Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Public Opinion on Torture

I recently asserted, based mostly on anecdotal evidence, that the American public by and large doesn’t care about torture and, if anything, a majority wants the government to engage in torture. But Glenn Greenwald cites a recent survey that pretty clearly suggests otherwise. In fact, that poll is very encouraging on a range of issues.

It is exceedingly conventional wisdom that Americans generally view the world through the prism of Jack Bauer and therefore want our government to torture, want Guantanamo kept opened, and do not want suspected Terrorists to be tried in civilian courts inside the U.S. It is even more commonly asserted that Americans do not want, and even further, would never tolerate, criminal investigations into the various crimes of Bush officials.


And I have to admit, I have believed that conventional wisdom, repeated it and based arguments on it. But that may not be accurate:

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday negates all of those beliefs. Here was the question that was asked about torture — note that it’s phrased in the most pro-torture manner possible, because it is grounded in the ludicrous, 24-clich├ęd “ticking time bomb” excuse that is the most commonly used argument by torture advocates:

Q. 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?

By a wide margin — 58-40% — Americans say that torture should never be used, no matter the circumstances. Let’s repeat that: “no matter the circumstance.” That margin is enormous among Democrats (71-28%) and substantial among independents (56-43%). As usual these days, Republicans hold the minority view, but even among them there is substantial categorical opposition to torture (42-55%).

Those numbers surprise me greatly. But he’s right, that question is pretty definitive and so are the results. And there’s more good news:

Moreover, a majority of Americans (53-42%) favor the closing of Guantanamo, with large support among Democrats (68%) and independents (55%). Even more significantly, a very solid majority of those favoring the closing of Guantanamo recognize exactly what ought to be done with detainees who the government believes are guilty of terrorism-related crimes — it’s exactly what the ACLU and civil libertarians generally urge be done:

One reason for Obama’s order on judicial proceedings is to figure out just how to handle those suspects, and among those in the new poll who want Gitmo closed, more than six in 10 said they should be put on trial in the regular U.S. court system. A third said they’d like them to face justice in their home countries.

Even more surprisingly for spouters of conventional wisdom, a majority of Americans (50-47%) believe that the Obama administration should investigate whether the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees was illegal. When asked: “Do you think the Obama administration should or should not investigate whether any laws were broken in the way terrorism suspects were treated under the Bush administration?,” Democrats overwhelmingly favor such investigations (69%), while Republicans oppose them by the same margin, and independents are slightly against.

It’s only one poll, of course, but the results are quite compelling and the questions asked are specific enough that they can’t be dismissed as misleading. And it suggests that Obama has much more political room to maneuver on these issues than I thought he did.