Jack Bauer has changed the way we think about torture

By Kate Allen, originally published in The Independent, 15 May 2014

Imagine this. You get a phone call one night about taking part in an opinion poll about law and order. You agree, and you get asked your view on paedophilia. You’re asked: “Do you agree that sexual contact between adults and children is always wrong, or do you think it can be justified in some circumstances?” Or let’s say the question is about theft: is it always wrong, or can it be justified in certain contexts?
I think you’d get close to 100 per cent of people saying paedophilia is always wrong, and something approaching that for theft. Ditto plenty of other illegal activities: assault, kidnapping, perjury, whatever. It’s a pretty safe bet that on all those issues there’s going to be an overwhelming consensus that they’re wrong in all circumstances.

Isn’t it strange, then, that when you ask people about torture – by any definition a horrible crime – you get a lot more equivocation, and even outright tolerance? But that’s what happens, judging by the new Amnesty opinion poll on international attitudes to torture. Here are the headline findings:

On average, more than a third (36 per cent) of the 21,000 people polled across 21 countries think that “torture is sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public”

In China and India a staggering 74 per cent of respondents feel that torture can be justified

In the UK torture justification is in the “mid-range”, with 29 per cent holding this view, or nearly one in three people

At the same time, big majorities (ranging from 71-89 per cent) in all 21 countries support the view that “clear rules against torture are needed because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights”

Now, ponder that last finding for a moment. How is it that large numbers of people can say they find torture immoral, something that should be properly prohibited in law unless human rights are to suffer, yet also say it can be justified for security reasons? Because, according to the data here, that’s precisely what’s happening – a significant number of people are holding both views at once. In China, for instance, 87 per cent say there should be anti-torture laws but almost as many (74 per cent) believe that you can still justify it.

On the face of it it’s not easy to explain this curious piece of modern doublethink. But I wonder if publics around the world have been (partly) won over by the “security” agenda of their own governments and superpower states. To be sure, governments have a solemn duty to protect their populations from grave threats, and officials would be guilty of serious crimes if they connived in acts of terrorism or turned a blind eye to them. But for years now there’s been relentless talk of “threat levels”, of “plots” and the activities of “extremists”. Our security services have an important job to do but, from James Bond to the Bourne trilogy, Zero Dark 30 to the 24 TV series, there’s been a glamorisation of their role and a clear suggestion that security operatives may in some circumstances be “required” to dispense with the kid gloves (or, non-euphemistically, to torture people).

However, away from the TV screens, the headline news and the set-piece political news conferences, the grim, everyday reality of torture is often about poor and relatively powerless people being beaten up by unaccountable police officers seemingly intent on meeting crime-detection quotas. So you have women accused of being drug dealers in the Philippines or members of criminal gangs in Mexico; women who will be brutally beaten until they “admit” their crimes. Or you have teenagers in Nigeria who have their fingernails and toe-nails pulled out with pliers until they “confess” to being armed street thieves. And on and on across scores of countries (torture has occurred in 141 countries in the past five years alone).

Meanwhile, the very “ordinariness” of torture in some countries may explain a further aspect of the Amnesty poll – that nearly half (44 per cent) of respondents said they feared that they personally would be at risk of torture if taken into custody. In some countries this was even higher – in Mexico, for example, it was nearly two-thirds (64 per cent).

But let’s return to that curious business of justifying torture. Generally this sentiment is lowest in countries with recent histories of mass human rights abuse at the hands of military juntas – in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Greece. Here what might be called the Jack Bauer-isation of people’s outlooks seems to have been the least marked. And that’s quite telling, because when the authorities themselves become the agents of orchestrated human rights abuse, the scales fall from people’s eyes.

Indeed my reading of this survey is that despite signs that significant minorities have been influenced by a sometimes cynical stoking up of popular fears, an overwhelming majority of people around the world want to see laws against torture and to see them enforced. Deep down they know that torture is abhorrent, a crime every bit as disgusting as paedophilia or kidnapping or assault. And they want to feel safe from it.

That’s what our new Stop Torture campaign is about.