Nearly Half of Americans Support Use of Torture

Thursday, December 08, 2016
(photo: ABBPhoto via Getty Images)


By Somini Sengupta, New York Times


UNITED NATIONS — Nearly half of Americans in a global survey said they believed an enemy fighter could be tortured to extract information, according to results released Monday. That finding puts respondents in the United States in contrast with citizens of many countries and at odds with international law, which prohibits torture under any circumstances.


The results were part of a poll (pdf) carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which surveyed 17,000 people in 16 countries, including many nations in conflict or recovering from conflict, to gauge public opinion about the laws of war.


The findings on torture were among the starkest. Among Americans, 46 percent said torture could be used to obtain information from an enemy combatant, while 30 percent disagreed and the rest said they did not know. On a more general question, one in three said torture was “part of war,” just over half called it “wrong,” and the rest said they did not know or preferred not to answer.


Torture is a war crime, according to international law. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said recently that she had reasonable grounds to open an investigation into allegations of torture by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.


On the campaign trail, Donald Trump endorsed waterboarding, claiming that “it works.” He has suggested a shift in thinking since his election, saying that his nominee for defense secretary, Gen. James N. Mattis, believes there are more effective tactics for extracting important information from detainees.


In the survey, only Israelis, Palestinians and Nigerians seemed to endorse torture as enthusiastically as Americans. In Afghanistan, by contrast, 83 percent of those surveyed said torture was wrong; in Colombia, that number was 85 percent.


Worldwide, two-thirds of those surveyed said torture was wrong, though on the more specific question of whether it could be used to extract information from an enemy fighter, just under half said it was wrong.


One of the greatest contrasts in opinions on the rules of war was between the citizens of the world’s most powerful countries and the citizens of countries at war.


Take, for instance, a question to gauge views on the killing or injuring of humanitarian workers in a conflict zone. Among people surveyed in the United States, Russia, France, China and Britain — the five countries that have permanent veto-wielding seats on the U.N. Security Council — 40 percent said it was part of war.


Among people in countries at war, including Syria and Yemen, only 25 percent said it was part of war, and nearly all of the rest said they considered it to be wrong.


Similarly, on a question about attacks on hospitals, a larger share of people in the Security Council’s five permanent member countries said such acts were part of war. Like torture, deliberate attacks on health care facilities and aid workers are illegal, according to international law.


To Learn More:

People on War: Perspectives from 16 Countries (International Committee of the Red Cross) (pdf)

Int’l Criminal Court Considers War Crimes Probe of U.S. Military and CIA Torture in Afghanistan (by Mike Corder, Associated Press)

One-Third of Americans—and Nearly Half the People around the World—Fear Torture if Taken into Custody (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Doctors Working for U.S. Military Took Part in Detainee Torture, and Army Field Manual Still Allows It (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Obama: Torture Okay if Just Following Orders (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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