Teenagers Now Look Favorably On Torture Because The Media Taught Them It Was Morally Acceptable


Over at the Daily Beast, Daniel Stone dives into a study on torture conducted by the American Red Cross. "Americans' opinions on torture seem to have fractured," the report said, "largely on generational lines."

So, who are the biggest supporters of torture? "A surprising majority -- almost 60 percent -- of American teenagers thought things like water-boarding or sleep deprivation are sometimes acceptable," the study found. Overall, teens are "significantly more in favor of torture than older adults."

It's a dispiriting result, and Stone does a fine job taking on the reasons why these results came down in this fashion. As he relates, there's been a general uptick in the visibility of torture (er..."enhanced interrogation techniques") in the media. Along with that comes the effort undertaken by the Bush administration to normalize torture, despite its attendant lack of success as an intelligence gathering technique. Stone also notes that there are "societal influences that may be responsible for de-stigmatizing torture, including increasingly graphic media."

But the bottom line, he says, is that young people are just at a significant remove from the world of war and conflict:

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 constitutional law professor Lawrence] Tribe, "to put themselves in place of a soldier is a level of empathy that most people simply don't have anymore."

All of which makes (depressing) sense to me.

The only thing I'd add to this is that the Red Cross' study also found that a similar majority of young people deemed it unacceptable for "American troops to be tortured overseas." In that contrast, there's another factor worth considering: The youth of America seem to be following along with the way the media treats torture.

Let's recall that, back in the summer of 2010, a study from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found that the way major newspapers addressed the issue of torture abruptly changed in 2004:

The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930's until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

Over the same time period, the same newspapers made it clear that, while it was okay for America to torture people, it was never okay for a non-American to do the same. Again, from the old Harvard study:

In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

It's the concept of "American exceptionalism" that transforms "torture" into "enhanced interrogation techniques." So sayeth our news media, anyway. As this new Red Cross report makes clear, older Americans who grew up at a time when this issue was tended to by the media with a distinct and consistent moral clarity have maintained that distinct and consistent moral clarity themselves. American teenagers diverge at that point, but what can I say? This is learned behavior.

And that's the price you pay when you elevate torture and torturers to one "side in a political dispute."

[H/T: Adam Serwer.]

Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community