Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Torture and Public Opinion

Jason Mazzone

In my post on Monday, I observed that public support for torturing terrorism suspects is likely to increase following the location and killing of Osama bin Laden. Deborah Pearlstein's thoughtful plea that we not "talk about torture" has fallen on deaf ears.

The front page of the New York Times today has an article about the renewed debate bin Laden's death has triggered over the use of "harsh methods of questioning." The Times announces that "harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden's trusted courier and exposing his hide-out" but it goes onto observe that detainees who provided information were at least at one point slammed into walls, shackled in stress positions, and subject to waterboarding, among other forms of "rough treatment." John Yoo, back in the limelight, has written that the "tough decisions taken by the Bush administration" were what led to bin Laden's location, thereby allowing Obama to complete the "comparatively easy" task of "pull[ing] the trigger. And Jose Rodriguez, the former head of counter-terrorism at the CIA has announced flat out that harsh interrogation techniques produced the information that led directly to bin Laden's death.

The White House, not surprisingly, downplays any reliance upon information obtained from coercive interrogation even as reports now make clear that some of the detainees who gave up the name of bin Laden's courier were questioned in black sites in eastern Europe where we simply have no idea just how brutal interrogation techniques were.

Whatever the mix of circumstances that led to locating bin Laden, the public is very likely to focus on the torture connection. This is because simpler explanations are always preferred. It's easier to understand a name being obtained through waterboarding than it is to make sense of a complex intelligence gathering operation with many players, much patience, and false leads. Moreover, once the idea that torture turned up bin Laden is put in play, it is almost impossible to produce evidence that will dispel that belief. Numerous psychological studies demonstrate that the more that corrections to false or incomplete understandings are put forward (in the press, by public officials), the more firmly the false belief or incomplete understanding takes hold. In other words, the more we hear about torture as a possible element in finding bin Laden, the more the public will believe that torture is what did it.

Watch for public support for torture to rise.

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