May 27, 2004 -- Americans by nearly 2-to-1 oppose torturing terrorism suspects — but half believe the U.S. government, as a matter of policy, is doing it anyway. And even more think the government is employing physical abuse that falls short of torture in some cases.
Given pro and con arguments, 63 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll say torture is never acceptable, even when other methods fail and authorities believe the suspect has information that could prevent terrorist attacks. Thirty-five percent say torture is acceptable in some such cases.
There's more of a division, though, on physical abuse that falls short of torture: Forty-six percent say it's acceptable in some cases, while 52 percent say not.
Majorities identify three specific coercive practices as acceptable: sleep deprivation (66 percent call it acceptable), hooding (57 percent) and "noise bombing" (54 percent), in which a suspect is subjected to loud noises for long periods.
Far fewer Americans accept other practices. Four in 10 call it acceptable to threaten to shoot a suspect, or expose a suspect to extreme heat or cold. Punching or kicking is deemed acceptable by 29 percent. And 16 percent call sexual humiliation — alleged to have occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad — acceptable in some cases.
Does It Happen?
Whatever their personal tolerance for various practices, 51 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government is employing torture "as a matter of policy" as part of the war against terrorism. And two-thirds think the government is using physical abuse that stops short of torture.
There are partisan differences in these views. Among Republicans, who are more apt to think positively of the Bush administration, 36 percent think the government tortures people; among Democrats, who are less favorably inclined, this rises to 63 percent. (It's 52 percent among independents.)
There's also a difference, but a less striking one, on physical abuse: Majorities in all three groups think the government does it as a matter of policy, including 73 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents and 58 percent of Republicans.
Perhaps surprisingly, views on torture and physical abuse are virtually identical whether the targets are suspected terrorists, or suspects in recent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Half the public thinks international terrorists are involved in those attacks.) Just over six in 10 call torture unacceptable for either type of suspect and just over half call abuse unacceptable in either case.
Regarding the Abu Ghraib case, which has resulted in charges against some U.S. soldiers and calls for congressional investigations, the public is twice as likely to see what occurred there as abuse (60 percent) rather than torture (29 percent).
In asking about torture, this poll asked if it were acceptable against people suspected of terrorism "in cases where other methods have failed and the authorities believe the suspect has information that could prevent terrorist attacks and save lives," or unacceptable because "it's cruel, it may violate international law, it may not work, and it could be used unnecessarily or by mistake on innocent people."
Partisanship, and views of the war in Iraq, also produce sharp dividing lines in these views. Among Americans who strongly feel the war was worth fighting, half say torture is acceptable at times. Among those who strongly believe it wasn't worth fighting, three in four say torture is never acceptable.
Similarly, 57 percent of strong war supporters say abuse is acceptable, while two-thirds who strongly say the war wasn't worth fighting say abuse is never acceptable.
In terms of partisanship, most Republicans, 55 percent, say physical abuse is acceptable in some cases; so do about half of independents, but 38 percent of Democrats. About four in 10 Republicans and independents say torture is acceptable in some cases, while fewer Democrats, 27 percent, agree.
There's a gender gap in many of these questions. Forty-four percent of men, compared with 27 percent of women, say torture is acceptable in some cases. Fifty-four percent of men, compared with 39 percent of women, say physical abuse that stops short of torture is acceptable at times.
There's also a gender gap on the acceptability of some coercive methods. Most men call sleep deprivation, hooding and noise bombing acceptable, and about half say the same about exposing someone to extreme hot or cold or threatening to shoot the person. Most women accept only sleep deprivation, and they are much less apt to accept a range of other approaches.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 20-23 among a random national sample of 1,005 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
See previous analyses and details of the poll's methodology in our Poll Vault.