No, the American Public Does Not Like Torture

December 10, 2014

With the publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, I have already seen claims that, morality aside,  the American public accepts or indeed “likes” torture.

This is factually incorrect.

The assertion is sometimes based on a question that was frequently asked by the Pew Center for the People and the Press.  The text of the questions reads:

 Pew:  “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?”

From the standpoint of survey science, this question is problematic. Note that it offers 3 responses about how often torture  may be justified, but only 1 response that it is “never” justified.  The cards seem a bit stacked here (still: from 2004 to 2011, the average responses to this question were as follows:  46% often or sometimes justified; 50% rarely or never justified.)

The question has an additional flaw: it states as a premise that  torture can  “gain important information”.  But we know from the Senate’s report that this premise is debatable, to say the least.

The Pew Center does good work, but this question is not an example of it. More details on this question appear in my paper on the subject.

If we compare alternative survey question wordings on torture, the picture changes considerably.  For example, here are two questions asked by other survey organizations:


Gallup: “Would you be willing — or not willing — to have the U.S. government….Torture known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks in the U.S?” (average of 2001 and 2005)

Not Willing   56%

Willing           41%


ABC/WP: “Would you regard the use of torture against people suspected of involvement in terrorism as an acceptable or unacceptable part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism?” (average of 2003 – 2005)

Acceptable         31%

Unacceptable    66%

Source for above here

If we go beyond these general questions to include very graphic questions about specific torture techniques that we now know were utilized,  we find not just rejection but revulsion.  See, for example, Table 3 in  this excellent article.

Who Likes Torture?

The following graphics provides an answer.  In 2009, following President Obama’s announcement of his executive order banning torture, the ABC/Washington Post poll asked the following. “Do you support this [Obama’s] position not to use torture, or do you think there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects?” (January 2009 – June 2009).

The responses are shown in the graphic below.  When Obama announced his torture ban in January, Republican men were the only group who opposed it.  This changed later when Vice President Cheney mobilized Republicans in defense of the practices of the Bush administration.

Percent who believe “there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects”

(that is,  they oppose the Obama ban on torture)   — click to enlarge




Source: ABC/Washington Post surveys (see Table 1 and Appendix 1 in this paper)