Jack Bauer has changed the way we think about torture

Torture is every bit as disgusting as paedophilia or kidnapping or assault. So why do a third of people think it is 'sometimes necessary'?



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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions