The World

Why We Need the Gory Details About Torture

“Waterboarding” by artist Steve Lazarides is pictured during a photocall for the exhibition Brutal at the Lazarides Gallery in London, on Oct. 14, 2013. 

Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Since last week’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s treatment of detainees, there’s been a renewed debate over the use of the word torture as opposed to Orwellian euphemisms like enhanced interrogation. The report itself wasn’t shy about the T-word, deploying it more than 130 times. President Obama has used it as well, although his CIA director avoided it. The architects of the program were certainly concerned about the word. As I noted yesterday, a 2002 Justice Department memo approvingly cited a European court decision that found that techniques like stress positions and sleep deprivation were “inhuman and degrading,” but not actually torture.

One new poll suggests this fixation on torture semantics may be misplaced. Forty-nine percent of the respondents to a Washington Post-ABC poll released today agreed that “CIA treatment of suspected terrorists amounted to torture,” while 38 percent disagreed and the rest had no opinion. However, 59 percent believe that “CIA treatment of suspected terrorists was justified” with just 31 percent opposed. The only subgroups that opposed the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists: liberal democrats and atheists.

Does it matter if you include the word torture in the question itself? While other recent polls haven’t mentioned the word at all, a recent Pew survey that asks flat-out whether “torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists can be justified” found a lower but still significant level of support. Americans have only grown more supportive of torture over time, with support increasing since Pew started asking this question in 2004.

Whether you use the word or not, Americans are OK with torture because they believe it’s effective at gaining information that couldn’t be obtained by any other means. The fact that the Senate report knocked down that argument doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction.

If not torture, what do Americans oppose? Things start to change when you get really specific. A recent post on the Washington Post’s Post Everything site by three political scientists notes that when you ask specifically about techniques like “waterboarding,” “sexual humiliation,” and “exposure to extreme heat/cold,” most Americans do oppose them. They’re less bothered by “stress positions” or “sleep deprivation,” which I would imagine is a function of the fact that people don’t understand what they are.

I haven’t seen polling on forced rectal feeding, the most startling interrogation technique discussed in the report, but my guess is that most people would be opposed to that as well. This is how you make the case against torture: Describe exactly what’s being done to detainees in as clear language as possible.

One other intriguing finding in the Post/ABC poll: Fifty-four percent of Americans believe the CIA intentionally misled the White House, Congress, and the public about its activities. Despite this, 52 percent of respondents believe it was wrong to release the report. As with the Edward Snowden revelations, Americans don’t like their intelligence services lying to them, but they also don’t like being told the truth.