“Do As I Say, Not As I Do”: American Exceptionalism and Post-9/11 Use of Torture

In a press conference on August 1, 2014 President Obama answered a question regarding the handling of a then recent report on Retention, Detention and Interrogation (or RDI) by stating that, “Even before I came into office it was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.” Indeed, historically, American values have been opposed to torture. A 2004 article published in New Political Science claims that “Americans tend to think of systematic government torture as a hallmark of fascism; or of backward third world regimes such as that of the thuggish Saddam Hussein in Iraq.” The article later notes that no one would have imagined that the systematic and organized practice of torture would become central to American foreign policy. This is further highlighted in Examining Torture: Empirical Studies of State Repression where the authors Tracy Lightcap and James Pfiffner argue:

In the twentieth century, the US State Department regularly published accounts of torture in some countries, publicly condemning its use and urging improvements in human rights in these countries. In particular, the United States condemned the use of torture practices as partial justification for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thus, it is with some irony that the United States itself has been condemned internationally for the use of torture in its interrogations during the War on Terror.

Even President George W. Bush has been quoted as stating that “The United States does not torture, it is against our laws and it is against our values” with similar sentiments being echoed by others in his administration, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.However, extensive evidence shows that torture was the practice and de facto policy of the Bush administration and was executed primarily by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a core component of the “War on Terror.”  In a six-thousand page report issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee (of which a 500 page summary was released to the public in December 2015) numerous acts of torture were documented, many of which violated international human rights law and stood contrary to American values.

If the use of torture is so contrary to “American values,” why then was torture a tool so routinely used by policymakers and valued by the public in the War on Terror? This ethical dichotomy between “American values,” which traditionally oppose torture, and the reality of the use of torture exists due to the way in which attitudes towards American exceptionalism (which were heightened after 9/11) combined with misinformation in the media and pop culture regarding the effectiveness of torture and the identities of those subjected to torture. This dangerous combination formed the conception that torture is an effective tool against agents who threaten “American values,” while disregarding the way in which the American state would degrade its own values by using torture.

Hilde Restad, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjørknes College has worked extensively on the topic of American Exceptionalism. In her book, American Exceptionalism: An Idea that Made a Nation and Remade the World, she asserts that in the aftermath of 9/11, “the Bush administration communicated a conception of American exceptionalism that set the United States apart from the rest of the world as a leader of a new crusade for democracy, strategically playing on this sense of national identity in order to engender support for specific practices.” This conception of American exceptionalism fell more closely in line with the good-versus-evil rhetoric commonly employed during the Cold War (and particularly the Reagan administration) than the still present, but less overt, ideals of American exceptionalism communicated between the fall of the Soviet Union and the attacks of 9/11. President Bush, Hilde Restad asserts, consistently framed the attacks of September 11, 2001 as an assault on freedom and the United States’ democratic institutions. This rhetoric helped to establish the idea that the United States was the “moral leader in the crusade against terrorism.” The association of fighting terrorism with defending American values treated support for the War on Terror as a test of patriotism, and this tactic was used in 97% of presidential rhetoric immediately following 9/11. It is unsurprising, then, that there was widespread bi-partisan support for the War on Terror.

This rise in the salience of American exceptionalism in U.S. political discourse is exemplified in a 2011 New York Times op-ed addressing a foreign policy debate among that year’s presidential hopefuls. The Times reported, “This is a crowd that’s big on exceptionalism, and not according to its onetime definition: as a reference to the peculiar and advantageous circumstances of our county’s genesis. They’re asserting that we have a unique global standing, our eminence essential and our values worthy of export.” The candidates were not off-base in trying to appeal to American exceptionalism in their campaign rhetoric either, as a 2010 Gallup poll showed that 80 percent of Americans agreed that “because of the United States’ history and Constitution, the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”

Data also show that, as recently as December 2014, just after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture (which revealed that the CIA committed acts such as playing “Russian Roulette” with detainees and subjecting them to rectal rehydration), many Americans still believed that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists did not amount to torture and that the torture of suspected terrorists could be justified. Specifically, a Washington Post– ABC news poll revealed that 38 percent of Americans believed that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists did not amount to torture, and 58 percent of Americans believed that torture of suspected terrorists could often or sometimes be justified, additionally 19 percent responded that torture could be justified in rare instances. Of the same group of respondents, 53 percent believed that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists produced information that could not have been produced any other way. These types of sentiments are echoed not only by the general public, but also by American soldiers, as a 2007 Washington Post article revealed that at least one-third of American soldiers believed that torture should be allowed if it helps gather important information about insurgents.

These statistics clearly show that, while around three-quarters of Americans believed there to be at least some rare instances that justify torture, the majority of respondents assume that the use of torture or enhanced interrogation techniques can result in information that advances U.S. national security. Unfortunately, and contrary to many Americans’ beliefs, torture does not typically result in reliable information. After the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture, the Washington Post stated that “the report found that more than two dozen detainees were wrongly held, that the program was poorly managed, and that the CIA misled U.S. officials about the effectiveness of the program.” The New York Times also found at least eight specific instances in the report in which CIA claims of torture being effectively used to gain intelligence were shown to be false. The most high profile case in which the CIA lied about the effectiveness of its program was in relation to the killing of Osama bin Laden. In this case, the CIA claimed that information produced under its enhanced interrogation program led to vital information about one of bin Laden’s secret couriers and ultimately aided the now famous 2011 raid that killed the al-Qaeda leader. As it turns out, however, the CIA had information about this courier as early as 2002 and that information had been obtained from a different detainee who had been cooperative from the outset. Furthermore, in 2012, researcher John Scheimann concluded in his paper Interrogational Torture: Or How Good Guys get Bad Information with Ugly Methods” that, although information from interrogational torture is unreliable, it is likely to be used frequently and harshly.

In addition to, or perhaps because of, this misinformation from the CIA, the idea that torture is a useful and essential tool in obtaining information is prevalent in many contemporary elements of pop culture, which helps explain why so many people find the arguments for torture so convincing. Even recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia once cited the television show 24 and its main character Jack Bauer as relevant background for constitutional jurisprudence regarding “rough interrogation” methods. He states that “Jack Bauer saved hundreds of lives… Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? … I don’t think so.” But as both the Atlantic article where this quote appears, and satirical news anchor John Oliver point out, Jack Bauer is not real, and torture works in shows like 24 because it has to in order to move the plot along.

So although American values, according to academics as well as public officials oppose the use of torture, many actions taken by the United States government, and the Central Intelligence Agency in particular, following 9/11 can be classified as torture. Further, an overwhelming number of Americans think that the use of these techniques was essential in obtaining information relevant to American security and the War on Terror. After 9/11, there was a rise in the frequency of rhetoric on American exceptionalism, framed in the context that the terrorist attacks were the result of hatred for American constitutional freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, speech, and democratic election. The hatred of these values and freedoms, which 80 percent of Americans believe make the United States the greatest country in the world, now poses a threat to American security and American lives. In post-9/11 America, the pairing of growing support for the idea that the United States is a beacon of democracy, and the greatest country in the world, now threatened by terrorism, with the false information that torture effectively produces intelligence that is crucial to national security can be attributed to the ethical dichotomy in which American ideals are fundamentally opposed to the concept of torture.

Kellianne McClain is a student in the School of International Service and College of Arts & Sciences class of 2017. She can be contacted at km8677b@student.american.edu.

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.