Survey finds widespread support for torture and other war crimes

A survey recently conducted by the American Red Cross found that 59% of American teenagers and 51% of adults believe that it is sometimes acceptable to torture enemy fighters. Other war crimes supported by sizable minorities of Americans include “Deliberately attacking religious and historical monuments when there are no enemy combatants present,” (10% of youth and 6% of adults) and “Taking civilian hostages to be used in bargaining with the enemy,” which was supported by 30% of youth and 20% of adults.

37% of youth also support “Depriving civilians in combat areas of food, medicine, or water in order to weaken the enemy,” a war crime that is also supported by 29% of adults. A whopping 71% of youth and 55% of adults support “Refusing to allow prisoners to be visited by a representative from a neutral organization to confirm that they are being treated well.”

The fact that there is such widespread for these sorts of flagrant violations of international law could serve as a warning that these war crimes are likely to take place when these young people are sent off to fight in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and now, possibly Libya.

It’s also a sign of how far the U.S. has fallen from international norms that it once championed. While TV shows such as “24” may be responsible to some extent for the normalization of torture, it also should be noted that these are policies that the U.S. has been engaged for going on ten years now. The Obama administration’s failure to prosecute the greatest crimes of the Bush years has sent a clear signal that the United States does not take these matters seriously, and that perhaps these crimes are not even that objectionable after all.

Since the Enlightenment, torture was considered a thing of the past in Europe until the Nazis rose to power and legislated the permissibility of “third-degree” interrogation. Nazis used torture extensively in the nations Germany invaded and occupied in order to obtain information about resistance activities.

After World War II, torture was perceived as an aberration that must never be allowed to recur. In the official commentary on the text of the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote in 1949 that the conventions were intended to prevent “acts which world public opinion finds particularly revolting—acts which were committed frequently in the Second World War.”

President Bush, however, declared that he has the authority to suspend the Geneva Conventions. In interrogation practices from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay to Iraq, the United States disregarded not only the Geneva Conventions but the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which were all created in response to World War II and have as their purpose preventing another Nazi-style descent into barbarity.

The fact that these laws are considered by so many Americans to be obsolete does not bode well for the future. Unless Americans can be convinced that these principles are important, and that we must never allow the return of medieval barbarity, it seems we should expect more torture and other war crimes in the years to come.


About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: Facebook: Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at]

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