January 26, 2017

Americans divided in views of use of torture in U.S. anti-terror efforts

As Donald Trump’s administration reviews U.S. policies on the detainment and interrogation of terrorism suspects, the public is divided over whether it is ever acceptable for the country to use torture in anti-terror efforts.

Overall, 48% say there are some circumstances under which the use of torture is acceptable in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts; about as many (49%) say there are no circumstances under which the use of torture is acceptable.

Trump has said he personally believes torture works, but that he will confer with his Cabinet before considering any changes to U.S. policy. The use of torture by the military and all other government agencies is currently banned under U.S. law.

The national survey of 4,265 adults conducted just before the presidential election (Oct. 25-Nov. 8) on Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel finds wide demographic and political differences in views of torture.

About seven-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (71%) say there are some circumstances where it is acceptable for the U.S. to use torture. By contrast, 67% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say there are no circumstances under which this is acceptable. Within both parties there are differences in views by ideology: Conservative Republicans are 18 percentage points more likely than moderate and liberal Republicans to say there are circumstances where it is acceptable for the U.S. to use torture in anti-terrorism efforts (79% vs. 61%); among Democrats, liberals are 11 points more likely than moderates and conservatives to say there are no circumstances where the U.S. use of torture is acceptable (74% vs. 63%).

Men (53%) are somewhat more likely to say there are than that there are not (44%) circumstances under which it is acceptable for the U.S. to use torture. The balance of opinion among women is the reverse: 53% say there are no circumstances where it is acceptable for the U.S. to use torture, while 44% say there are some.

Those with a postgraduate degree are particularly likely to oppose the U.S. use of torture in anti-terrorism efforts: Six-in-ten postgraduates say there are no circumstances where it’s acceptable for the U.S. to use torture. Those with lower levels of education are about evenly split in their views on this question.

Across age groups, 58% of adults younger than 30 do not think there are circumstances where it’s acceptable for the government to use torture. Those ages 30-49 and 50-64 are roughly divided in their views, and most of those 65 and older (54%) say there are some circumstances where the use of torture is acceptable.

Note: See full topline results and methodology (PDF).


Topics: Foreign Affairs and Policy, Political Attitudes and Values, Political Issue Priorities, Political Polarization, Terrorism, U.S. Political Parties

  1. Photo of Alec Tyson

    is a senior researcher focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Packard Day5 months ago

    Time, space, and context determines what people are willing to do in their name and in protection of their own lives. From the practical experience of the British people between September 1939 (Beginning of WW II) and the last week of July 1943 (43K German civilian deaths during the Hamburg bombings), we can see how an entire population of “civilized” people can quickly transition from one of moral superiority & culture to one of utter moral indifference & brutality at using instruments of human violence to exterminate their enemy on a grand scale.__________Time, space, and context determines what people are willing to do to save their own lives. Such is the way of the world from time immemorial.

  2. Anonymous5 months ago

    THIS IN INTOLERABLE! There is NO situation where TORTURE is acceptable by the United States government or by anyone anytime! If a criminal is truly such a menace to society that he cannot live among others, then it is better for him to be imprisoned for life or even given the death penalty than to use means of torture! Are we in the middle ages? Do you think it would change him to slowly burn his dick off with battery acid? or whatever else torturers do? and who would deliver this torture? trump himself or congress? i would hope human beings have evolved out of this kind of inhumane psychotic behavior! really people!

  3. Anonymous5 months ago

    This country has many problems. No new president has been so overwhelmed. Isis, drive by shooting, mass murders, poor government laws, politically correct mistakes, illegal doings,economy decline, police decline, insecure boundaries, school disagreements, mass exporting , employment bullying, alien immigrants, medicine prices, medicare tampering , obamacare, and more. The people chose trump. How selfish these marchers are. We need organization. Why would Trump would want this mess ? I’m grateful and have faith in who he picked. I wish protesters would accept and help our president, because it filters down to someone you love. If Dr., hospital, staff, & taxpayers have individual choices, & payment of abortion involvement, more studies will give facts for court, and arguments may stop.

  4. Anonymous5 months ago

    He said he was for waterboarding, not torture! His argument is that he doesn’t think waterboarding is real torture. It is annoying, not torture. Considering who we are fighting I say all bets off and get them before they kill us!

    1. Anonymous5 months ago

      Donnie hasn’t been water boarded- very easy to say it isn’t torture.

    2. michael heredia5 months ago

      So, if I waterboarded you……. would u say it is annoying or torture??

  5. Anonymous5 months ago

    There has been an epidemic of brainwashing since Reagan took away the fairness doctrine back in the early 80’s. And schools have way down-hill. Look at interviews conducted of “regular” people on the streets. Chilling ignorance and indifference.

  6. Anonymous5 months ago

    A clear indication that people are watching too much television. Torture always works in Hollywood, so it must work in real life too.

  7. Anonymous5 months ago

    I’m disappointed in the values of the educated folks in this survey.