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Survey: Americans among world’s most accepting of wartime torture

Throughout his campaign, President-Elect Donald Trump promised to bring back the banned torture practice of waterboarding. (Creative Commons)

A new global poll shows more Americans than ever approve of the use of wartime torture.

The poll, conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, found that 54 percent of Americans consider torture “wrong.” The only other populations with lower proportions in this category were Israel and Palestine, with 44 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

A separate question in the survey revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe it acceptable to torture enemy combatants. In 1999, the last time the Red Cross conducted its “People on War” poll, that number was 35 percent. In the more recent poll, only Nigeria and Israel recorded higher rates of support for torturing captured enemy fighters, with 70 percent and 50 percent endorsements, respectively.

The results indicate that Americans share a similar moral attitudes toward torture with those in some of the most violent countries in the world.

“Torture is illegal and unacceptable under any circumstances,” according to the Red Cross report. “All parties must respect the law. Torture is an affront to humanity and does not make our societies safer.”

Under President George W. Bush’s administration, CIA officials defended the use of waterboarding and other “advanced interrogation techniques” in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2009 banning the use of torture by any government agency, including waterboarding. Last year, Congress codified that ban on torture into law in the National Defense Authorization Act. But some officials still claim that waterboarding isn’t torture, and President-elect Donald Trump promised throughout the campaign to bring it back.

In this context, the normalization of torture practices is not surprising, according to the Red Cross Director-General Yves Daccord.

“In the U.S. in the last 15 years, torture seems like something which is accepted, as something that you use as a tool to get information, whereas the military interestingly enough will tell you this is not at all the tool you need to use,” Daccord told the Daily Beast. “Not only is it not good for human dignity, but it doesn’t provide you with the right information.”

Trump appears to be reconsidering his stance on torture, however, in relaying a conversation last month with his nominee for Secretary of Defense, retired four-star Marine General James Mattis. Trump said he was surprised when Mattis told him he’d had more success with a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers than inflicting pain. While human rights groups are hoping Trump’s new revelation will stick, it is not clear whether he intends to retreat from his original stance on torture.

Aside from questions of torture, the ICRC’s poll did reveal some more promising figures. More than two thirds of all respondents still think it makes sense to impose limits on war, and almost half of those surveyed in conflict-affected countries still have faith that the Geneva Conventions prevent wars from getting worse. And more than 80 percent of all respondents, especially those in conflict-affected countries, believe it is wrong to attack hospitals, ambulances and health-care workers in order to weaken the enemy during war.

The Red Cross poll surveyed 17,000 people in 16 countries, including many nations in conflict or recovering from conflict.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at