Photo courtesy of the Center for Constitutional Rights
Last Thursday, the Pew Research Center released a polling report that surveyed Americans' opinions on a variety of foreign policy issues such as the Afghanistan War escalation, President Obama's handling of foreign policy, and the threat of terrorism. Pew also surveyed the general public's opinion on the use of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists. Here is what they found:
In July 2004, 53% of Americans considered torture to be "rarely" or "never" justifiable, compared to 43% who thought it was "often" or "sometimes" acceptable. In April of this year, when Pew posed the same question, a plurality of Americans (49%) perceived torture as justified either "often" or "sometimes," compared to 47% who perceived it as "rarely" or "never" justified. Now, for the first time in five years since Pew began asking the torture question, the majority of Americans (54%) now perceive torture as being justified often/sometimes, compared to just 41% who view it as rarely/never acceptable. Here's the full poll result, found on page 52 of the report:
Now, the poll does not define "sometimes" or "rarely" in quantitative terms -- they are subjective measures, and those who were polled may have considered different hypothetical situations in which they believe that torture would be either "sometimes" or "rarely" justifiable. I would also add that technically, the "rarely" position also belongs to the group of Americans who believe that torture can be considered acceptable, albeit in rare circumstances. But if we accept that the often/sometimes and rarely/never groups are valid measurements of the public's opinion on torture (with the former representing general support for torture and the latter representing general opposition), then you'll notice a significant trend in favor of justifying the brutal practice. This year alone, the percentage of Americans in the often/sometimes category has strengthened by 10%, whereas their counterparts in the rarely/never group have weakened by 10%.
Of course, you might ask, isn't February 2009 an arbitrary starting point for detecting a statistical trend in this survey question? Well, if we take all the average numbers dating back to July 2004 when the question was first asked, the often/sometimes position has averaged 46.8%, and the rarely/never group has averaged 49.3%. Assuming that has been the true division of support vs. opposition to torture in this country over the past five years, then we can identify the results of the October 2005 poll as an accurate, representative sample of Americans' opinion on torture. And if you use that date as your starting point, then the trend is still there: 8% increase in support of torture, 8% decrease in opposition since that time.
The report also found that the recent, significant increase in support of torture (at least in the last year and a half) is not due to hardening support from Republicans, but sadly, from Democrats and Independents.
A majority of Independents now view torture as "often" or "sometimes" justifiable, with a 9% increase since February 2009. But take a look at that jump in the support for torture among Democrats in the last 9 months: 29% to 47%. That’s a huge, stunning, and disturbing shift, and despite whatever margin of error that might have existed in the poll, it’s highly unlikely that such a trend was an artifact of random chance.
It’s bad enough that at least 2 in 3 Republicans justify torture as acceptable; but now, nearly half of all Democrats believe torture can be justified to gain information from suspected terrorists. What does it say about our culture and our national values that acceptance for torturing suspected terrorists -- once prohibited under all circumstances by Ronald Reagan -- has become this bipartisan and mainstream, regardless of the fact that torture is explicitly defined as criminal by the Constitution and Geneva Conventions?
Last week, when I posted my first diary about this depressing survey result, I posited that the Obama Administration’s policies on civil liberties were correlated with the shift among Americans in favor of justifying torture. Several commenters disagreed, stating that it was unfair for me to lay the blame on President Obama based on the results of this poll.
I will acknowledge that it is not yet possible to conclude definitively whether or not the Obama Administration is directly responsible for the general public’s decline in opposition to torture in the past year, particularly because the poll did not ask respondents what has made them more or less likely to consider torture as being justifiable during that time (and if Obama's civil liberties record played any factor). But, here’s what I do know:
- The Obama DOJ has made repeated efforts to block investigations of torture, despite documented reports that many prisoners of war were brutally abused and tortured in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib during George Bush’s tenure, despite verifiable evidence that Bush Administration officials were involved in authorizing inhumane treatment such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and hypothermia -- and despite the fact that Obama himself has stated that he considers waterboarding to be torture.
- The Obama Administration has asserted again and again that it has the right to detain prisoners deemed a threat to national security indefinitely, without trial, and without charges, in direct violation of the core principles of the Constitution.
- While the DOJ's decision to bring high-profile prisoners such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York for a criminal trial was commendable, many Guantanamo detainees are still being denied criminal trials of their own, and are instead still being subjected to indefinite detention.
- The Obama Administration worked closely with the British government to cover up the brutal torture of Binyam Mohamed while he was in the CIA's custody in Pakistan. There have even been reports that the Obama Administration threatened to limit the exchange of intelligence information with Britain if the details of Mohamed's incarceration and treatment in Pakistan were released -- although a British court has ordered the information of Mohamed's torture to be disclosed.
- By doing all of this, President Obama is undermining his repeated pledges to create the "most transparent administration in history," his past condemnations of George Bush's use of the same policies, and his previous claim that "if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated."
I cannot speak for those who believe that torture can be "often," "sometimes," or "rarely" justified to gain information from prisoners, but Obama's record on civil liberties would not have any affect on my opinion of torture since I believe that torture is wrong under any and all circumstances; that the available evidence warrants a thorough investigation of the previous administration for their actions in authorizing it; that torture provides no reliable or actionable intelligence with which to combat terrorism; and even if it did, that would still say nothing about the legality of "enhanced interrogation." Whether or not you believe the President's policies had an impact on the disheartening results of the Pew poll, if nothing else the poll still signifies a collective failure on the part of our culture to properly educate and inform the citizenry about the evils of torture and why it cannot and should not ever be considered justifiable. Furthermore, even if the survey had shown a much larger opposition to torture among the general public, that would not excuse Obama for the actions he has taken on civil liberties thus far.
Since I am still flabbergasted by the fact that 47% (!) of Democrats now seem to think torture can be justified either "often" or "sometimes," I'll let Glenn Greenwald close the diary for me with a point that more than accurately sums up my position on torture and what should be done to hold those responsible to account:
Needless to say, I vehemently disagree with anyone -- including Obama -- who believes that prosecutions are unwarranted. [The Office of Legal Counsel] memos describe grotesque war crimes -- legalized by classic banality-of-evil criminals and ordered by pure criminals -- that must be prosecuted if the rule of law is to have any meaning. But the decision of whether to prosecute is not Obama's to make; ultimately, it is Holder's and/or a Special Prosectuor's. More importantly, Obama can only do so much by himself. The Obama administration should, on its own, initiate criminal proceedings, but the citizenry also has responsibilities here. These acts were carried out by our Government, and if we are really as repulsed by them as we claim, then the burden is on us to demand that something be done.