Public opinion surprises

A new Pew poll contains some unexpected findings about how Americans view Terrorism and their rights

Topics: Polling,

The most common claim to justify endless civil liberties erosions in the name of security — and to defend politicians who endorse those erosions — is that Americans don’t care about those rights and are happy to sacrifice them.  The principal problem with this claim is that it is false, as a new Pew Research poll demonstrates:

It was only in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that a majority of Americans was prepared to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of Terrorism.  But this game-playing with public opinion — falsely claiming that the public is indifferent to civil liberties in order to justify assaults on them — is common.  To this day, if you criticize President Obama for shielding Bush officials from investigations, you’ll be met with the claim that doing so was politically necessary, even though poll after poll found in the wake of Obama’s inauguration that large majorities wanted those inquiries.  Similarly, when The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration was illegally spying on the communications of Americans without the warrants required by law, Beltway pundits such as Joe Klein in unison “warned” Democrats that Americans were in favor of such measures and it would be politically suicidal to object, even though polls repeatedly showed the opposite.  The same happened when Beltway pundits repeatedly insisted that Americans opposed Congressional investigations into the U.S. Attorneys scandal even when polls showed huge majorities wanting them.



What’s striking about this latest Pew finding is that mainstream political discourse barely includes anyone making a pro-civil-liberties case.  The GOP never pretended to care, while Democrats under Obama no longer do.  Still, so engrained are these political values in Americans that a clear majority believes it is unnecessary to sacrifice them in the name of Terrorism.  That’s contrary to what one typically hears both from opponents and supporters of civil liberties alike, who often assume that Americans beileve in the need to relinquish them.

Far more surprising is this finding from Pew:

I confess to being amazed that 43% of Americans — close to a plurality — believe that “U.S. wrongdoing might have motivated attacks” by Terrorists.  I’m not amazed because it’s untrue — it plainly is true — but because that is a view almost never heard in establishment media discourse.  To the contrary, the notion that American “wrongdoing” is a cause of anti-U.S. Terrorism is one of the most rigidly enforced taboos.  Nothing provokes allegations of “unpatrotism” or “anti-Americanism” — or intellectually dishonest claims that one is “justifying” Terrorism  — more than pointing out this obvious causation.  Despite that, and despite the natural jingoistic bias of believing that one’s own country does not engage in truly bad acts (certainly not sufficiently bad to provoke Terrorism), a very sizable portion of the citizenry has come to that conclusion on its own.  That’s a very encouraging finding.

* * * * *

A few related points:

(1) The NPR segment I did yesterday with Dana Priest on Top Secret America and civil liberties can be heard here.

(2) James Bamford, the nation’s leading expert on the National Security Agency, has a must-read article on the Bush/Obama legacy of the Surveillance State.

(3) Kevin Drum has interesting observations about how those who came of age in the post-9/11 era likely believe that all sorts of radical, extreme societal attributes — including “Fortress America” — are actually normal.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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