Public Support for Torture Not Linked to Terrorism, Researcher Finds

Posted: October 22, 2013 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: October 23, 2013 at 6:35 am

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Jeremy Mayer

Jeremy Mayer. Creative Services photo

By Andrew Brown

The link between terrorism and public support for torture is not backed by empirical evidence, according to research conducted by Mason public policy professor Jeremy Mayer. “The country you live in and its level of political development is the single most important indicator of whether you support torture. Terrorism does not move the needle at all,” Mayer reported in a recent Brown Bag seminar.

Mayer’s study combined the Global Terrorism Database with surveys of respondents in 21 countries about their attitudes toward torture. He found little correlation between countries with terrorist acts and citizens’ support for torture. “What does matter is political development,” Mayer said, which he measured using a widely used, standardized scale of freedoms.

Mayer first tackled this topic in a study of survey results in the United States. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, public opinion polls didn’t address attitudes toward torture, Mayer said. It was the adoption of enhanced interrogation techniques by the Bush administration that prompted pollsters to address the topic.

In that analysis, he and David Armor, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, found that individuals who support torture in the United States are typically male, identify as Republican, less educated and poor. But Mayer also wanted to go beyond ‘who’ and find out ‘what’ causes mass public support for torture.

He noted that some studies anecdotally espouse the idea that terrorism leads to support for torture in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist act. But in his study, which looked at longer periods of time, there was no support that terrorism and support for torture are linked. To verify his findings, Mayer plans to add more countries to his sample in future studies.

Mayer also pointed out that what citizens of different countries support doesn’t necessarily mean that a country won’t torture. Political elites who decide whether to torture may ignore public opinion, “but in democracies, the political elite have to address it differently,” he says. “They have to justify it, whereas a country with an authoritarian leader could just do it.”

Write to Robin Herron at

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