Posted by on September 28, 2012 in Blog

In a new article for Foreign Policy, Amy Zegart shares her findings on a disconcerting new poll on American support for anti-terrorism techniques.

The poll shows drastically increased American approval of the use of torture, including specific torture methods such as waterboarding, religious humiliation, and others. Compared with 2005 attitudes reported by a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, Americans also appear more likely to support targeted assassinations, and the number who expressly ­oppose assassinations has dropped from 33 percent to a mere 12 percent.

The numbers demonstrate a growing comfort with excesses committed in the name of national security, and may well be a product of the normalization of our national security state. In 2005, many of these abrogations of civil liberties were still fresh; today they have become the norm.

Zegart acknowledges that “it’s always easier to support controversial policies after the controversy fades.” Since these issues are rarely at the forefront of the political debate, people are likely less inclined to think about the potential implications of torture, assassinations, and other activities that violate our ideals of freedom and justice. Matt Baum, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, has even argued that the high levels of support for torture reported by the poll are actually indicative of long-term American attitudes, while the results in 2005 were artificially low due to the many torture scandals that had been exposed that year. “It is possible that support for these policies hit a low point after the Abu Ghraib scandal,” he said, “and has more recently rebounded to its prior equilibrium.”

There is, however, an alternative explanation for the public’s ready acceptance of controversial national security techniques that Zegart was too quick to dismiss. While acknowledging that “Americans are more likely to think assassinations and harsh interrogation practices are justified if a Democratic president uses them,” she goes on to argue that “this logic does not quite fit the facts,” because Obama has not continued the interrogation practices of his predecessor.

This argument fails to account for the fact that Obama has, with the notable exception of torture, kept almost all of George W. Bush’s national security infrastructure intact, and has even escalated a number of its components. Some of the harshest critics of Bush-era military tribunals, indefinite detentions, and targeted assassinations, have been notably silent on the Obama administration’s increased use of drone warfare, assassinations that have included American citizens, and the denial of legal recourse to Guantanamo detainees.

All of this has doubtless contributed to the growing consensus around the use of these tactics, despite the grave consequences they pose for our civil liberties, and even our long-term national security. If both major political parties agree that the ends justify all means in our war on terror, then these numbers are likely to go nowhere but up.

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