Terror, Torture, and Death in Public Opinion

First of all, let me take this opportunity to thank Eugene for allowing me to guest blog this week about the survey research I have been conducting with Steve Ansolabehere. We hope to conduct a similar survey annually and are seeking to share the costs and content with interested law professors, along the lines of the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, in which 30 universities now participate. Interested law professors should contact me if they would like their institution to participate in future versions of this survey.

About two thirds of the survey we conducted in July covers questions that have been asked before, such as the abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights questions mentioned in my earlier post. This allows us to assess change over time, even if, as many recognize, each question has problems with its wording or framing (e.g., what do respondents mean when they say Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, when few people know what Roe actually said and many of those same respondents would support banning abortions under certain circumstances where Roe and Casey would protect abortion rights?). These concerns are discussed at length in Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy.

Take for example, the death penalty question that we (and other surveys) asked: “Should the government be allowed to apply the death penalty in any of the following cases:

An adult convicted of murder (77% say yes)
A mentally retarded person convicted of murder (19% say yes)
Someone under 18 convicted of murder (42% say yes)
A person convicted of raping a child (67% say yes)
A person convicted of treason against the US (61% say yes)”

When a survey offers the respondent the option of death penalty or life without parole, aggregate support for the death penalty for an adult convicted of murder drops by about 15 to 20 percentage points. (Incidentally, we see a similar phenomenon with respect to same-sex marriage when a civil union option is provided in the question: the share of the respondents supporting same-sex marriage goes down by ten percentage points or so and the share supporting no legal recognition is about ten points lower than is the anti-marriage response in a two-option question. See here.) However, when pressed, even those who chose life without parole would allow executions in certain circumstances – 1/5 of those preferring life without parole nevertheless opted for the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, for example, in a CBS poll that pressed the question in 2001. As compared to other recent surveys, ours seems to be at the high end of support for the death penalty. Although substantial majorities historically and today support the death penalty, most observers noticed the trend reversing slightly beginning in the mid 1990s. See here.

As long as I am on the topic of morbid survey items sensitive to question wording, our survey asked the following familiar question concerning the “right to die”: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it? 57 percent said “doctors should be allowed,” and 42 percent said “doctors should not be allowed.” As Joshua Green and Matthew Jarvis explore in their chapter in our book, the response patterns to euthanasia questions will often differ based on framing. Framing that refers to “severe pain” and “physicians” will often lead to higher support for ending the patient’s life, while including the word “suicide” will dramatically lower support. Larger majorities, unsurprisingly, support a terminally ill patient’s right to refuse life-prolonging medical treatment than would support active euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. With all these caveats, it seems pretty clear that support for euthanasia is substantially greater today than it was thirty years ago, but it is difficult to discern any consistent pattern over the last decade. Several polls show growing support while others suggest support has reached a plateau or slightly reversed.

In addition to these often asked questions, we included some original ones on our survey as well, specifically to test how different frames might affect response patterns. For example, we asked the following question about torture: “Do you think the U.S. military should be allowed to torture those who may have been involved with acts of terror?” 36% said “yes” and 62% said “no.” This rate of response is consistent with other surveys with more qualified wording, such as the Gallup question: “Would you be willing or not willing to have the U.S. government do each of the following to combat terrorism? How about torture known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks in the United States? 39% said yes in 2005; 45% said yes in October 2001. See here. Despite the absence of words and warnings like “known terrorist” or “future attacks”, the response patterns appear similar in our survey.

That division in the population was reversed for the other terrorism-related question we asked: “Should non-citizens suspected of terrorism and detained in U.S. military prisons be allowed to challenge their detentions in the U.S. civilian court system?” 38% said “yes” and 60% said “no.” Given the recent announcement of the impending trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed I suspect we will soon see similar polls, and it will be interesting to see whether the salience of the issue shifts opinion one way or the other.