December 9, 2014

Americans’ views on use of torture in fighting terrorism have been mixed

The so-called enhanced interrogation techniques put into practice by the Central Intelligence Agency after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and continued in subsequent years during the Bush administration are the focus of a report being released by the Senate Intelligence Committee — and a subject on which Americans have had mixed views.

FT_14.12.9_torture2The use of practices like waterboarding began to surface publicly in press reports not long after 9/11, and when the Pew Research Center first surveyed on the subject in July 2004, a narrow majority (53%) said the use of torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists could be only rarely or never justified.

Opinion has shifted since then, with more Americans finding torture acceptable. In August 2011, a narrow majority (53%) of Americans said the use of torture could be often or sometimes justified, while 42% said it could only rarely be justified or not be justified at all.

A more recent poll by Associated Press/NORC conducted in August 2013 found similar results. Half said the use of torture could sometimes or often be justified while 47% said it could rarely or never be justified.

But polling has found that there are differences along party lines with Republicans more supportive than Democrats of torture with suspected terrorists. In our 2011 survey, a substantial majority of Republicans (71%) said torture could be at least sometimes justified, compared with 51% of independents and 45% of Democrats. In the AP/NORC poll, 66% of Republicans backed use of torture in dealing with terrorists compared with 53% of independents and 39% of Democrats.

Topics: Terrorism, U.S. Global Image and Anti-Americanism, Wars and International Conflicts

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. Eric3 years ago

    If you intend to torture a radicalized jihadist to get information, then you are doing just what he/she wants you to do. To a jihadist, the more pain they suffer for Allah, the higher they rise in their God’s kingdom when they die defending the God. This is the same mentality of martyrdom enjoyed during the Middle Ages by Christians. When the call goes out to jihadists for suicide bombers, the lines are long. The American torturers were and are playing by the jihadist rules. They always win in this game. We always lose.

  2. Marvin Sands3 years ago

    The use of torture in any given situation should never be used. It is barbaric and inhuman to treat another human in this manner. And moreover, it does not guarantee that the information that is being souught will be forthcoming. An individual under this kind of stress can tell anyone anythng to relieve the stress of this treatment. And who’s to say whether this truly genrates the truth.

    In addition, torture violates the terms of our constitution and both the Geneva I and Geneva II Conventions. And in addition to this, torture sets this country up for criticism for defending its human rights agenda. In other words, take the old saying — “do as I say — not as I do.” The United States cannot take this position. We must not engage in torture.

    1. no name2 years ago

      its called life

  3. Elaine Coyle3 years ago

    IMO. never should our dirty laundry be aired in public. It serves no purpose except for the
    political agenda of the Democrats. I am appalled that they would sink so low & damage our country
    in the process.

    1. Kevin D2 years ago

      It was exposed because it is wrong. We executed war criminals for the same type of torture our some Republican leaders endorsed and approved. Which in itself makes them war criminals. I’m not saying make detainees comfortable. Sleep depriving, temperatures changes say 50deg and a 1/2hr later 120deg 1/2hr later back to 50deg, Nothing but pork meals. Time destortion only artificial light. All fair game but we can’t physically harm or threaten physical harm. America is better then that, we can not stand against torture and at the same time practice it.

  4. Jim G3 years ago

    I think we too often forget what a war is all about. It is about killing, pure and simple. When one side looses enough people, they decide its not worth the effort, and capitulate. To take the “Jimmy Carter” attitude, where if we are nice to the other side, they’ll be nice to us is pure stupidity, in my estimation. If these people will only think about the reality of the aim of ISIS. Either join them in their beliefs, be killed or be fined an enormous amount. If, by torture of any kind, if one American life is saved, I don’t think there should be any limits as to how information is gained.

    1. dale3 years ago

      If violations of law are not aired in public and those iprosecuted, we are supporting tyranny and the destruction of the Republic. As JFK said, just before they murdered him: secrecy and democracy are incompatible. How can people make informed decisions and give consent if critical issues are kept secret? They can’t. When leaders can break laws and get away with it, we have destroyed the Republic and endorsed tyranny.

    2. dale3 years ago

      It was not airing war crimes that has hurt America but lying to the public while committing war crimes.

    3. dale3 years ago

      1. By Jimmy Carter, I think you mean Jesus.
      2. Jimmy Carter was the first President to fund the jihadists in Afghanistan.
      3. Treating others with respect is only stupid to brutes.
      4. ISIS was created when the US (first under Carter) began to fund the radical Islamic fundamentalists and it continues today with arming of Syrian jihadists, many of whom then join ISIS.
      5. Love your enemy is not a commandment of stupidity but an effective strategy.
      6. We are all created equal and we all deserve respect.
      7. Torture dehumanizes the torturer while pushing the victim to say whatever will stop the pain. That is why it is rejected as an effective means.
      8. The end does not justify the means. This is the logic of the monsters of the world.

  5. Chas3 years ago

    Making terrorists stay up past their bedtime, listen to loud music, and having water on their heads is not torture. These monsters killed 3,000 Americans, flew an airplane into the Pentagon, and tried to fly another airplane into the White House. We had to find out what other attracts they were planning. The techniques used were appropriate and necessary.

  6. patrick a shea3 years ago

    40 years ago next month I joined the staff of the first Senate Intelligence Committee, often referred to as the Church Committee, after its Chairman. I was the fourth employee hired out of more than 140. In the beginning we focused on the analytics, that is, budget and command and control. Then Vice President Rockefeller gave the Committee the “Family Jewels” which had been compiled by Director Schlesinger during his tenure as Director of Central Intelligence. The siren sound of publicity drove the Committee to jump into the brier patch of assassination. What emerged later was more than 8 volumes of testimony and little in the form of solid command and control, or budgetary recommendations as to how to manage our vital, but potentially, dangerous intelligence community.
    Now four decades later, almost the same time between the Church Committee and the Pearl Harbor Committee as a nation we are ghoulishly ravaging the unanswerable question, much like assassination, of torture.
    Maybe in the next forty years we will come to grips with the reality that unless you know how the budget operates, and how the command and control actually operates, you are never going to have representative government oversee, let alone control, its vital intelligence community.

  7. Befuddled3 years ago

    The thought of torture is as repulsive as the thought of war. They both however are realities of the world. To think that it’s totally unacceptable is very naive. People do horrible things it’s just human nature. To stop horrible actions against us so we can live a decent life sometimes requires these steps. So we do what we have to to minimize unnecessary trauma to our lives. History shows that there are always going to be people out there doing bad things. To blame us, the most compassionate country in the world is just plain rediculous. The option is leaving this country if you think it so bad.

  8. Al Ireton3 years ago

    Those that lost their lives in 911 & those of us who witnessed the event applaud the work of the CIA….as I do. Keep America safe for our loved ones…..without compromise. The CIA has the responsibility to keeping America safe…….applauded them for their commitment to keeping America safe. God Bless America

    PS…..AndKeep politics at a distance!!!!!

    1. dale3 years ago

      To combat terror we must become terrorists? How is that victory? That is victory for terrorism. I find your defense of torture grotesque and despicable. Shame on you!

  9. HillRunner3 years ago

    We need more—and more-accurate—terms to intelligently discuss this topic.

    The word “torture” has been politically ballooned to encompass any discomfort, physical or emotional. Its use in the polls cited skews results to the negative. It’s now “torture” to tear up a Quran in front of a Muslim fundamentalist POW.

    No, to specify torture, enumerate fiendish Viking practices, those of German and Japanese during World War II, the North Koreans, North Vietnamese and atrocities on both sides of English/IRA bloodshed. Or watch one of the many recent Islamist beheadings. It’s pan-cultural shame. But “enhanced interrogation” is not the same as true torture.

    Yet the benign term “enhanced interrogation” misleads equally in the opposite direction. It sounds like three people yelling at you. Is the emotional distress of water-boarding as morally evil as slowly drawing out a POW’s fingernails or inserting a glass rod into his penis and shattering it? Does sleep deprivation measure up to the Axis’ WWII standards?

    Until we distinguish among the three levels of emotional upset, non-lethal fear inducement, and gory, disfiguring physical torture, we can’t have enlightening discourse of this matter.

    1. Retread3 years ago

      Forced rectal feeding would appear to qualify as horrid torture in my book.

  10. Ira lechner3 years ago

    That is unfair because the question is biased on the assumption that torture produces critically important information that would be necessary to prevent an imminent attack. Please repoll with much more sophisticated and nuanced questions in order to get a fairer result

    1. HillRunner3 years ago

      “In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged
      that virtually every American POW so subjected made a statement
      of some kind at some time.”
      See Wikipedia, Hoa Lo Prison.

  11. Janna3 years ago

    And it would be interesting to see the level of awareness among those who say torture is never justified as to their attitudes toward beheadings and bombings in the USA (and elsewhere) of American citizens.

    Can you design some questions for a poll to see if there is a correlation between people who are UNAWARE or passive toward terrorist acts against Americans — and those who say torture must not be used against suspects?

  12. Thomas R3 years ago

    That 45% of Democrats even approve when it’s straight-up called “torture” is rather unnerving.

  13. Packard Day3 years ago

    “By Any Means Necessary.” “The Ends Justifies the Means.” “Exitus Acta Probat.” However way anyone wishes to say it, it all means the same thing…immoral lawlessness by those with power.
    Would that Democrat and MSM outrage for government sponsored torture against Islamo fascists were at least equal to that of the violations of American citizen rights caused by our own IRS, DOJ, Homeland Security, NSA, VA, HHS, EPA, NLRB, etc. etc. etc. Then again, if violations are not happening to them or their supporters, it is not happening at all, I suppose.