The Senate report on torture released Tuesday is enough to make anyone feel sick. It details abuses of prisoners who endured the unimaginable at the hands of the CIA in the aftermath of September 11. Documents show CIA prisoners — some of whom never should have been detained in the first place — were subjected to a wide range of abusive tactics. Detainees were waterboarded to the point of nearly drowning, forced to endure a procedure called rectal feeding and made to stand on broken limbs for hours. Their mothers were threatened with rape and sexual assault, and some were reportedly tortured by agents who had previously admitted to sexual assault.
There’s also evidence showing that the CIA tried to hide all of this, not just from average Americans but also from Congress and even the White House. Meanwhile, the agency leaked information to reporters to try to gain public support for its practices. But, as it turns out, they were lying, or at the very least exaggerating the effectiveness and importance of the notoriously unreliable methods. The Committee’s report suggests the CIA gained basically nothing from torturing detainees.
The report’s findings were greeted by outrage internationally, but in the U.S. the reaction’s been a little more contentious. Republicans have suggested that the Democrat-led Intelligence Committee wrote the report with the intent of undermining the CIA and then-President George W. Bush, a Republican. But, the committee’s leader, Senate Democrat Dianne Feinstein, disputes that; she writes in the report that its purpose is to ensure that similar war crimes don’t happen again. (She had one prominent supporter in the Republican camp, The Washington Post reports: Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.)
Americans, meanwhile, have become more, not less, likely to support torture techniques since 2004, when the news of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” first started coming to light. But, one group defies the trend: Millennials, who are more likely than other age groups to believe torture tactics should rarely or never be used.
“Even aside from the fact that it’s been proven to be ineffective, which was one of the main conclusions of the Senate report, it’s just a moral imperative that torture is wrong and degrades human dignity,” said Andra Nicolescu, a 30-year-old who works on the Anti-Torture Initiative at American University. “That should never be allowed to happen."
Nicolescu, a researcher who also works to shape public opinion on the Anti-Torture Initiative’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, moved to the U.S. from Romania when she was 10, later becoming a U.S. citizen. She says her desire to work advancing human rights is personal — members of her family were held as political prisoners in "one of the last terrible dictatorships in Europe,” she said, and some endured “very serious abuses of their rights.” But, concerns about torture are universal, she said.
"This issue is important because in the end, whether we uphold these fundamental rights under any circumstance is really a reflection of the kind of society that we all live in,” Nicolescu said. “It's about how accountable and transparent our institutions are, and how much we can trust our institutions and our leadership."
A 2009 study from the Center for American Progress confirmed that then-adult millennials, born roughly between 1981 and 1993, were significantly less likely than members of other generations to support torture as a safeguard against terrorism.
“Far fewer younger Americans than older ones agree that military force is the most effective way to keep America safe; that restrictions on civil liberties and torture are okay in order to protect us from terrorism; and that it is unpatriotic to criticize leaders during war,” the study noted. (Women were also less likely than men, and Democrats significantly less likely than Republicans, to agree that torture was okay in some circumstances, the Center for American Progress found.)
A Pew study conducted in 2011 echoed those findings. When it came to civil liberties, 75% of millennials said it’s “not necessary” to give them up to fight terrorism — an issue every other age group was divided about.
On torture specifically, while 59% of Gen X'ers said they believed it was either “sometimes” or “often” okay when used to “gain important information,” 47% of millennials agreed. Karlyn Bowman, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, called the difference “subtle.” More recent polls don’t break down opinions by age group.
Millennials’ views on torture can’t be wholly separated from politics, either: As Bowman noted and conventional wisdom confirms, younger people are just more likely to be progressive and liberal. But, it’s heartening to think that people who came of age closest to 9/11 are the most likely to say that when it comes to fighting terrorism, torture carried out in secret against possible innocents crosses a line.