Muslim Terrorism Suspects and Public Support for Harsh Interrogation and Detention

What can social scientific evidence tell us about whether Americans are more likely to support harsh interrogation, prosecution, and detention policies if a detainee or suspect is Muslim? How might American political leaders manipulate the public to support these policies by creating and playing on discriminatory sentiments? I have set out to answer such questions in my own research, and discuss below some of the findings that may be most relevant to Just Security readers.

During the Republican primaries, Donald Trump distinguished himself from the other Republican candidates by proposing a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration to the United States; though his position later “evolved” into what appears to be a closer vetting process for migrants from certain (Islamic) countries.  Trump also expressed support for several highly controversial post-9/11 counterterrorism practices that originated in the Bush Administration.  In several campaign speeches and media interviews in early 2016 Trump indicated that as President he would resurrect Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques” against terrorist suspects, such as waterboarding, stating plaintively, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work – torture works.”  He followed this observation up by penning an op-ed piece promising that as President he would use physically-punishing interrogation techniques against terrorists; though by some accounts Trump has rethought this position (others disagree).  Trump has also evinced support for trying U.S. citizens accused of terrorist activity through military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, rather than in civilian courts, and subjecting terrorism suspects to indefinite detention without trial.

There is some evidence that Trump’s stated positions have contributed to a shift in American attitudes toward Muslim immigration and counterterrorism policy.  Though different public opinion polls have found different degrees of change in attitudes, most show a clear increase in public support for the idea of banning Muslim migration as a safety precaution against terrorism since Trump’s announcement of the temporary ban.  Similarly, a March 2016 Reuters/Ipsos survey found that a majority – 63 percent – of Americans are now in favor of the use of torture against terrorism suspects.  This represents a distinct increase from the relatively consistent 50 percent rate of support found in longitudinal polling by Pew since the 9/11 attacks.

In an experimental study, I produce some findings that help to explain, in part, how Presidential election politics and the manipulation of fears of the “Muslim other” have driven the public impulse to support extreme counterterrorism techniques, specifically against Muslims.  Motivated by social science theory suggesting that people respond to feelings of insecurity and threat by lowering their tolerance for the rights of “out-groups” – social groups that one does not identify with – while simultaneously feeling greater affinity for “in-group” members, I conducted an experiment to determine if the American public is more willing to impose extreme interrogation and detention practices against Muslim terrorism suspects.  Muslims are a clear out-group in the eyes of most Americans.  More than half of Americans have unfavorable views of Muslims and the religion Islam.  Moreover, since 2001 the fear of terrorism has remained highly salient.  Indeed, feelings of threat and insecurity were particularly acute during this past election as Americans continued to worry about the threat of terrorism.

Using an online panel developed and maintained by the research company Knowledge Networks – the experiment itself was funded by Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) –  I surveyed 1,135 American adults across the United States in December of 2011.  Respondents were presented with a contrived news story describing the arrest of two terrorism suspects in a Chicago suburb.  The story communicated a sense of imminent threat by quoting an FBI official that the suspects were planning terrorist attacks against popular vacation sites in the United States.  The fictional news stories presented to the respondents were identical except for the reported identities and affiliations of the suspects.  I created five different sets of stories: one where the suspects were identified with stereotypical Muslim or Arabic names; one where the suspects were said to be members of an Islamic terrorist movement; one where the suspects were identified with stereotypical Anglo-American names; one where the suspects were said to be members of a right-wing, domestic terrorist movement; and a final story where the suspects were not identified at all.  Respondents were randomly assigned to read one of these five types of stories to form four treatment groups and one control group.  The groups were balanced in terms of demographic and other characteristics.

After reading the short news vignette, respondents were then asked whether or not they would subject the suspect to the enhanced interrogation and detention practices that came about under the Bush Administration post-9/11 such as sleep deprivation, beatings, sexual humiliation rituals, waterboarding, indefinite detention or trial before military commissions rather than civil courts.  As a check, I also asked standard questions of respondents to gauge authoritarian personality type and propensity for racism and bigotry.

The results of the experiment are summarized in the table below:

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I did not find respondents to be more likely to subject Muslim suspects to enhanced interrogation techniques.  However, respondents were five percent more supportive of subjecting Muslims accused of terrorist activity to trial before military commission – where rights of the accused and standards of evidence are less defendant-friendly than civilian courts.  Respondents were also nearly eight percent more supportive of holding Muslim suspects indefinitely without formal charge, for example in places like Guantanamo Bay, and were more comfortable with denying Muslim suspects access to legal counsel by a margin of six percent. It is worth highlighting an additional finding—the increase in support for harsh detention and prosecution policies against Muslim suspects is even greater among particular groups of individuals: older, White, wealthier, conservative, Christian, male, and religiously observant respondents.

Finally, in the article I published in 2014, I speculated that one reason I did not find the same results for interrogation practices may be due to the public condemnation of such actions by national figures such as Senator John McCain and federal law prohibiting such conduct. If national political figures and law and policy were to support such interrogation practices again (in the same way that military commissions and indefinite detention is supported today), those results might change.

Overall, there is empirical evidence that that in this era of fear and insecurity regarding terrorism, Americans favor dealing more harshly with Muslims than with non-Muslims.  It is important to note, however, that though the results for extraordinary detention are significant, the effects are relatively small.  However, the study was fielded prior to the Boston terrorist bombing, the Orlando nightclub attack and the 2016 election season.  The current environment is perhaps even more charged and primed for anti-Muslim sentiments.  Were the study fielded again, the effects could be stronger. 

About the Author(s)

James Piazza

Professor of Political Science at the Pennsylvania State University