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Why Media Matters When It Comes to US Torture Policy

Professor Joe Young spoke with us about his latest book as well as Americans' views of torture policy.

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A group of people outside of the White House, protesting the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Photo credit: Chris DeRidder and Hans VandenNieuwendijk /

What does 24, a TV show about a counterterrorist agent, have in common with the animated Disney movie Zootopia? They both contain scenes depicting torture. In fact, according to SIS/SPA professor Joe Young and University of Alabama professor Erin Kearns, the majority of top-grossing movies in the last decade include at least one torture scene—and these media depictions have colored the US public’s and policy makers’ perceptions of torture.

In their book, Tortured Logic: Why Some Americans Support the Use of Torture in Counterterrorism, Young and Kearns break down why Americans might support the use of torture techniques by sharing their findings from a series of group experiments and interviews with interrogators and intelligence experts. Young recently spoke with us about the book as well as Americans’ views of torture policy.

How Pop Culture Impacts Attitudes toward Torture

Despite what is often depicted in media, in Tortured Logic, Young and Kearns note that experts don’t recommend using torture during interrogations because it’s not an effective way to gain reliable information.

“That story’s more difficult to tell, and it runs counter to every action movie we’ve ever watched,” says Young.

In fact, since 9/11, both the late Justice Antonin Scalia and legal scholar John Yoo have used the show 24 to justify torture.

“In movies and shows, when the good guys need the information, sometimes they need to do nasty things. Jack Bauer did it. Bruce Willis does it,” says Young. “The narrative of ‘we were attacked on 9/11, and the appropriate way to respond to that is by taking the gloves off and doing whatever we need to do to get actionable information,’ it’s a much easier story to tell.”

Going into one of their group experiments, Young and Kearns expected that when subjects saw torture as an ineffective tactic in media depictions, their support for it would decrease. But instead, the opposite occurred: when some people saw torture not work, their support of torture slightly increased.

“We figured that if we gave people the accurate information or if this was all built on efficacy, people would want to do whatever is going to work,” says Young. “There is something unique about torture. And specifically, I think it's this group-based threat—that there's this group that's violently challenging you, and your internal clock tells you ‘we need to respond with violence even if it's going to work or not.’”

The Importance of Influencing Public Opinion (at the Right Time)

Based on these findings, some people who see torture depicted on television or in film would think it’s an appropriate response—regardless of whether or not a scene shows it as effective. So can Americans’ views on using torture in interrogations ever shift?

According to Young, the answer depends on several factors, including whether or not the US is experiencing a time of relative peace and if Americans’ attitudes are open to changing in the first place. Opinions supporting torture are more enduring than those that oppose its use. In fact, only a limited number of Americans have views on torture that are fluid enough to be changed.

“People who are really fixed in their beliefs—those folks aren’t moving regardless,” says Young. “But, if we’re thinking about a larger campaign to try and reduce torture, what activists would need to do is focus on those fluid types and key in on them. Don’t even worry about the fixed types because trying to engage with them will probably just have them harden their beliefs.”

However, timing is crucial, as even Americans with fluid views on torture would likely be committed to supporting its use when the country is perceived to be under great threat: “After 9/11, for example, when people are beating the drum that we need to do something, that we need to be violent in response—it’s really hard to counter that.…The support for the invasion of Afghanistan was somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent. It was almost ubiquitous.”

Public opinion can influence policy, and that includes a foreign policy that impacts how adversaries are interrogated outside of the US. Young emphasizes that when people’s perceptions change, their behaviors can change. The issue can become important to constituents, prompting them to vote for policy makers who are against the use of torture. In Young’s view, when conversations regarding the efficacy of using torture occur during peacetime, they can impact what kind of torture policy the US has during times of threat.

Media and Torture Policy

To change American’s perceptions regarding the use of torture, Young recommends limiting its depictions in the media. But rather than employing this policy through censorship, he believes it can be achieved by having more conversations between experts and content producers.

“We could talk about this in relation to depicting things like sexual assault and other harms to society,” says Young. “We can have conversations about the limits of depicting torture—why it might be artistically appropriate versus how well that’s going to affect the population.”

Young thinks content producers would be open to these kinds of conversations. As an example, he cites when then-US Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan had a conversation with the producers of 24, stating that their depictions of torture were negatively impacting US troops: “He asked if producers could depict torture in another way, and they were receptive to it.”