An Extended View of Public Opinion and Torture

Paul Gronke

I was interested to see Jeff Alworth's recent posting on American public opinion, religious sentiments, and attitudes toward torture.

A colleague of mine at Reed College, Darius Rejali, is the world's expert on electronic torture, with all that implies for his conduct at faculty meetings!  Darius's book, Torture and Democracy, won a prize from the Human Rights section of the APSA.

Darius and I wrote an oped for the Huffington Post on the broad contours of public opinion about torture and I just put up the longer whitepaper that we drew upon on my webpage.

When I started this work with Darius, I suspected that public attitudes about torture were a lot more complex than were being portrayed in the media and by politicians.  I'm not sure whether I'm more disappointed that 30-45% of Americans are willing to accept government use of torture, or that it is virtually impossible to get over 50% acceptance of torture, even when the question is posed as addressing an "imminent terrorist threat."

Here are the bullet points from the paper:

1. A majority of Americans are opposed to government use of torture, even when asked
about an imminent terrorist attack.  These attitudes on torture have remained stable and
consistent over this period.

2. Even when “enhanced interrogation” techniques are not called torture, and even when
Americans are assured that they work to get crucial information, Americans still reject
many techniques approved by the Bush administration.

3. American military personnel serving in Iraq are strongly opposed to the use of torture.

4. False consensus pervades the opinions of those who support torture, leading them to
significantly overestimate the proportion of the public who agree with them.  Those
opposed to torture, in contrast, have remarkably accurate perceptions of the rest of the

5. Outright support of torture is rare anywhere in the world, even in countries that have been
sites of domestic terrorism in the last ten years.  Most countries that have experienced
recent terrorism have publics even less supportive of torture than the United States.

  • (Show?)

    "American military personnel serving in Iraq are strongly opposed to the use of torture."

    This isn't surprising since our troops have high standards of ethical conduct, professional interrogators know torture doesn't gain credible info, and our troops have seen it well documented that torture has been the #1 issue bringing foreign jihadists to Iraq, especially the non-Iraqi suicide bombers.

    On the point of "false confessions," reports indicate that false confessions were exactly what Cheney & Co. wanted--"confessions" that would indicate Hussein's Iraqi Ba'athists had conspired with Al-Qaeda on 9/11.

    This policy was a failure in every possible way. If liberals had been doing this, the same folks who are backing Cheney and Bush at all costs would be rallying against it.

  • Greg D. (unverified)

    Torture is horrible and wrong.

    A different question is what we do NOW about the fact that the USA and its puppet states employed torture during Iraq II. I don't know the answer to this question. However much I detest Bush II and its ilk, I wonder whether we are not going to be sucked into a pointless vortex if we focus our energies on looking back instead of looking forward. Perhaps the Repubs would enjoy a trip down the memory lane instead of marching forward to deal with health care?

    Just wondering.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    "I wonder whether we are not going to be sucked into a pointless vortex if we focus our energies on looking back instead of looking forward."

    Sweeping problems under the rug is always the easier thing to do, but to do so in this case (and most other cases) would be a failure to learn from a great mistake and teach an important lesson. There is also the factor that crimes have been alleged, and the law requires that they be investigated. A failure to do so would show continued contempt for the law and the Constitution. Therein lies a more insidious vortex we are already being sucked into with greater consequences.

  • rw (unverified)

    I got three words for everyone: Truth and Reconciliation.

    So it's only good enough for South Africa? Not good enough for us?

  • rw (unverified)

    Gronke's team: the next job I can dream of.

  • Patrick Story (unverified)
    <h2>What Bill Bodden says--</h2>

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