One of the most common and most corrosive aspects of our political
discourse is the endless assertions -- based on nothing -- about what
"Americans believe." It is exceedingly conventional wisdom that
Americans generally view the world through the prism of Jack Bauer and
therefore want our government to torture, want Guantanamo kept opened,
and do not want suspected Terrorists to be tried in civilian courts
inside the U.S. It is even more commonly asserted that Americans do
not want, and even further, would never tolerate, criminal
investigations into the various crimes of Bush officials.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday negates all of those beliefs. Here was the question that was asked about torture -- note that it's phrased in the most pro-torture manner possible, because it is grounded in the ludicrous, 24-cliched "ticking time bomb" excuse that is the most commonly used argument by torture advocates:
Obama has said that under his administration the United States will not
use torture as part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, no matter what the circumstance. Do you support this position not to use torture, or do you think there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects?
By a wide margin -- 58-40% -- Americans say that torture should never be used, no matter the circumstances.
Let's repeat that: "no matter the circumstance." That margin is
enormous among Democrats (71-28%) and substantial among independents
(56-43%). As usual these days, Republicans hold the minority view, but
even among them there is substantial categorical opposition to torture (42-55%).
Moreover, a majority of Americans (53-42%) favor the closing of Guantanamo,
with large support among Democrats (68%) and independents (55%). Even
more significantly, a very solid majority of those favoring the closing
of Guantanamo recognize exactly what ought to be done with detainees
who the government believes are guilty of terrorism-related crimes --
it's exactly what the ACLU and civil libertarians generally urge be
One reason for Obama's order on judicial
proceedings is to figure out just how to handle those suspects, and
among those in the new poll who want Gitmo closed, more than six in 10 said they should be put on trial in the regular U.S. court system. A third said they'd like them to face justice in their home countries.
Even more surprisingly for spouters of conventional wisdom, a majority of Americans (50-47%) believe that theObama administration should investigate whether the Bush administration's treatment of detainees was illegal.
When asked: "Do you think the Obama administration should or should
not investigate whether any laws were broken in the way terrorism
suspects were treated under the Bush administration?," Democrats
overwhelmingly favor such investigations (69%), while Republicans
oppose them by the same margin, and independents are slightly against.
Relatedly, Americans would have opposed
(52-42%) the issuance of pardons by Bush to those "who carried out his
administration's policy on the treatment of terrorism suspects." The
poll confined itself in these questions to investigations into detainee
abuse, and did not ask about investigations into other Bush crimes,
such as illegal spying, obstruction of justice and various DOJ crimes.
most remarkable about the fact that a majority of Americans favor
investigations is that one has to struggle to find even a single
politician of national significance or a prominent media figure who
argue that position. The notion that Bush officials shouldn't be
criminally investigated is about as close to a lockstep consensus among
political and media elites as it gets, and yet, still, a majority of Americans favor such investigations.
can, of course, debate the significance of public opinion on these
questions. In general, the fact that a majority or even a large
majority believe X does not make X true or right. And one should avoid
relying too much on a single poll, since results can and typically do
vary based on the wording of questions, sample size and the like. One
could probably devise polls with slight wording changes to generate
marginally different results.
Still, when assertions are made in
political debates about "what Americans believe," those assertions
should not be made baselessly, inaccurately or manipulatively. Yet, as
this poll demonstrates, that's exactly how such claims are typically
made. For years it was conventional wisdom -- repeated endlessly
-- that American majorities don't care about constitutional liberties
and thus wanted the Government to spy without warrants, even if doing
so was against the law. Yet pollscontinuouslyshowedthat was not the case.
results are not really surprising. The Watergate scandal, Richard
Nixon's forced resignation and the imprisonment of many of his top
aides ingrained the idea in the American political landscape (though
not in the minds of our political class) that high political officials
are not above the law and must not be allowed to escape consequences
when they commit felonies. Americans are also inculcated early on with
an emphasis on the primacy of our constitutional values. The
Republicans have failed miserably in two straight elections by making one of the centerpieces of their campaign
the fear-mongering warning that Democrats would cause us all to be
slaughtered by Terrorists because they would put an end to illegal
spying, torture, secret detentions and the like.
elites endlessly deny these facts -- and insist that Americans don't
care about the rule of law and Constitutional values -- because that's
how they excuse their own violations and their refusal to hold
themselves accountable: "We can't investigate Bush because the public
wouldn't tolerate it; we can't abide by Constitutional norms because
we'll lose elections if we appear soft on terror." But those claims
are false. There may (or may not be) reasonable grounds for arguing
against constitutional protections and imposing consequences on those
who violate them, but the fact that public opinion won't permit such
actions is quite clearly not one of those grounds.