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Torture is a culture. Releasing the Senate report is a way of fighting it.

A demonstration in South Africa with protestors dressed up as Guantanamo inmates.
A demonstration in South Africa with protestors dressed up as Guantanamo inmates.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's Bush-era torture regime is an absolute outrage. The stark descriptions of exactly what the CIA did to its prisoners — "Majid Khan's lunch tray, consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins was 'pureed' and rectally infused" — give the lie to the idea that the "enhanced interrogation" program was anything but institutionalized torture.

Just as outrageous, no one's been held responsible. There've been low-level prosecutions, sure, but the torture regime's architects almost certainly aren't going to spend a single day in jail.

So it might be easy to dismiss the report as all bad news. But the mere fact of its release is actually a significant accomplishment, and for more than just symbolic reasons.

The report tells the public that torture doesn't work

Feeble rebuttals from the CIA aside, the torture report makes one thing very clear: torture produced absolutely no useful intelligence. Proving once and for all that torture does not work and does not make us safer demonstrates to the American public that there is no reason for them to support torture as a policy or a political platform.

We learn, for example, that CIA officers "regularly" voiced concerns that torture was failing to produce intelligence. The report examined 20 cases where the CIA publicly claimed that torture helped foil a terrorist attack, and found the agency's claim "wrong in fundamental respects." The evidence that torture did not aid the hunt for bin Laden is particularly compelling.

These findings, culled largely from the CIA's own internal records, are pretty damning. And they're ones the American public needs to hear — because its mind isn't made up on torture. Depending on how you phrase the poll, support for the use of torture in the American public has ranged from 38 to 70 percent.

torture public support

(Brittany Lyte/Five Thirty Eight)

Americans aren't sure whether torture works. The case for torture hinges on its ability to produce actionable intelligence. And research and reporting shows Americans' opinions on that question are really malleable.

One paper, by American University's Erin Kearns and Joseph Young, found that showing people "successful" torture scenes from the TV show 24 made them significantly more likely to support torture as a policy. Apparently, 24 also had a significant impact on the Bush administration: "The lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited [protagonist Jack] Bauer more frequently than the Constitution," Slate's Dahlia Lithwick writes.

The Senate Intelligence report, by drawing on the CIA's own records to show that torture does not work, could serve as the most politically persuasive argument against American torture programs ever produced.

It's a huge step toward rooting out pro-torture culture from the US government

cheney torture meme

The Senate report on its own won't change every American's mind on torture. But the report isn't just about the public. It's also about shaming torturers and stigmatizing torture inside the US government.

In order to really understand the American torture regime, you need to understand that torture is not just something that interrogators do to detainees. Torture is also a culture — or, rather, it's a thing that substantially damages the culture of governments that employ it — in ways that persist in the US, even after the Obama administration shut down Bush-era torture practices.

Georgetown Law professor David Luban was the first to identify torture as a culture and to explain how it works. Once governments permit torture even for limited intelligence-gathering, Luban argues, the logic of its use just encourages more torture. After all, any suspected terrorist could potentially have life-saving intelligence. If you can use torture for some of them, why not all?

In 1987, for example, an Israeli commission gave interrogators a green light to use "moderate physical pressure" only in cases where the victim had information about an imminent attack — your classic Jack Bauer ticking time bomb. By the time Israel's Supreme Court outlawed torture, in 1999, two-thirds of all Palestinians in Israeli custody were reportedly subjected to those "pressures," according to The Atlantic's Mark Bowden.

This, according to Luban, is why the Bush program was so insidious. The bureaucratic and psychological mechanisms that fuel torture, including authorization coming from the highest levels, make torture into a first resort. "We judge right and wrong against the baseline of whatever we have come to consider 'normal' behavior," Luban writes. "If the norm shifts in the direction of violence, we will come to tolerate and accept violence as a normal response." It's how, according to a bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report, legal authorization for CIA torture led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

The only way to fix this normalization of torture is to render it abnormal and culturally unacceptable. US government officials need to feel shame at what happened in order for them to no longer consider torture just a tool they can pull out of the toolbox. High-profile, shocking reports are a way of marking torture as uniquely culturally unacceptable.

Real accountability requires public honesty


An art installation entitled "Waterboarding" by British artist Steve Lazardies. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty)

Reaching the public and shaming the state are both valuable in their own right. But the Senate report may also help lead to real policy changes.

Kathryn Sikkink, a professor at the University of Minnesota, spent decades studying prosecutions for torture and war crimes. In her book The Justice Cascade, she comes to a startlingly optimistic conclusion: human rights prosecutions are becoming more common. Statistical research suggests that these prosecutions reduce the likelihood of torture and other crimes from occurring.

While it doesn't seem likely that public prosecutions of torturers are going to happen anytime soon, it's possible that the mechanisms Sikkink describes could lead to other forms of accountability — ones that wouldn't have happened without the release of the Senate torture report.

For instance, Democratic Senate staffers are discussing a bill that would further strengthen the US law banning torture. Sen. Mark Udall called on CIA Director John Brennan, who has defended torture and served while it was ongoing, to resign his post in light of the report's findings. Are these likely? Probably not. Would we be talking about them without this report? Certainly not.

According to Sikkink's research, simply airing the truth can itself be a form of accountability. An official truth commission on human rights abuses, she finds, is associated with lower rates of abuses in both the short and long term. "Our finding," she writes, "suggests not only that punishment matters but that truth telling matters as well ... by communicating and dramatizing" the belief that torture is wrong.

And that's what this is all about, ultimately. Even if prosecution of America's torturers never happens, exiling the beliefs that led to torture from polite public debate would make future torture less likely. The Senate report is one major step closer to that reality.