Public opinion on torture

PUBLIC OPINION ON TORTURE…. There have been a couple of new national polls on the Bush administration’s torture policies, and the results offer at least some hints about the effect of the policy debate thus far.

Over the weekend, for example, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 49% of respondents agreed that the United States should not torture, while 48% who believe torture is sometimes acceptable. The same poll, however, found that a 51% majority supports an investigation into Bush administration officials who may have broken the law in this area.

Gallup published a new poll today, which has similar results, but one unexpected twist.

A new Gallup Poll finds 51% of Americans in favor and 42% opposed to an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. At the same time, 55% of Americans believe in retrospect that the use of the interrogation techniques was justified, while only 36% say it was not.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, but according to this poll, a majority wants an investigation and believes the torture was justified. As Greg Sargent argued, the results suggest “voters are capable of wanting a thorough airing of precisely what happened and when, even if they don’t necessarily oppose the use of torture.”

I guess David Broder’s theory about those who support an investigation being motivated by an “unworthy desire for vengeance,” is looking a little shaky.

I should note that when it comes to issues like torture, polls aren’t necessarily the most important measurement. It’s not as if overwhelming support for torture would somehow make the abusive interrogation tactics less illegal, immoral, dangerous, counter-productive, etc.

But the polls are of at least some interest now, because I suspect policymakers may be influenced by the results. If, say, an overwhelming majority of the public was dead set against accountability for Bush administration officials, chances are, Democratic leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would be even less likely to pursue an investigation.

That’s obviously not the case. Two credible, national polls have been released in two days, and both show narrow majorities supporting some kind of investigation. How might the politicians respond? Your guess is as good as mine, but given the close results, I don’t imagine the polls will produce any new clamoring for accountability.