Barack Obama opposes torture. Americans don’t necessarily agree with him, and some are downright hysterical about it. Now more than ever, it is crucial for President Obama—and other officeholders—to stand up for their principles and values. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good politics.
Last week, President Obama released four Bush Administration memos on the use of torture, saying:
“In one of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.”
One might think that opposing torture is a political no-brainer—that Americans might clearly agree that torture violates American values and should never be considered. But think again. A Pew poll released just yesterday found that only 25 percent believe torture is never justified.
WTF? Isn’t the Unites States supposed to be the most religious nation on earth? Didn’t they tell us that George W. Bush “won” election in 2000 because people liked the idea of a Compassionate Conservative? Didn’t we hear that he won reelection in 2004 because of his “moral values”?
Yes. Americans, in fact, believe in moral values. We admire people—even politicians—who act upon their values. And we Americans understand that “values” means more than just conservative religious principles—that moral values need not be the anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science mores of the right wing. A Hart/McInturff poll for the Wall Street Journal found that Americans understand that the “moral values” they admire mean knowing right from wrong, being fair with others, telling the truth, and living up to one’s personal philosophy.
So how is it possible that Americans can reconcile the most basic Judeo-Christian moral value, love thy neighbor, with torture?
It’s fear. Fear is an exceptionally powerful motivator. Those who took basic psychology should remember Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
1. Physiological needs
2. Safety needs
3. Love and belonging needs
4. Esteem needs
5. Self-actualization needs
Once people have satisfied the physiological needs (basic biological needs, such as air and food), their strongest motivation is personal security. So when President Bush said we’re in a war and that if we don’t conduct torture you’re going to die—well, that’s pretty persuasive.
How can we overcome that kind of fear? With leadership. When President Obama—and other American leaders—say that you’re not going to die if we stop the torture and, in fact, stopping the torture makes Americans safer, it moves public opinion.
The Washington Post asked about torture in a way that’s different from Pew. The Post told respondents about Obama’s position and asked if they would follow his leadership:
Obama has said that under his administration the United States will not use torture as part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, no matter what the circumstance. Do you support this position not to use torture, or do you think there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects?
Support not using torture: 58 percent
There are cases to consider torture: 40 percent
No opinion: 2 percent