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Support for torture is linked to attitudes on spanking

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: October 31, 2006

Americans who say it's acceptable to spank children are twice as likely to support the use of torture on suspected terrorists than are people who oppose spanking, a new poll has found.

The survey of 1,031 adult residents of the United States conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that a narrow majority (52 percent) believes that "using torture to get information from a suspected terrorist" is "never justified."

The same percentage of people also thinks Congress erred recently in giving President Bush authority to interpret the meaning of the Geneva Conventions - international treaties banning inhumane treatment of prisoners of war - when ordering the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans say torture is "sometimes justified" and believe Congress acted correctly in giving Bush broad authority in how to interrogate detainees in the war on terrorism. Ten percent in both questions were undecided or gave other responses like, "It depends what the facts are."

Not surprisingly, the poll found that Democrats overwhelmingly opposed harsh treatment of detainees and Republicans overwhelmingly supported it.

But politics aside, attitudes on spanking appear to relate very strongly to attitudes on torture. Democrats and independent voters who say spanking "is sometimes necessary to maintain discipline with children" are much more likely to support the use of torture than do Democrats and independents who are opposed to spanking.

Support for torture rises to 45 percent among all people who think spanking is sometimes necessary. It drops to 22 percent among people who think spanking is never necessary.

"We know that when parents spank, it's a way to manage the frustrations of parenthood. It's usually done when there are a lot of emotions, generally when parents are at the ends of their ropes," said Kyle Pruett, a psychiatry professor and director of medical studies at Yale University's Child Study Center.

Pruett said he's not surprised attitudes on spanking are linked to - although not necessarily the cause of - attitudes on torture.

"I can see why people would think that terrorists have frustrated us enormously, to the point that we struggle to see them even as human beings," he said. "We feel we can violate them because they have so frustrated us. So we say it is all right to spank. It is all right to torture."

Support or opposition to torture varies considerably. Men and whites are more likely to support it; women and racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to oppose it.

Only 24 percent of self-described "strong Democrats" said torture is sometimes justified, compared to 66 percent of "strong Republicans." Support for torture rose to 32 percent among Democrats who believe spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline children and fell to 11 percent among Democrats who said spanking is not necessary.

Although Americans by a slim majority are opposed to the use of torture, they are somewhat more divided on the question of whether employees of the Central Intelligence Agency should be prosecuted if they've used torture.

The survey found that 49 percent said "yes" when asked: "Should employees of the CIA be prosecuted if they've used methods on suspected terrorists like electric shock and water torture?" Thirty-five percent said the CIA should not be prosecuted and 15 percent were undecided.

Although most Americans tend to oppose torture, they overwhelmingly support spanking as a means of discipline. Seventy-nine percent said they were spanked as a child, 69 percent said they think spanking is "sometimes necessary to maintain discipline" and 55 percent said they, personally, have spanked a child.

Support for spanking - like torture - also is divided along political lines, although a majority of both parties endorse corporal punishment. Sixty-two percent of "strong Democrats" and 83 percent of "strong Republicans" say spanking is sometimes necessary.

Support for parental corporal punishment appears to be declining among America's younger generations. Only 60 percent of young adults 18 to 24 years old support spanking. Belief in spanking steadily rose though the age groups and maxed out at 75 percent among Americans 65 or old.

The survey was conducted by telephone Oct. 7-24 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. It was sponsored through a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The survey generally has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, although the possibility of error rises among subgroups like "strong Republicans" or among people who support spanking.