Paul Gronke, Darius Rejali, and Peter Miller sift through the evidence on public opinion and torture and find that there is much less support for it than many people assume:
Furthermore, when Americans are asked about specific techniques that Senator John McCain says have “dubious efficacy” and “risk our national honor,” public support is far lower. A table from our 2010 paper, reproduced below, shows that 81 percent oppose electric shock, 58 percent to 81 percent oppose waterboarding, and 84 percent to 89 percent oppose sexual humiliation, etc.
What it’s called matters – a fact not lost on the Bush Administration, which coined new phrases to call practices “not-torture.” It redefined the meaning of legal words and concepts, and described specific interrogation techniques as vaguely as possible. Our 2014 study documents that the euphemisms for torture have public support, but the acts of torture do not.
Even if most Americans weren’t as strongly opposed as the authors show them to be, there would still be no excuse for the torture that the government used, but it should make us very skeptical of arguments that claim that there was some broad, overwhelming post-9/11 consensus in favor of using torture that informed what the government did. The authors show that support for torture has gradually crept upwards over the last decade. That is, support for torture was significantly lower in the years immediately following the attacks than it has been in the last few years. So when Americans were all supposedly so traumatized that we would have endorsed doing anything, we were actually much less likely to endorse these criminal acts. Over a decade later, there are more Americans that support torture, but then that is probably because there have been constant attempts to normalize and de-stigmatize these acts and to claim falsely that they were important for national security.
The authors also add that “it would help clarify public attitudes if many American politicians would quit claiming – incorrectly – that torture is effective.” That’s probably right, which suggests that there might be much less public support for torture if there weren’t so many attempts to misinform and mislead the public into thinking that these abuses are anything other than appalling crimes. People often take their cues on these issues from the political leaders that they trust, and at least half the country has been consistently misled and and lied to by the leaders of their party on this subject. Americans have been repeatedly lied to that these crimes helped make the U.S. more secure, and that deception has likely made public support for torture greater than it otherwise would be. As the authors show, Americans are still mostly repelled by torture when it is exposed for what it is. That is one reason why it was necessary and important to release the Senate report so that there could be no illusions about what had been done.