Two days after President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, he signed an executive order that made waterboarding illegal, as well as other interrogation methods that are not listed in Army Field Manual 2-22.3. More than three years later, a YouGov poll of 1,000 Americans has found that more Americans are in support of torturing terrorists in general and of certain torture techniques including, yes, strapping a person to a board and dunking their head in water to simulate drowning.
Amy Zagert, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, requested the YouGov poll and reviews the results in an article appropriately entitled “Torture Creep” in Foreign Policy. Of those surveyed,
More respondents endorsed the use of torture and specific torture techniques than did those answering similar questions in a January 2005 USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll. For instance, 18 percent of people were in favor of the naked chaining technique in 2005 and 79 percent against it; in 2012, 30 percent think this practice is acceptable and only 51 percent think it is wrong.
Why Do More Americans Support the Use of Torture?
Zagert offers three reasons as to why more Americans are in favor of torture. One is precisely because we have a Democratic president: As there is a general perception that Democrats are weaker on issues of national security, Americans are more inclined to think “assassinations and harsh interrogation practices are justified” when a Democratic president employs them. While noting that under Obama, “many contentious Bush-era counterterrorism policies — military commissions, indefinite detentions, and the targeted-killing-by-drone program” have remained in place and even been expanded, the use of “harsh interrogation policies” are not among them.
As Zagert also observes, the outrage over the use of such policies has faded as the controversy over them has. When was the last time that you saw photos of the Abu Ghraib scandal or references to Lynndie England?
At a time when media references to torture have dwindled, Zagert suggests that Hollywood, via popular spy movies and television shows, is behind the public’s current consciousness and perceptions about torture. Interest in such spy-themed entertainment has “skyrocketed” in the past decade, writes Zagert:
… there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the boundary between fake spies and the real world is blurring in some disconcerting ways, from CIA directors pondering Hollywood hypotheticals in their confirmation hearings to Twitter users thanking Jack Bauer when Osama bin Laden was killed.
Now, this new poll is the first hard data suggesting that spy fiction might be influencing public opinion about real intelligence issues. The YouGov poll results reveal that Americans who say they frequently watch spy-themed television shows or movies are significantly more likely than infrequent watchers to approve of assassinating terrorists, torturing terrorists, and using every torture technique pollsters asked about except threatening terrorist detainees with dogs. (Spytainment fans, however, are not more likely to support dropping nuclear bombs on terrorists or assassinating foreign leaders than anyone else.)
Of course, Zagert emphasizes, we cannot really say that spy-themed entertaining is actually causing a change in people’s beliefs and attitudes. But popular movies and other entertainment can be a barometer for what people are thinking.
Terrorism is has been discussed in connection with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has deadly attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi that took the lives of American ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. But what kind of a country has the US become, that more Americans support the use of torture?
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