Today at the gym I happened upon a report[PDF] from World Public Opinion about international attitudes towards human rights. (That’s DC for ya.) There’s a ton of interesting stuff in it: Palestinians are very suspicious of international bodies imposing human rights standards, the Russians are really not so sold on civil liberties (they’re split about 50/50 on whether or not the press should be able to publish “without government control”), and a somewhat shocking 28% of Americans agreed that “there are some religions that people should be allowed to practice in the US.”
But that to me was not the most disheartening result. What brought me up short was the section on torture. Interestingly the pollsters decided not to offer the issue as an either/or, but rather gave people three options. In the US, 53% of respondents said “all torture should be prohibited,” 31% think we should accept limited torture of terrorists to save innocent lives, while a nutty and sadistic 13% thinks “torture should be generally allowed.” While this still means that a slim majority of Americans reject torture (thank God), it also means that a very significant portion of the population now favors a torture regime, one that is facially a violation of Geneva, domestic law, international law, bedrock moral norms, and basic human decency.
For comparison, in Spain, Britain, France over 80% of those polled thought torture should be prohibited; in China the figure was 66%.
I can’t find previous polling from pre-9/11 of the same questioning. I suspect it doesn’t exist. But I can’t help but feel that in a very sick way, the Bush administration and the many torture apologists on the right and in he mainstream press have been quite successful in mainstreaming the unthinkable. We talk a lot about the torture legacy in terms of its affect on the American reputation abroad, the need to reform the institutions that helped carry it out (DOJ, OLC, CIA), and perhaps most importantly in terms of bringing to justice those who crafted and ordered the policy. But there’s also a tremendous amount of work to be done among the public, to shift opinion back towards the very simple principle that torture is wrong.