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Would Americans Fight Terrorism by Any Means Necessary?

Would Americans Fight Terrorism by Any Means Necessary?

Two-thirds willing to let government assassinate terrorists

by Darren K. Carlson

From World War II to Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War, the way in which a war is waged and its ultimate outcome have different and profound effects on the will of the American public. The war on terrorism is no different in that respect. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll* gauged Americans' resolve when it comes to the current war on terrorism, by asking their willingness to support four rather drastic measures to combat terrorism.

Assassination to Combat Terrorism

Gallup asked Americans whether they would be willing or unwilling to have the U.S. government assassinate known terrorists if the government deemed it necessary to the fight against terrorism. About two-thirds (65%) say they would support this action and a third (33%) would not. That figure has dropped since a poll taken the month after Sept. 11, 2001, when 77% of Americans said they would support the assassination of known terrorists.

Men are more likely than women to support assassinating known terrorists: 71% of men would be willing to have the government do that, while 59% of women would. 

When President George W. Bush declared the war on terrorism, he explicitly said that the war was not only against terrorists, but also against countries that harbor terrorists. Gallup asked Americans whether they would be willing to have the government assassinate leaders of countries who harbor terrorists. Little more than a third (37%) of Americans are willing to support that idea; a majority (59%) oppose it. As with the other question, the change from 2001 is evident; shortly after the 9/11 attacks, 52% of Americans were willing to support the assassination of a leader who harbored terrorists.

Is Torture Acceptable?

The Geneva Convention forbids the torture of prisoners of war, but the Bush administration has been clear that it believes captured al Qaeda members don't fall into the POW category. Does the American public believe torture is justified in the name of preventing terrorism? Roughly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) currently say they are willing to have the government torture known terrorists if the terrorists know details about planned attacks on the United States, while 59% are not willing to let that happen. Again, there has been a drop since 2001, but here it is smaller -- only six percentage points -- because Americans were not very likely to endorse torture even in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Drop the Bomb?

The use of nuclear weapons might be considered the most extreme action the U.S. government could take in any war, and the public's hesitancy to support it reflects its gravity. Currently, 27% of Americans would be willing to use nuclear weapons to attack terrorist facilities, while 7 in 10 (72%) say they would not be willing. Even in the aftermath of 9/11, just a third (34%) of Americans were willing to take such an action.

Bottom Line

The public's support for extreme measures in waging the war on terror has undoubtedly waned with time since Sept. 11, 2001. But with recent events -- namely, Bush's second inauguration and the apparent success of the Iraqi elections -- Americans are more confident now than they have been in recent months about the way things are going in the war on terror and the Bush administration's ability to protect citizens from terrorism. Thus, Americans may now be less likely to believe such severe actions are necessary to prevent terrorism in the United States.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 480 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 7-9, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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