The use of torture runs right through the history of the United States. That’s no secret: It has long been an established fact.
Whether during the period of slavery, the Spanish-American war in 1898 or the Vietnam War, the United States didn’t just start practicing torture after the 9/11 attacks. Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, described all this again recently in a brilliant article in “The Atlantic” magazine, contradicting US President Barack Obama, who said, after the publication of the Senate Report, that torture was “contrary to who we are.”
Not a one-off
Beinart is correct when he writes that torture is “a manifestation of who we are.” That is because the US has a problematic relationship with torture, as shown not only by its past but also by several opinion polls since 2001. Two years ago, according to a YouGov poll, 63 percent of Americans regarded torture as justified under certain circumstances. The fact that a new survey has now confirmed this picture is shocking, but not all that surprising.
This is particularly true if we consider the current political climate in the US, which, for some time now, has been influenced by almost inconceivable atrocities in the form of terrorist attacks like the most recent ones in Pakistan, Iraq and Australia. This has contributed not only to a perceived fear of terrorist attacks, but has given credence to statements such as those of former Vice President Dick Cheney. He has repeatedly announced, publicly and aggressively, that he would do everything all over again, and has received backing from many quarters.
Cheney is heard over torture victims
Another aspect, which is particularly important in our global media society, is that unlike those politically responsible, such as Cheney, the torture victims have no public voice. Whereas Cheney and the CIA organized a professional campaign in response to the Senate Report even before its publication, the torture victims remain, as before, faceless and voiceless. We journalists are also to blame for this. We often choose the easy path. Instead of undertaking the harder research required to find and speak to torture victims, we are often content to make do with reproducing the politicians’ soundbites, which are snappy because they are controversial.
To believe that the Americans’ attitude to torture is just a snapshot of the current situation is wishful thinking. The historical use of torture in the US, the Americans’ understandable fear of terrorism, the defense of torture by leading politicians as well as the absence of torture victims in the media – all of this makes a fundamental change in the attitude toward torture very unlikely at this time. The US must have a serious debate about torture. But for it to be able to do so credibly it must take legal action against those who are suspected of having been responsible – and at the moment that looks highly unlikely.