The Terrorists Are Winning: Polls Find Growing Support for America As a Torture State

Scene from the Tokyo Trials in 1946 in which Japanese officials were tried for war crimes, including waterboarding  -  seven officials were sentenced to execution
Scene from the Tokyo Trials in 1946 in which Japanese officials were tried for war crimes, including waterboarding – seven officials were sentenced to execution

In its report on the torturing of terrorist suspects by the U.S. government during the Bush-Cheney administration, the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed a long list of abuses:

Detainees were forced to stand on broken limbs for hours, kept in complete darkness, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, sometimes standing, sometimes with their arms shackled above their heads.

Prisoners were subjected to “rectal feeding” without medical necessity. Rectal exams were conducted with “excessive force.” The report highlights one prisoner later diagnosed with anal fissures, chronic hemorrhoids and “symptomatic rectal prolapse.”

The report mentions mock executions, Russian roulette. U.S. agents threatened to slit the throat of a detainee’s mother, sexually abuse another and threatened prisoners’ children. One prisoner died of hypothermia brought on in part by being forced to sit on a bare concrete floor without pants.

In a facility codenamed COBALT, but referred to as the “Dungeon,” the United States created a chamber of horrors:

There were 20 cells, with blacked-out windows. Detainees were “kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud music and only a bucket to use for human waste.” It was cold, something the report says likely contributed to the death of a detainee.

Prisoners were walked around naked or were shackled with their hands above their heads for extended periods of time. About five CIA officers would engage in what is described as a “rough takedown.” A detainee would be shouted at, have his clothes cut off, be secured with tape, hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.

Some prisoners were waterboarded multiple times — 183 times for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and 83 times for Abu Zubaydah, who has been imprisoned since March 2002 without ever having been charged. The report also found that the CIA lied about the effects of waterboarding, which in fact “was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. During one session, Abu Zubaydah … became ‘completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.’ Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of Khalid [Sheikh] Mohammad as evolving into a ‘series of near drownings.’”

Despite this and other still-secret horrific acts done in their names, polling since the report was released suggests that the American people now not only accept the United States’ new role as a brutal torture state, they support it.

The NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll released yesterday found that when asked if they supported the government’s use of “harsh interrogation practices on suspected terrorists,” 51 percent of Americans said torture was “acceptable under the circumstances,” while 28 percent disagreed and 20 percent had no opinion. Pollsters avoided using the word “torture,” but even when they described the brutal techniques in detail, most respondents said the practices were justified to prevent terror attacks.

The NBC poll also suggests that torture is becoming a partisan issue, with four in five Republicans supporting the government’s use of torture and a plurality of Democrats 44 to 32 percent opposing it.

A Washington post-ABC News poll found support for torture at about two to one — 59 to 31 percent. A CBS News poll offered what appeared to be a glimmer of hope, finding that 69 percent of Americans perceived waterboarding and other brutal techniques to be torture. The bad news was that a slim minority — 49 percent — supported the use of these torture techniques on suspects, and that a majority — 57 percent — believe torture produced reliable information, even though evidence suggests just the opposite.

Americans’ new support for torture represents a radical change from seven decades ago when, at the end of World War II, the Allies, including the United States, tried, convicted and hanged Japanese officers who were found to have committed war crimes, including waterboarding. It also represents a drastic change from 30 years ago, when Pres. Ronald Reagan signed a bill ratifying the UN Convention on Torture.

It is cold comfort, surely, but the United States is hardly the only signatory to the UN treaty to violate the ban on torture, according to reporting by Amnesty International:

Since 1984, 155 states have ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, 142 of which are researched by Amnesty International. In 2014, Amnesty International observed at least 79 of these still torturing — more than half the states party to the Convention that the organisation reports on. A further 40 UN states haven’t adopted the Convention, although the global legal ban on torture binds them too.

Over the last five years, Amnesty International has reported on torture and other forms of ill-treatment in at least 141 countries from every region of the world — virtually every country on which it works. The secretive nature of torture means the true number of countries that torture is likely to be higher still.

As a torture state, America is now relegated to the ranks of the brutal regimes in Syria, Libya, China, Iraq, Nigeria, Mexico and Uzbekistan. What sets the United States apart, at least so far, is that there is no evidence of widespread use of brutal interrogation tactics by the government against its own citizens. That could change, and is likely to, judging by an off-the-cuff ruling this week on the legality of torture by GOP Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In an interview with the Associated Press, Scalia signaled that federal, state and local government officials could torture suspects in custody under certain circumstances.

“The Constitution says nothing whatever about torture,” Scalia said. “It speaks of punishment; ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments are forbidden … If you condemn someone who has committed a crime to be tortured, that would be unconstitutional,” he said. Otherwise, according to Scalia, when the government has a vital interest in coercing information from a suspect, torture is perfectly legal.

It’s worth remembering what’s at stake here. The ultimate objective of Islamist terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIS is to shake Western democratic civilization at its foundations until it collapses. As grandiose as this strategy seems, on a tactical level, the terror attacks have been incredibly effective so far. The war in Iraq and the quagmire that ensued were direct reactions to the 9/11 attacks by dark forces that controlled the U.S. government at the time. The rise of ISIS is a direct result of the botched and bungled invasion and occupation. Domestically, the 9/11 attacks led to the standing up of the homeland security state, a particularly troubling element of which is the militarization of local police departments, which has contributed to a growing adversarial divide between the police and the citizens they are paid to protect.

All of these trends are moving in the wrong direction. Torture was abhorrent to Americans’ sense of their national character in the decades — even centuries — before 9/11. Reaction to the Senate report suggests that Americans’ consensus on torture is unravelling, which is yet another alarming indication that in the so-called “War on Terror,” the terrorists are winning.

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