Americans to government: Hands off our civil liberties

In a pleasant surprise, voters are more concerned about retaining basic rights in wake of the Boston bombing

Published May 2, 2013 5:00PM (EDT)

     (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

I admit I was a little bit surprised, but pleasantly: A new Time/CNN/ORC poll shows that Americans are actually more concerned about protecting civil liberties in the wake of the Boston bombing, not less. It turns out voters are smarter than many of their leaders, particularly (but not exclusively) on the Republican side of the aisle. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who vilifies his local NYCLU by comparing it to the NRA, might want to take note.

Time has the details, but the top line is:

When given a choice, 61 percent of Americans say they are more concerned about the government enacting new anti-terrorism policies that restrict civil liberties, compared to 31 percent who say they are more concerned about the government failing to enact strong new anti-terrorism policies.

Only 32 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. government can prevent all major attacks, down from an average of 40 percent in 2011 and 41 percent in 2006. And by contrast with polls taken in the wake of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, when only 23 percent of voters polled showed reluctance to give up civil liberties to protect terrorism, 49 percent said they were not willing to give up such rights, as opposed to 40 percent who were.

Only 38 percent support expanded government surveillance of email and cellphones, while 59 percent opposed it, compared with 52 percent who supported it in 2006 and 54 percent after 9/11.

There are some contradictions in the Time poll: American support for camera surveillance in public places has actually gone up since 9/11, and no doubt the success of cameras in catching the Boston bombers has contributed to their rising popularity.

I was also struck by the fact that in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, most Americans rejected the Republican hard-liners’ demand that U.S. citizen Dzohkhar Tsarnaev be tried by a military tribunal; only 19 percent wanted that, compared with 74 percent who supported the government’s decision to give him a criminal trial. On the other hand, 70 percent believe he deserves the death penalty, which I guess is not surprising. On the third hand, politically ambitious Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley just signed a bill repealing his state’s death penalty, so there’s some evidence that a growing number of Democrats at least believe there’s political gain in getting rid of the much abused, racially discriminatory and hugely expensive system of capital punishment.

There’s even good news in the latest Quinnipiac polling on immigration: Unlike many congressional Republicans, Americans don’t believe the Boston bombing should slow down the push for comprehensive immigration reform, which it should not. Although one in four voters said the bombing had made them less favorable to immigration reform, 70 percent said it hadn't, and two-thirds said they didn't believe a pathway to citizenship would increase the likelihood of terror attacks; only 22 percent said it would.

The bad news about that quarter or so of voters who said the bombing turned them against immigration reform, and who believe reform would increase the chances of terrorism? They're disproportionately represented in the GOP base.

By Joan Walsh