YouGov poll: Most Americans think releasing Senate report on torture hurts U.S. interests more than torture itself does

Not surprising, really, but the result conflicts so sharply with the media’s sense of how Americans should feel about this that it’s worth highlighting for that reason alone. The press, which supposedly aims to serve the public interest, doesn’t always agree with the, er, public about what that interest is.

What is surprising is the gender gap, or rather non-gap. Wow.


Evidence that ladies are more willing to tolerate torturing suspected terrorists than gents are? Well, no. Skim the crosstabs here and here and you’ll find that men reliably will accept getting rough with jihadis in various specific ways more than women will. That’s what makes the above result so interesting — since women oppose assorted EIT practices more than men do, you would think they’d be more inclined to say that coming clean about those practices now will serve American interests. Nope. Just the opposite, actually. I can’t explain that.

This is more easily explained.


An interesting result in lots of ways, not just the obvious partisan divide. There’s reason to believe from those numbers that Democrats have grown more opposed to EIT over time. Polls taken over the last few years found that a majority of Dems support enhanced interrogation of terrorists in the abstract. Here, though, when asked if torture of suspected jihadis who might know details of future attacks is ever justified, just 36 percent say “always” or “sometimes” versus 58 percent who say “rarely” or “never.” (Then again, another way of looking at that result is that 54 percent of Democrats agree that torture can be justified on rare occasions, with a mere 38 percent saying it’s never justified. And among the wider public, thanks mainly to strong GOP support, 48 percent say torture is always or sometimes justified versus just 42 percent who say rarely or never.) Hard to explain the Democratic evolution on this subject in terms of reaction to ongoing practices since EIT has been banned for years now. What we’re seeing here, I think, is partisan discipline at work. Congressional Dems, under pressure from progressives, decided circa 2006 that they were against torture despite having been, shall we say, ambivalent about it after 9/11. As time has gone by, with Obama eschewing EIT in favor of summarily executing people from thousands of feet above, that anti-torture position may have calcified into Democratic orthodoxy. Centrist Dems who tolerated it before may have decided that being a Democrat now means being anti-EIT.

Another interesting trend in the last graph is how support for particular practices drops among both parties even though the basic partisan split remains. Both sides are way more comfortable with sleep deprivation and hitting a prisoner than they are with sticking one in a de facto coffin for a week or rectally feeding hunger-strikers. You can tease out a certain logic to that. Practices that the average joe can relate to, like being slapped or deprived of sleep, are more acceptable; practices that are more baroque, like trapping a guy in a box for days on end, or that involve some sort of sexual humiliation, like forced nudity or threats of sexual violence, are out of the ordinary and more likely to be seen as sadistic. (Note how there’s more support in both parties for actual violence against a detainee than threatening to use physical or sexual violence against him. It’s the “sexual” part of the question that produces that result, I bet.) The one outlier is waterboarding, another baroque practice but one that’s acceptable to many Republicans and a bit more acceptable to Democrats than the box is. Why is that? Maybe it’s because waterboarding’s become familiar over time after so much public debate about it. Maybe it’s because GOPers know it’s closely linked to Bush and Cheney and feel a partisan tug to defend it. Or maybe it’s that lots of righties remain unconvinced that being waterboarded is as terrible as it’s supposed to be, at least compared to being enclosed in a coffin-sized crate for days.

Whatever the reason, don’t be so sure Republican candidates for president next year will be eager to defend Bush on this, no matter how much primary voters may want it. Guess who said this to the NYT a few days ago:

One senator who did agree to talk … criticized the public release of the Senate report but also decried torture as an interrogation technique. Asked specifically about the use of waterboarding and rectal feeding, which were both documented in the report, [the senator] said he did not want to discuss “specific methods” but suggested that he did not support such practices, noting that they have been discontinued. “And I’m not advocating that we continue those practices.”

Rand Paul? Nope. It was Marco Rubio, arguably the most hawkish guy in the prospective field. This’ll probably be a boutique issue in the primaries but one that could be used against him by Democrats in the general if he’s nominated. He’s positioning himself for centrists early, with good reason. When asked whether the U.S. can fight terror without torture, voters overall in today’s YouGov split 47/30 in favor of yes.

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Jazz Shaw 5:31 PM on February 04, 2023