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More on the Contradictory Torture Polling

Nate had a useful discussion of “the apparently contradictory polling result from Gallup which suggests that, while most Americans think ‘harsh interrogation techniques’ against suspected terrorists are justified, a 51 percent majority also want a federal investigation into the use of these techniques.”

This is related to the graph that John Sides posted the other day showing that something like half of Americans thought that “the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects.”

My first reaction when seeing John’s graph was surprise: Even among Democrats, only 65% said the United States should not use torture, with only 45% of independents ruling out the tactic. My impression was that torture was highly unpopular, with techniques such as waterboarding being semi-acceptable to the public only because they were defined as “not really” torture.

So how do I make sense of these polls? I guess I’ll have to step back and say that there are few absolutes in people’s opinions. In the abstract, torture is to be ruled out, but once you bring in “terrorism” (even “terrorism suspects,” which is really pretty vague), people start to change their minds.

I’m reminded of something I read recently–maybe from Mo Fiorina–that a big chunk of Americans support abortion under all circumstances, but when these people are asked whether it should be legal to do an abortion solely for reasons of sex selection, most of these abortion rights absolutists say No, abortion should not be allowed for sex selection. Similarly, people support freedom of speech but then support all sorts of restrictions in particular examples.