Monday, May 02, 2011

What if Torture Works?

Jason Mazzone

The location and killing of Osama bin Laden could increase popular support for torture as a way to track down terrorists.

Initial news reports indicate that the identification of the compound at Abbottabad resulted from tracking bin Laden's most trusted courier. The identity of that courier was obtained after interrogation of a detainee at Guantanamo produced the courier's nickname. We don't know (and will likely never know) what sorts of interrogation techniques were used to obtain that information from the detainee but it is probably safe to assume the techniques were not pleasant.

Support among Americans for torturing suspected terrorists in order to gain information has varied over time (and depending upon the survey question). One recent study has demonstrated that throughout the years of the Bush administration, a majority of Americans opposed torture; a majority in favor of torture did not emerge until after the first six months of the Obama administration. Consistent with that study, a Pew Center Poll at the end of 2009 found that 54% of Americans agreed that torture is at least sometimes justified to gain important information from suspected terrorists. Perhaps most striking, a Red Cross survey earlier this year suggested a generational divide on the legitimacy of torture, with 60% of American teenagers taking the position that torture is at least sometimes acceptable.

One of the main arguments against torture has always been that it doesn't work. Writing at the Daily Beast in April 2009, for example, a senior military interrogator complained that torture failed to produce information to find Osama bin Laden. But here we are, two years later, and interrogation (enhanced or otherwise) of a detainee unlocked the door that led yesterday to the raid at Abbottabad.

It will be useful to see polling data in the next few months on Americans' views about torture. It's reasonable to imagine that support for torture will increase. One question suggests itself:
Using information obtained through coercive interrogation of a suspected terrorist at Guantanamo, the U.S. military was able to locate and kill Osama bin Laden. Do you believe that torture is justified in order to locate terrorists?
The question is not just useful for pollsters. Everyone who cheered last night's news should decide how they would answer the same question.

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