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Stop Trying to Convince Americans that Torture Doesn’t Work

March 28, 2022
Ron Hassner


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Ron Hassner, Professor of political science at UC Berkeley, analyzes why the U.S. public is soft on torture, and how anti-torture activists can push back.

Critics of US torture policy offer two kinds of arguments against torture. Some emphasize the immorality of torture, its cruel and dehumanizing nature. But the most common argument used by anti-torture advocates is that torture doesn’t work. That argument is weak, even dangerous. There have always been good philosophical, historical, and technical reasons to reject the effectiveness argument. There is now a fourth reason to reject it, grounded in public opinion. Two surveys that I administered to more than 2,000 American adults show that Americans believe torture is very effective at extracting crucial information. The participants in my survey were not persuaded to oppose torture when I told them that it might not provide crucial information. But when I told them that torture was cruel, their support for torture dropped significantly. They rejected torture not because it was ineffective but because it was immoral.

Criticizing torture because it doesn’t work is a bad idea for several reasons. First of all, it’s a dubious philosophical claim. If torture is morally wrong, who cares how well it does or does not work? We don’t debate how “efficient” genocide, terrorism, or human rights abuses are either. How good or bad torture is at extracting information has no bearing on its morality either, unless it never ever yields useful information. But as history shows, that is not the case.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.