We now have our first poll since Osama Bin Laden’s killing that attempts to gauge American attitudes towards torture, at a moment when conservatives are pressing the case that torture has now been vindicated. And let’s not harbor any illusions: The numbers are not quite as good as those who oppose torture might have hoped.
At first glance, the toplines in the poll — which was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute — do look good for torture opponents. It finds that 49% of Americans agree that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is never justified, compared to 43% who disagree. And it finds that only 27 percent think torture gained info “critical” to the killing of Bin Laden.
But the internals of the poll — sent my way by the Institute — tell a somewhat different story. The 49 percent who say torture is never justified is broken down into 25 percent who “completely agree” and 24 percent who “mostly agree.” That latter group may be open to the argument that it might be justified on certain occasions. Only a quarter rule it out entirely.
Meanwhile, though only 27 percent say torture produced “critical” information in getting Bin Laden, another 17 percent say it extracted “important” info, for a total of 44 percent. Only 37 percent say it produced little or no info. Not great.
You couldn’t ask for a better moment to rejoin the argument over torture. Though conservatives insist that Bin Laden’s killing vindicates “enhanced interrogation,” a careful and extensive New York Times investigation concluded that torture “played a small role at most” in tracking down Bin Laden. Beyond this, the simple fact is that the president that has been widely derided by the right as weak for ending torture tracked down and killed the world’s most wanted terrorist. That’s a pretty good starting point for this argument.
Republican Senators are apparently set to grill David Petraeus and Leon Panetta at their confirmation hearings over torture’s role in getting Bin Laden. That’s good: The sight of the popular Petraeus reiterating his opposition to torture in a high-profile setting — after the Obama administration killed America’s number one terrorist foe — could help influence public attitudes. But right now, public opinion is not as encouraging as one might have hoped for.