By Brigitte L. Nacos
In a town hall meeting in New York on March 8, 2002 that was moderated by Ted Koppel and broadcast “live” by ABC’s Nightline, the question whether or not to torture captured terrorists was debated. One woman in the audience stood up and said,
“Hi, my name is Mary Fontana. I lost my husband Dave, who was a firefighter in Brooklyn and he also—his father was a vet and his uncle was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. I think it’s—we have to—it’s a slippery slope to start to think about our rights in this country, the rights that he died for and the rights that his father and uncle did…So, I think that, you know, you really have to be careful about who we begin to target because I think it will be—create prejudice, and it will start to become a witch hunt really—that’s my concern that, you know, we all live in this country. My husband died for our rights to live together, and that we really have to be careful when we start talking about torturing people for information. It’s frightening to me.”
What a remarkable statement by the widow of a 9/11 victim.
Speaking in favor of torture that evening a man introduced as Mr. Casey qualified his support. “And I—I don’t—I—I—feel there should be limits, but I—I think the limits should—I don’t think it should be that extreme. I think there should be controls on it, but if you can get the information out of them, I think you should have to get it.”
I doubt that Mrs. Fontana and Mr. Casey could have imagined any of the enhanced interrogation techniques described in the torture report released by the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.
One statement in an online comment posted yesterday in response to the New York Times’ lead story about the report struck me. If the American people had a chance to decide for or against torture right after 9/11, the pro-torture poster wrote, they would have opted for enhanced interrogation. That was an erroneous statement. In early October 2001, less than a month after 9/11, a CNN/USATODAY survey by Gallup found that a majority of Americans (53%) opposed the torturing of terrorists or suspected terrorists versus 47% who supported such measures.
Correct is that in the following months and years public opinion changed gradually and eventually was in favor of torturing. Indeed, eventually, only about a third of Americans were categorically against torturing terrorists.
The just released report mentions that the CIA tried to influence the American public’s views on torture by providing selected journalists with stories about the success of enhanced interrogation to capture prominent terrorists and prevent further attacks.
I think that Fox’s “24” and other TV-series, far more than CIA efforts to spin “enhanced interrogation,” came to affect public and elite perceptions about torture.