Americans’ Support for Torture

The recent passing of Arizona Senator John McCain reminded Americans of his role as an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration’s use “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the questioning of military detainees.  These techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, electric shock, and forced stress positions, are widely considered torture, prohibited under international law, and are unauthorized by the U.S. Army’s Field Manual for Intelligence Interrogations.

The senator’s opposition to these interrogation methods was borne out of personal experience.  McCain became a public figure in 1967, when, as a naval aviator, his plane was shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War.  McCain was held as a prisoner of war for five years and was subjected to solitary confinement and torturous treatment that left him with permanent injuries.

But what do typical Americans think about the government’s use of torture?  The question is important because democracies are often thought to promote an adherence of human rights.  Indeed, research suggests that countries with elections and other democratic institutions typically violate human rights less than their autocratic counterparts (see Cingranelli and Filippov 2010).  Yet, democracy is not a panacea for stopping human rights violations.  If a subset of voters support the use of torture under certain conditions, democratic governments may feel empowered to violate the human rights of detainees.

In a recent paper, which I published in the journal Political Behavior with Courtenay Conrad, Sarah Croco, and the late Will Moore, we investigate the conditions under which Americans are likely to express support for the government’s use of torture.  We argue that the public is most likely to support government’s use of torture when the abuse is directed at individuals who they perceive as threatening.  Specifically, we tested whether the support for torture is influenced by 1) the racial/ethnic identity of the detainee and 2) the allegations surrounding a suspect’s detention.

In our study, we embedded an experimental design within a nationally representative survey of U.S. voters.  Survey respondents were presented a hypothetical situation in which they were informed that a suspect had been detained by government officials and was uncooperative during questioning.  The respondents were then asked if they “agree or disagree with the decision to use interrogation tactics that would inflict severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” against the detainee.  The racial/ethnic identity of the suspect and the nature of the allegations were randomly assigned in order to alter the respondents’ perceptions of the threat associated with the detainee.  First, we randomized the suspect’s name—a relatively subtle cue—across Caucasian (William Shaw), Latino (Hector Gonzalez), or Arab (Ahmad Nazari) conditions.  Our expectation was that Americans would be more supportive of the torture of detainees who they perceive as being Arab or Latino.  Second, we also randomly altered the nature of the crime.  In the control condition, we told the survey respondents that the suspect was simply “picked up by government officials.”  In what we term a “terror” condition, the respondents were told that the suspect was picked up by government officials “while driving a rental truck full of fertilizer and ammonia”—an allusion to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.   Our expectation was that Americans would be more supportive of the torture of detainees who were suspected of a terror plot.

We find empirical support for the argument that Americans are considerably more supportive of government abuse when it is directed at individuals who they perceive as threatening.  As expected, Americans were more supportive of the harsh treatment of the Latino detainee than the Caucasian detainee, but this difference was not statistically significant and thus possibly attributable to chance.  However, respondents were significantly more likely to support harsh interrogation tactics for the Arab detainee than the Caucasian and Latino detainees.  This increased willingness to torture Arab suspects was evident regardless of the nature of his arrest.  Thus, for many Americans, the mere knowledge that a criminal detainee is Arab increases their willingness to violate the suspect’s basic human rights.

Respondents in our study were highly sensitive to the threat of terrorism, expressing markedly higher levels of support for government’s use of torture when the detainee was suspected of a terror plot.  But this finding appears to be conditional on the race of the detainee.  For instance, when survey respondents were told the suspect’s name was William Shaw (our Caucasian treatment), support torture was higher under the terror condition than control condition, but we cannot rule out that these differences were due to chance.  This is not the case when respondents were told the suspect’s name was either Hector Gonzalez or Ahmad Nazari.  When the subject was Latino or Arab, the terror condition significantly increased the respondents’ willingness to support the government’s use of torture (see Figure 1).

figure 1

Figure 1. Effect of Race/Ethnicity of Detainee and Crime/Terror Frame on Support of Torture.  Notes: Center lines represent the average treatment group placement on an ordinal 7-point scale. A value of 1 indicates the respondents “strongly disagree” with torture, and a value of 7 “strongly agree” with torture.  The upper and lower bounds of the box are the one-sided 95% confidence intervals.  (Adapted from Conrad, Croco, Gomez, and Moore 2018)

Our findings are sobering and call into question the extent to which public opinion can serve as a bulwark in the protection of a fundamental, universally-recognized human right.  Indeed, that we were able to observe normatively negative effects with such a “mild” terror cue involving no fatalities or hard evidence of wrongdoing underscores how malleable public opinion can be when threat is raised.  Perhaps more troubling, our results suggest that citizens support for torture can be activated by appealing to an individual’s perception of threat.  Americans’ attitudes toward government torture are malleable precisely when governments are most likely to have an interest in engaging in abuse…under conditions of threat.  Our results suggest that democratic institutions, such as constitutional protections and independent courts are likely stronger safeguards against government torture than public opinion.

bradBrad T. Gomez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University.  His research and teaching interest focus on public opinion, electoral behavior, and the U.S. Congress.


The featured image is from Vice.

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