much better predictors of views on torture than are religion and most other demographic factors," sensibly adding that, naturally, religion plays a role in shaping political ideology. (Some atheists reveled in the finding of disproportionate, white evangelical support for torture, regarding it as evidence of religion's tolerance for cruelty; but I imagine that one religious response to the atheists might be -"You simply don't understand the nature of evil and are unwilling to combat it.")
In any case, I suspect that the public view of torture is essentially pragmatic, turning on whether it is regarded as a necessary or reliable means of obtaining information to save American lives. But, I'd also be willing to bet that people will evaluate competing claims about torture's effectiveness through partisan colored glasses, which means that, in the end, public opinion will be determined mainly by partisan loyalties (and maybe indirectly by religious ideologies). Relatively few people will take (or have) the time to examine objectively available evidence of torture's effectiveness; instead, they'll assume the truth of claims asserted by their political heroes or opinion leaders, right and left. Surely the success of demonstrably false claims about "death panels" allegedly embedded in health care reform proposals demonstrated the irrelevance of facts when confronted with lies (or emotional "truths") circulated by influential political partisans.
The battle lines over torture, and torture investigations, are obvious: Ari Fleischer tells the Huffington Post that Attorney General Holder's decision to investigate interrogation abuses is "disgusting ... It's amazing to me that the people who kept us safe may now become the people our government prosecutes." Fleischer smoothly assumes an affirmative answer to the essential question, "did people who engage in torture 'keep us safe?' " Cheney repeats that torture saved lives.
Meanwhile, at salon.com, the admirably indefatigable Glenn Greenwald urges all Americans to read the Inspector General's report describing torture in horrific detail (despite significant redactions). Greenwald, (like other civil libertarians) persuasively objects to Holdler's focus on low level interrogators who engaged in torture, not the lawyers and policy makers who authorized it; but while I share his desire to hold "high-level officials" accountable, I'm skeptical that many people will be moved to oppose torture by reading about it in detail (which relatively few people seem likely to do anyway). The torture debate will probably not be won by moral arguments and disgust over torture's methods (which some may find titillating) or even empirical truths, but by what a majority of people are led to believe is the answer to the question "did torture keep us safe?" Torture opponents had better start declaring that the answer is "No."
(Photo: Flickr User Gribiche)