It’s a simple question with a gut-wrenching answer: In a time of war, is it ever OK to torture an enemy?
For decades, the answer was an automatic no. The often-cruel conditions endured by prisoners of war during World War Two spurred the Geneva Conventions, which stipulated an agreed-upon set of standards for handling war victims. By the late 1960s, when any young man could have been drafted to go to Vietnam, the humane treatment of soldiers was at the forefront of many Americans’ concerns.
But now, during a time of two overseas wars, Americans’ opinions on torture seem to have fractured, and largely on generational lines. A new study by the American Red Cross obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast found that a surprising majority—almost 60 percent—of American teenagers thought things like water-boarding or sleep deprivation are sometimes acceptable. More than half also approved of killing captured enemies in cases where the enemy had killed Americans. When asked about the reverse, 41 percent thought it was permissible for American troops to be tortured overseas. In all cases, young people showed themselves to be significantly more in favor of torture than older adults.
Torture has been around as long as there have been wars, but media coverage of enhanced interrogation techniques has risen the visibility of torture since the attacks of September 11. Could the generation who came of age since the towers fell have a different notion of what’s acceptable in a time of war? “Over the past 10 years, they’ve been exposed to many new conflicts,” says Isabelle Daoust, who heads ARC’s humanitarian law unit. “But they haven’t been exposed to the rules.”
“For young people, to put themselves in place of a soldier is a level of empathy that most people simply don’t have anymore.”
The reasons may be even more nuanced than that—a combination of social and political factors new to the national conversation since the Bush administration claimed that today’s enemy was different from the ones we’ve fought in the past. Intelligence attained through controversial interrogation techniques, Bush’s lawyers at the Department of Justice argued, may be the only way to save American lives. A 2006 dossier detailing the U.S. government strategy to combat terrorism described the difficulty of pursuing new enemies who constantly “evolve and modify their ways of doing business.” As a result, the document suggested, the military would have to evolve its understanding and treatment of the enemy.
Legal scholars see societal influences that may be responsible for de-stigmatizing torture, including increasingly graphic media. “I think it suggests the national conscious is becoming more and more corroded and more accustomed to the violation of fundamental principles of human rights and international law,” says Lawrence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, who blames programs like 24 that trivialize serious issues. (Tribe, along with nearly 300 legal colleagues, sent President Obama a letter last month decrying the prison conditions of Bradley Manning, the army private accused of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.)
One irony was revealed in a striking study earlier this year from Brown University showing that enhanced interrogations may not even be an effective way to gather intelligence. Compared with traditional police questioning techniques like building rapport or offering positive reinforcement, the study found that torture more frequently alienates the subject, or produces unreliable information. The marquee example researchers point to is the Libyan detainee in 2002 who, under torture, claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, a major premise in launching the war in Iraq.
Still, the generational tip-toe back from humanitarian legal norms may say more about a nation increasingly removed from the costs of war. “For young people,” says Harvard’s Tribe, “to put themselves in place of a soldier is a level of empathy that most people simply don’t have anymore.”
Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.