Why are Americans more tolerant of torture than other nations?

Americans are more open to torture than several of its allies and enemies, according to a new report. What does that say about how the US sees global conflict?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as he leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., on Nov. 19. Mr. Trump has softened his stance on torture since meeting with General Mattis, whom he has selected as his nominee for Defense secretary.

Americans are more open to torture than several war-torn nations and every other member of the United Nations Security Council, according to a new international survey.

The survey, conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), polled more than 17,000 people from 16 countries between June and September of this year. Of those in the United States, 33 percent said they believed torture was a part of war, and 46 percent agreed that a captured enemy combatant could be tortured to obtain information, compared to just 27 percent and 36 percent of all respondents, respectively. Those numbers grouped Americans among the nations most accepting of torture, with participants in Afghanistan, Syria, Russia, Iraq, Yemen, and South Sudan all showing less favor for such methods.

By contrast, only 16 percent of Afghans and 23 percent of Syrians believed that torture was a part of war, while most indicated that it was wrong.

US respondents were also the most accepting of torture among the Security Council’s five permanent member nations, which include Russia, China, Britain, and France.

Despite the unexpected stance taken by many Americans, the report found that a majority of citizens across the globe believe that torture and attacks on civilians are not inevitable parts of war, showing that average people largely don’t support some of the most heinous aspects of conflict perpetrated by their states. Still, many nations engage in these tactics, indicating that discrepancies between civilian opinions and the actions of leaders remain.

“There is a disconnect between public opinion and the policies and actions of States and armed groups,” the ICRC said in a release with the report. “Violations of the laws of war – including the targeting of civilians, humanitarian workers and hospitals – continue. Yet the survey results clearly show that the majority of people understand that these practices are wrong and that civilians and health-care workers and facilities must be protected.”

Around two-thirds of those surveyed believed that the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which impose guidelines on how civilians and prisoners of war should be treated, were still relevant today despite changes in the style of global warfare. That number was slightly higher in areas plagued by conflict.

These findings come as the debate on torture has been renewed in the US. President-elect Donald Trump vowed to allow officials to use waterboarding, or engage in tactics that are “a lot worse than waterboarding,” when interrogating terrorism suspects. His stance has softened since meeting with his nominee for secretary of Defense, retired general James Mattis, who told Mr. Trump that most torture methods were largely ineffective.

While he hasn’t changed his mind entirely, Trump says torture isn’t likely “to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”

But the lapse in US responses could stem less from Trump’s brazen torture rhetoric and more from a lack of understanding of such policies and their impact on civilians and local populations.

“The further away you are from armed conflict, the less sensitive you are to what it actually means,” Patrick Youssef, the ICRC’s deputy director for Africa and its former head of mission in Iraq, told The Washington Post.

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