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How Americans Came to Support Torture, in Five Steps

Stats show a sizable majority of Americans refuse to rule out torture entirely. This is no accident; it's the result of a mass persuasion campaign.

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The second element advanced the view that we need not be helpless against this threat because through torture-and torture alone-we can learn what we need to foil the plans of evildoers. Unsubstantiated evidentiary claims, hidden from inspection by veils of secrecy, were used to argue that specific interrogation techniques -- regardless of how they might repulse us - were ultimately the only way we could protect ourselves.

Third was the frequent assurance that those we subjected to torture were themselves guilty of having participated in heinous acts of injustice that caused the loss of many innocent lives. This argument served to diminish concerns the public might have felt over the treatment these individuals received while in custody. Even in the absence of legal proceedings, the detainees could be deemed deserving of the physical and psychological pain inflicted upon them - they were responsible for their own suffering.

Fourth was the repeated assertion that the United States has a finely tuned moral compass and engages in torture only with regret and discomfort, only as a last resort, and only in the service of a far greater good. Sharp contrasts were drawn between "them" and "us"-between the detainees' innate evilness and our inherent goodness, between their vile aims and our righteous purpose. In this context, the interrogators were presented as courageous and heroic, worthy of praise rather than criticism.

The fifth and final component was a concerted effort to stifle open debate when questions about the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" arose. Standard strategy here involved painting skeptics and critics-including human rights leaders and organizations-as untrustworthy, irresponsible, misinformed, weak, or unpatriotic. In so doing, the public was encouraged to discount, ignore, or condemn these voices of concern, and important words of warning therefore went unheeded.

In sum, this seemingly successful campaign of mass persuasion depended upon convincing the public to believe five things: (1) our country is in great danger, (2) torture is the only thing that can keep us safe, (3) the people we torture are monstrous wrongdoers, (4) our decision to torture is moral and for the greater good, and (5) critics of our torture policy should not be trusted. And all the while, the marketers painstakingly avoided using the actual word "torture"-and contested the word's use by anyone else. Of course, this strategy is by no means unique to the selling of torture. A similar approach, designed for hawking war, was used with devastating and tragic effect in building public support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Admittedly, we cannot be sure that torture would be less popular with Americans today if the Bush administration had not worked so hard to promote it. But there is good reason to think this might be the case. After all, the combination of an outsized public relations budget, an overly accommodating mainstream media, and an unwary audience of millions is every marketer's dream. In similar fashion, we cannot really know whether there would now be even greater public support for torture if not for the efforts of those who have steadfastly spoken out against our country's interrogation abuses. Looking ahead, as still more information emerges through declassification of documents, high-level investigations, or congressional hearings, we should expect to hear this five-part sales pitch over and over again from Bush-era torture advocates. But hopefully this next time around, far fewer of us will still be buying.