I’d like to start this post in a similar fashion to a previous post: When is it OK to torture people?
But of course, that may just be my opinion – and soon I could be in the minority.
A new study by the American Red Cross obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast found that a surprising majority—almost 60 percent—of American teenagers thought things like water-boarding or sleep deprivation are sometimes acceptable. More than half also approved of killing captured enemies in cases where the enemy had killed Americans. When asked about the reverse, 41 percent thought it was permissible for American troops to be tortured overseas. In all cases, young people showed themselves to be significantly more in favor of torture than older adults.
This echoes an earlier infamous study by the Pew Forum in 2009:
Currently, nearly half say the use of torture under such circumstances is often (15%) or sometimes (34%) justified; about the same proportion believes that the torture of suspected terrorists is rarely (22%) or never (25%) justified.
The study had interesting dynamics with concern to religion, and the Pew Forum noted that white evangelicals were more likely than mainline protestants and religiously unaffiliated people to say torture could be “often or sometimes justified” when used against “suspected terrorists” –
But there are only small differences across religious groups in the number saying that torture can often be justified, and among every group there are relatively few people who say that torture can never be justified.
…Those with a high school diploma or less education are somewhat more likely to say torture can be justified compared with those with at least some college…
Pew’s conclusions then said that “party and ideology are much better predictors of views on torture” than other factors.
With regards to the most recent poll results, others have already begun to blame the nebulous “media.” It is one feasible explanation, but the sort of culprit Dave Grossman or Myrna Blyth would also chose from the lineup – despite their expertise in “killology” or commercial women’s publishing (respectively), they’re just as ignorant of media effects as the witness is of the criminal they try to recognize. They can identify familiar characteristics, but there is always reasonable doubt.
While it’s true that news organizations are guilty of peddling the “enhanced interrogation” newspeak, this terminology originated with the establishment. Wikipedia notes that it’s unclear where and when that term came into current usage, but interestingly it identifies a 1937 Nazi document in which the term is used to describe torture which leaves no physical evidence (On a side note, the guidelines for those techniques are strikingly similar to some of the literature from current US practices). While the media have unfortunately and predictably fallen in step with this language, in this case the chickens are most definitely hatching from those eggs laid by the government.
I’ve used Tolkin’s pointed response to Muller before, but I’ll reference it here by reiterating it: language is a “disease” of mythology. It is how we continuously assert meaningfulness in an otherwise absurd world – words like “honor” or “fiscal responsibility,” are the dog-whistle keywords which serve to both frame a discussion and trigger a set of emotions within the audience. They contribute positively or negatively to our mythos: the use of “illegal” for instance, recently shapping the immigration debate. The “war on terror,” imbued with chivalrous overtones of honor, a term which ran away with itself and is now discouraged within the administration (who prefer the less recondite yet lackluster “Overseas Contingency Operation”).
Journalism’s approach to the topic of torture has divorced us from it’s reality (with the very unique exception of Christopher Hitchens, whose experience was itself presumably quite different from that of a “suspected terrorist”). If we talk about torture at all, we use clinical and abstract terms. By nature this practice is intended to inflict psychological distress and harm (much less physical jeopardy) – but we have no impression of the experience. It’s like a conversation about war without the inevitable PTSD. This approach is uniform with an exception – whenever we refer to torture conducted by others.
In light of these truths, a study from Harvard last year should have be no surprise: The American press redefined waterboarding as something other than torture once it’s use by US officials entered the news cycle. Adam Serwer was keen to identify this as a “convention of journalism” – moral absolution on behalf of the press, masquerading as presupposed objectivity. With this condition of moral flexibility by our “fourth estate,” is it any wonder that younger people find torture acceptable? The Times is the “paper of record,” as they say. When the Grey Lady continues this behavior (see pg 20) consistent with being an amoral, antisocial old crone, how are her children to learn the values she claims to have no business teaching, yet is forever echoing?
Mass media is a tool by which the literate create modern mythologies which both cement political agendas and inexorably determine the future social climate and popular ideology (see the entirety of the Cold War and its reverberations today) . It is the messenger we shoot when we blame the media. Yet, the medium of those messages becomes complicit when it pathetically cowers under those pretenses which serve to invent the establishment newspeak. When we blame the media, we should not only identify who is at fault, but the sentiments which motivated them, the interests served by those failings, and who sought to gain from those propaganda efforts.
Now, none of this serves as an argument against torture. My reasons for why torture is never acceptable are best left for another post, and I wouldn’t presume that everyone would share the same opinions or ethics. So there will inevitably be a range of diverse perspectives on the topic. But I’m arguing those perspectives should be honestly and accurately represented, where they can be debated and discussed. The current practice is to sequester any relevant ethical dilemma from current events, so that political establishments can continue their policies, while maintaining a status quo of confusion of apathy among the public.
The Red Cross’s survey is a frightening alarm which illustrates the dangers of such malleable moral and ethical standards. Remember Karl Rove’s imperial hostility to the “reality-based community“? Do we really want to live in that fantasy world of “Lingua Tertii Imperii“? The implications are terrifying beyond what any fear-mongering demagogue can lead us to imagine.