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Science & Environment

What Is Torture? Our Beliefs Depend In Part On Who's Doing It.


Now let's explore what we talk about when we talk about torture. This week's Senate report on U.S. interrogations is the latest stage in a decade-long debate. Americans have talked about torture in different ways, including debating whether to call it torture at all. The Bush administration avoided that language after 9/11 partly because the United States had signed on to a U.N. treaty banning torture. There may be another reason people avoid such a loaded word. Some research suggests this debate is difficult because it affects our sense of our own national identity. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: What's the research?

VEDANTAM: Well, the research finds people very quickly understand that accusations of torture reflect poorly on them, and so this clashes with feelings of loyalty we have towards members of our own group.

INSKEEP: Meaning members of our own country - citizens of our own country.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, and a wide range of research finds that people often respond defensively when they're confronted with this kind of information. And we employ a variety of strategies to deal with this threatening information. I spoke with Nyla Branscombe; she's a psychologist at the University of Kansas. She told me the first response people have when they're told about their own groups carrying out torture is the first response we often have to traumatic situations or situations involving grief, which is we deny the bad thing is actually happened. In the case of torture, this often involves changing the criteria for what's considered torture. Here's Branscombe.

NYLA BRANSCOMBE: We found people change the standard, the criteria, for deciding the severity of harm-doing that's been done when it's their own group's identity that's at stake.

INSKEEP: This is something you can document in the record. The Bush administration years ago argued for calling it enhanced interrogation. Maybe it wasn't quite torture. It was something a little off to the side of torture.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. We've had these semantic wrestling matches for several years now - is this technique torture, or is it a stress position? You know, when it no longer becomes possible to deny that torture has happened, people then move to the next strategy, and that's to minimize the harm that's done. So we say, how can keeping somewhat awake for three or four days be torture? It's just sleep deprivation, and they can sleep it off and then they'll be fine afterwards.

The interesting thing here, Steve, is that we do this selectively, we employ these strategies only when it's our group that's responsible. Branscombe told me there's another strategy. In some ways, I think of this as a third stage of how we deal with these accusations. Once we accept that torture was carried out and that it harmed people, we then say the harm was in some ways justified. So we move the ethical goalpost.

In one study, Branscombe and colleagues in Britain asked American and British volunteers to judge torture carried out by Americans and by British. The British volunteers justified the harm that was done when the harm was carried out by British operatives. The American volunteers excuse the harm that was done when it was carried out by American operatives. Here's Branscombe again.

BRANSCOMBE: Whenever it is your national group that's said to have perpetrated this illegitimate harm, then people will attempt to justify it as one way of dealing with that threat.

INSKEEP: So the essence of this research then is that when your own country is engaged in behavior that might be considered questionable, you really have to struggle to look at that in a particular way, to look at that critically. What happens, though, Shankar Vedantam, when time passes because we're talking about things that happened after 9/11, in many cases, more than 10 years ago?

VEDANTAM: So clearly I think, Steve, with the passage of time, people are better able to come to terms with what happened because they're also able to distance themselves from what actually happened. But time and memory might also be the final defense mechanism. There was another study that I came by by Katie Rotella and Jennifer Richeson. Volunteers were told about harms perpetrated against Native Americans. The catch was some of the volunteers were told the harms were carried out by European settlers and others were told the harms were carried out by early Americans.

INSKEEP: We're talking about the Colonial period here, OK?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now the European settlers and the early Americans are identical, they're the same...

INSKEEP: Same people.

VEDANTAM: They're the same people. But when the volunteers were told that the perpetrators were early Americans, they were far more likely to forget the information that they had learned about the harms perpetrated against Native Americans compared to when they learned the identical information but the perpetrators were European settlers.

INSKEEP: Well, Shankar, thanks for reminding us of this.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.