How Americans Think About Torture-and Why

Abu_GhraibIn recent weeks, new revelations about the harsh interrogation and torture of detainees during the Bush administration years have made headlines and stirred controversy. The positions of prominent advocates and opponents on each side are clear. But what do we know about how the American people in general have come to view the use of torture by the U.S. government?

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has been polling Americans on this key question for almost five years. Since 2004, representative samples have been asked, “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” The results over this time period have shown only minor fluctuations. The most recent numbers, from last month, reveal that 15% of Americans believe torture is often justified, 34% think it is sometimes justified, 22% consider it rarely justified, and 25% believe torture is never justified. So not only do 49% consider torture justified at least some of the time, fully 71% refuse to rule it out entirely.

Further insight into these numbers can be garnered from a different poll conducted a few months ago, in January 2009. Fox News/Opinion Dynamics asked a national sample of Americans, “Do you think the use of harsh interrogation techniques, including torture, has ever saved American lives since the September 11 (2001) terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?” The results: 45% “Yes” and 41% “No” (with 14% responding “Don’t Know”). In other words, almost half of Americans think torture “works.”

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