Why Americans support torture: We accept the abuse and cruel punishment of our prisoners

Why It’s Not Surprising That Americans Support Torture

Why It’s Not Surprising That Americans Support Torture

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Dec. 16 2014 5:36 PM

Dick Cheney’s America

Of course Americans are OK with torture. Look at how we treat our prisoners.

Photo by Darrin Klimek/Thinkstock
Americans know that their own country's prisoners are widely subjected to abuse, violence, and sexual assault.

Photo by Darrin Klimek/Thinkstock

Are we living in Dick Cheney’s America? All of the numbers say yes. First, there’s the new poll from ABC News and the Washington Post, which finds a large and supportive majority for torture. Not only do 59 percent of Americans say the torture of suspected terrorists was justified, but 58 percent say torture is often or sometimes justified, as a general matter.

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

We get a similar picture from the Pew Research Center, which published a torture poll on Monday. According to Pew, 51 percent say the CIA’s “interrogation” methods were justified, with a sharp partisan divide between Republicans who overwhelmingly agree the CIA was justified (76 percent), and Democrats who are less sure (37 percent).

Finally, there’s a CBS News poll that finds wide agreement on the nature of torture and only slight disagreement on whether it’s justified. Large majorities of Americans believe CIA techniques were torture: 73 percent for sexual threats, 70 percent for forced sleeplessness, 69 percent for waterboarding, and 57 percent for ice water baths. Nonetheless, a near-majority—49 percent—say the torture was justified to obtain information and prevent terrorist attacks. (That torture failed to yield valuable secrets from the enemy wasn’t mentioned.)

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The bottom line is that—13 years after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001—most Americans think torture is a reasonable tool for fighting terrorism. Part of this is partisanship—most Republicans support torture and believe it’s justified—part of it is pop culture—which, with few exceptions, treats torture as a powerful tool for catching “bad guys”—and part of it is just who we are.

Americans like punishment. Not only do we have the world’s highest incarceration rate—716 inmates for every 100,000 people, compared to 475 for every 100,000 in Russia and 121 for every 100,000 in China—but we also have among the most draconian punishments of any nation in the developed world. “In the United States,” notes a report on sentencing from the University of San Francisco, “people who are found in possession of drugs, a non-violent offense, can be sentenced to die behind bars.” They can get life sentences for minor offenses and face decades in prison for a host of nonviolent crimes.

But here’s what’s key: It’s not just that Americans want a system that metes out punishment, it’s that—despite our Eighth Amendment—we are accepting of the cruelest punishment. And while it’s not legal, it exists and it’s pervasive. In theory, our prisons are holding cells for the worst offenders and centers for rehabilitation for the others. Inmates can work, learn, and prepare themselves for a more productive life in society. In reality, they are hellscapes of rape, abuse, and violence from gangs and guards.

At the for-profit East Mississippi Correctional Facility, for example, prisoners lacked functioning toilets and were forced to “defecate into Styrofoam trays or plastic trash bags” without any way of “ridding their cells of the waste other than tossing it onto the housing unit through the slots in their doors.” Mentally ill prisoners were left to their own devices, with terrible consequences. “Prisoners engage in gross acts of self-mutilation, including electrocution, swallowing shards of glass and razors, and tearing into their flesh with sharp objects.”

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These kinds of stories aren’t hard to find. Nor is evidence of our epidemic of prison sexual assault. “Roughly 200,000 men, women, and children reported being sexually abused in detention facilities in 2011, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has anonymously self-reported data from inmates,” writes Carla Murphy for Colorlines. Because of shame from the assault and fear of their assailants, the actual number is almost certainly higher, as many victims don’t report their abuse to the authorities, in part because guards are often as responsible for rape as other inmates.

Americans know this. They know that prisons are horrible. They know that going to jail vastly increases your odds of being raped, attacked, or worse. And yet, this does nothing to shift the overwhelming punitiveness of American public opinion. Indeed, prison rape is a punch line, summed up in don’t drop the soap or watch out, you might become a punk. Americans don’t recoil from assaults in our jails and prisons; they welcome them as deserts for people who commit crimes.

Our prisons, then, are sites for retribution. As Robert A. Ferguson, professor of law and literature at Columbia University, notes in his book Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, Americans routinely transition from a rational view of criminals (“because your act and your mental state at the time were blameworthy, you deserve punishment”) to a moralized one (“you have a hardened, abandoned and malignant heart” and “you are evil and rotten to the core”), to a scornful one, where the criminal is “scum” and deserves “whatever cruel indignity I choose to inflict on you.” You see this most vividly in the reactions to police shootings of black Americans. It’s not enough for the shooting to be justified, as a grand jury decided in the case of Ferguson’s Officer Darren Wilson. No, the victim must be demonized, hence the chorus of critics against Michael Brown: He was a thug who deserved his fate.

If this is how we treat domestic prisoners—who, despite their crimes, are still citizens—then it’s no shock we torture noncitizen detainees, and it’s no surprise Americans largely support the abuse. After all, these are suspected terrorists. They’re presumptively guilty, and they deserve their fates. And if they’re innocent—if they’ve been swept up or sold out—then next time we’ll have to be more careful, even though we don’t plan to take any steps to avoid making the same mistake again.

Toward the end of his Meet the Press interview with Cheney, host Chuck Todd tried to make a final point against the former vice president’s pro-torture triumphalism. “Is there a reason these interrogations didn’t happen on U.S. soil?” he asked. “Was there concern that maybe these folks would get legal protections from the United States and that’s why it was done at black sites?”

“We didn’t read them their Miranda rights either,” replied Cheney. “These are not American citizens. They are unlawful combatants. They are terrorists.” This was the nut, the belief at the center of his crusade. To Cheney, what we did—the beatings and the rape and the murder—doesn’t matter. What matters is that these were “terrorists” and they deserved it.

We aren’t living in “Dick Cheney’s America” as much as Dick Cheney is just living in America and thinking like an American. Here, we already believe our criminals deserve the brutality of our prisons. From there, it’s easy to think that our detainees deserve the depravity of our dungeons. That’s where he stands, and we stand with him.