How Do Americans Feel About Torture?
How Do Americans Feel About Torture?
By William Fisher
If the Bush Administration listens to the American public, rather than to Sen. John McCain, it needn't be too worried about the issue of torture of suspected terrorists.
Results of two recent polls by major public opinion organizations show that a substantial majority of Americans believes that such treatment is justified, that torture is still being carried out, and that soldiers, rather than official policy, are responsible.
A poll by the Pew Research Center found that of the 2,006 people it surveyed from the general public, 46 percent believe that torturing terror suspects to gain important information is sometimes (31 percent) or often (15 percent) justified while 17 percent thought it is rarely justified and 32 percent were opposed.
And a survey of 1,010 Americans by Harris Interactive finds that by a 66 to 32 percent majority the American public believes that torture of prisoners by Americans has taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sen. McCain, an Arizona Republican and Vietnam-era prisoner of war, has introduced legislation that would ban cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners by the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and private contractors.
McCain has been locked in a struggle over the measure with the Bush Administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, who has demanded an exemption for the CIA.
But the Senate vote approving the measure was passed 90-9 on a bipartisan basis, despite the administration's threat to veto it. However, a veto would be difficult for the President, since the McCain measure is attached to a "must- pass" defense department spending bill that provides funding for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill is likely to come to a Senate vote soon after members return from their Thanksgiving break next week.
The Harris poll found that 61 percent of those who believe that torture has taken place (or 41 percent of all U.S. adults) also believe that it is still happening in spite of the public disclosures of events that took place in Abu Ghraib prison.
Harris reported that among the 66 percent of adults who believe that prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured, a 41 percent plurality feels that those in command are most responsible followed by the soldiers (30%), the Administration (13%) and the Pentagon (10%).
But the Pew survey also found a pronounced divide between attitudes of the general public and those of more influential Americans. Of the 520 opinion leaders -- academics, news media leaders, military and foreign-affairs experts, religious leaders and scientists – polled on the same issue, no more than one in four believes that torture of terrorist suspects can be sometimes or often justified.
Pew reported that strong opposition to torture is particularly pronounced among security experts, religious leaders and academics, majorities of whom say the use of torture to gain important information is never justified. Nearly half (48%) of scientists and engineers also take this position, as do military leaders (49%), the Pew survey found.
But while opinion leaders largely agree in opposing the use of torture, their views widely differ as to who should be held responsible for prisoner abuse in Iraq and alleged prisoner abuse in the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
By more than three-to-one (75%-21%) scientists and engineers say that these abuses were mostly the result of official policies. A majority of security (57%) and foreign affairs experts (58%) agree, along with about half of academics (53%) and news media leaders (53%). But most military (60%) and religious (67%) leaders believe cases of prisoner mistreatment were mostly the result of misconduct on the part of soldiers and contractors.
"The general public is divided over this question - 48 percent believe soldiers and contractors are to blame, while 36 percent blame official policies," the report said.
Pew added, "The American public is far more open than opinion leaders to the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information. Nearly half of the public (46%) says this can be either often (15%) or sometimes (31%) be justified. This is consistent with results of Pew surveys since July 2004."
The Harris poll found that by a 66 to 32 percent majority the American public believes that torture of prisoners by Americans has taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And 61 percent of those who believe that torture has taken place (or 41 percent of all U.S. adults) also believe that it is still happening in spite of the public disclosures of events that took place in Abu Ghraib prison, Harris reported.
Harris reported that among the 66 percent of adults who believe that prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured, a 41 percent plurality feel that those in command are most responsible followed by the soldiers (30%), the Administration (13%) and the Pentagon (10%).
It also found that six in ten (60%) of those who believe that prisoners have been tortured believe that more than 20 prisoners were tortured. Another 14 percent think that between 10 and 20 prisoners were tortured, and 20 percent think that less than 10 prisoners were tortured.
The Harris poll was conducted in April 2005, and the Pew poll in September and October. Both were completed before press allegations that the CIA was sending 'ghost prisoners' to secret prisons in East Europe and elsewhere.
On her recent visit to Europe, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such prisons, but insisted that torture was against both U.S. law and policy.
Adding fuel to the prisoner treatment issue are allegations that torture and inhuman treatment persist. Most recently, five members of an elite U.S. Army Ranger unit in Iraq were charged with kicking and punching detainees while awaiting movement to a detention facility.
At least 108 people have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them violently, according to government data provided to The Associated Press. Roughly a quarter of those deaths have been investigated as possible abuse by U.S. personnel. There have been 21 homicides.
The torture issue has drawn strong criticism from human rights groups. Typical is John Sifton of Human Rights Watch. Sifton told IPS, "The Bush administration continues to believe that by invoking the word 'terror' it can detain anyone in any corner of the world without any oversight," he said. "Yet all these cases do is suggest that the United States has no commitment to legal principles. Turning your back on the law is not the way to stop terrorism."