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Accepting Torture?

Posted: 05/01/09 06:19 PM ET

Would you support torture if you knew it saved American lives and prevented acts of terrorism? Would you support torture if you were serving in combat duty in Iraq and you knew it would save the lives of your fellow soldiers? If you answered "yes" to either of these questions, you might be surprised to learn that you are in a minority, and have been for the past eight years.

We have assembled the first comprehensive archive of public opinion on the use of torture taken since September 11, 2001. Despite unending orange alerts, two wars, and the specter of leading political figures arguing for the efficacy of "enhanced interrogation," a majority of Americans continue to reject government use of torture, even when confronted with the "ticking time bomb" scenario.

In 30 polls taken since September 11, 2001, the average public approval for American use of torture is 44 percent, ranging as low as 15% and as high as 49%, depending on the vagaries of the question.

When asked most directly if they think it is "acceptable to torture people suspected of terrorism", only 35% of Americans express approval. Apparently the basic moral sensibilities of the public exceeds that of Vice President Cheney.

We are told that torture is efficacious--it works. It results in "actionable intelligence." Apparently, Americans moral compasses are resistant to such moral complexities. A number of surveys asked respondents if they supported torture "(I)f you knew torture would save American lives..." or "(I) f you knew that torture could prevent terrorist attacks..." Even given that absolute certainty and a "ticking time bomb," time and again, a majority of Americans rejected the use of torture by our government.

We are told that this is not your grandfather's war. The Geneva Convention and the U.N. Convention Against Torture are quaint luxuries that we can't accommodate in this new war against an elusive enemy. Yet, even members of the military, presumably those who are most knowledgeable about the ugliness of modern warfare, oppose torture. A poll conducted by the US military of soldiers serving in Iraq found that 56 percent of Marines and 59 percent of Army personnel opposed the use of torture even if they knew it would save the life of a fellow solider! A larger majority (61 and 64% respectively) opposed torture as a way to gather intelligence.

Why have so many in the political and media elite so badly misread the strong majorities opposed to torture? A recent survey we commissioned helps shine a light on the psychological process of misperception--also called "false consensus"--whereby an individual mistakenly believes that their viewpoints represent the public majority. False consensus has a long legacy in social psychological research, but our survey is unique in that it examines for the first time how false consensus may have shaped the public debate over torture.

A national opinion poll taken among 1000 respondents just before the 2008 election-- shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans overestimated the level of national support for torture. Surprisingly, however, false consensus did not operate evenly across the population. The stronger an individual supports torture, the larger the gap in his or her perception. In fact, those who believe that torture is often justified--a mere 15% of the public--think that more than a third of the public agrees with them. Another 30% say that torture can "sometime" be justified, but say that 62% of Americans do as well. On the other hand, those most opposed to torture--29% of the public--are the most accurate in how they perceive public attitudes on the topic.

Government claims of torture's success have always been highly exaggerated in the past. In 1972, the British Parker Commission claimed that the torture of 14 prisoners in Northern Ireland resulted in preventing 85 terrorist attacks, the arrest of 700 IRA soldiers, and the capture of hundreds of weapons. None of these claims were ever substantiated. The French have yet to release all the documents on torture squads in the Battle of Algiers. Now there are calls from the previous administration for the release of the memos that will show America's use of torture worked, and therefore, the logic must follow, is justified.

The American public has spoken in 30 polls since September 11, 2001 that it does not believe that the use of torture is justified, even if it works. What is reflected in the polling data is that the majority of Americans support the principles of fairness and decency, even when there are more expedient means at our disposal. They understand that the war on terror isn't about getting more land or wealth; it is a war about superior values. Al Qaeda's winning argument is that our values are just fake, and that when it comes down to it, we don't believe those values and defend them with torture. But the majority of Americans, as well our soldiers in the field, never have believed the ends justified the means when it comes to torture. They understand that to lose the high ground is to have lost the war to Al Qaeda.

In 1942, the Gestapo tortured or killed 7,442 innocent Czechs and Jews to catch 103 of its enemies. They called that campaign a success. What is the acceptable ratio of torturing innocents-to-terrorists for America to call our campaign a success, 50-to-1, 10-to-1? We are not sure what American value the previous administration hopes to support with the release of the "torture success memos."

Darius Rejali is the author of the award winning book, Torture and Democracy. Paul Gronke studies public opinion and American politics. Both are professors of Political Science at Reed College.