The Sad Truth About How Americans Think About Torture, in Three Charts

The Sad Truth About How Americans Think About Torture, in Three Charts

Is torture acceptable? For most Americans, the answer is yes; it just depends on what kind of torture you're talking about.

That's the takeaway from a new poll from YouGov following the release of the Senate's long-awaited investigation into the CIA's interrogation and detention techniques during the Bush administration. The YouGov poll, conducted this week, notes that the release of the so-called Torture Report has done little to change American views on torture: When Americans are asked about suspected terrorists "who may know details about future attacks against the U.S.," only 24% are prepared to say the use of torture is "never" justified, a negligible change from April when 22% said it was never justified.

More disturbingly, American views on torture become more complicated depending on the technique deployed by an interrogator. 

"Like so many other issues, views about torture are highly polarized politically," explains YouGov researcher Will Jordan. "Thirty-eight percent of Democrats say torture is never justified, compared to just 11% of Republicans. Republicans are also more open to all of the specified tactics than their Democratic counterparts. In fact, while Democrats tend to say all of the nine tactics are unacceptable, Republicans tend to say all of them are acceptable, with one exception: People of all political persuasions reject the use of rectal feeding."

This YouGov data isn't surprising: In August 2011, a narrow majority (53%) of Americans said the use of torture could be sometimes or often justified, with just 42% saying it could only rarely be justified or not be justified at all.

This means that Americans aren't fundamentally opposed to torture. We generally think of torture as a violation of human dignity, but those principles simply don't hold up in the real world. This poses major issues for how we think about not just America, but human morality.

Consider this: We evaluate principles like "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," enshrined in the Constitution, to supersede any and all preferences of the government. We hold those truths to be self-evident as natural laws, codified and systematized in our written Constitution. We believe the American value system is based on deontological ethics, the value system in which we judge actions based on their adherence to strict ethical rules, like "human life is sacred" or "property is sacred." And the general position is that human beings are ends in themselves, not means to an end to be manipulated or exploited by the state.

While the Constitution codifies and asserts these fundamental "natural" rights for Americans, the U.N.'s myriad declarations on human rights (of which America was an architect after World War II) do the same for all people of all stripes. Human dignity, the ethical principle by which we judge torture, is allegedly inviolable and sacrosanct.

But the YouGov polling reveals that this is bullshit. Regardless of how Americans may claim to value human decency, and despite how many politicians make broad proclamations about the nation's moral standing, the truth is that we could give less than half a fuck about human rights of any stripe. Deontological ethics only work when the rules and principles we subscribe to are valued above anything else. The YouGov polling reveals that our principles are only intact as long as we're not anally raping people with feeding tools. Even Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, the "originalist" justice who takes the Constitution at its face value, argued Friday that the Constitution is actually silent on torture

The sad truth about Americans and torture is that, as the Atlantic's Peter Beinart wrote, torture is who we are now. This is why the torture report doesn't matter: We never really had a problem with torture in the first place.