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Democratic Paradox?


Just browsed across this report from news24 recently, I thought it raised some interesting issues for the idea of democracy as a whole. Apparantly nearly 50% of Americans are ok with the idea of torturing detainees in order to get information from them.

The survey, involving 2 006 people from the general public, found that 46% felt that torturing terrorist suspects to gain important information was sometimes (31%) or often (15%) justified while 17% thought it was rarely justified and 32% were opposed.

By contrast, the study found that of 520 opinion leaders also questioned on the same issue, no more than one in four believes that torture of terrorist suspects can be sometimes or often justified.

This raises some profound questions for the idea of democracy, is torture to be justified and used on the basis of majority support? Is it feasible or correct to argue such a position or are the leaders surveyed correct in being unreprersentative of the popular opinion?

Is the role of torture in the execution of any investigation or manhunt out of bounds and non-negotiable thus taking it outside the remit of democratic decision making? Is that allowed since in our society the people must be sovereign and able to decide their fate? At the heart of this contradiction is an opposition by those who are in power, authority and aware of the circumstance to the use of torture, yet diverging from the views of those they serve/represent.

I know many of you will say so what? Big deal. Yet in terms of what it means for constructing and interpreting democracy, it is a big deal. The state is not intended to be tyrannical over a mans ideas, yet at the same time, Human rights law universally proscribes the use of torture and rightly so.

Im sure that the argument that once people are aware of the ins and outs they will be less likely to support torture is a good one. Perhaps the correct way. I know leaders are often at odds with their populations yet commentators are often shy to seeks ways around this. How can we, should we, translate the public will into decision?

On an issue like this the public is wrong, no amount of torture will help the war on terror. On a broader issue it underlines the terrible mess the whole project is in if torture is being seen as a necessary solution.


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  1. Blogger London Denizen | 6:23 p.m. |  

    I think the data may be misleading: how many of those who said it could sometimes be justified, or could often be justified would stick to this number if they were presented with the facts on how 'suspicious' you have to be to be a suspect.

    It is worrying that on measures such as the 90 day detention without charge in the UK, the public (according to the s*it stirring red-tops anyway) were in favour of the 90 day measure, and yet the majority of their representatives voted against it. Philosopher kings anyone?

  2. Blogger Cian | 10:58 p.m. |  

    I agree that the argument that people once armed with more facts and subtleties of the argument may change tune.
    It was your second point that cut closer to the bone in my post.
    Are our representative meant to represent our views?
    If not then what are they for i.e. their relevance?
    Lastly are their issues which should be taken from the realm of public deliberation e.g. torture and/or the death penalty?
    Is that just the thin end of the wedge?
    Oh Plato where art thou.

  3. Blogger London Denizen | 9:37 a.m. |  

    Thin end, thin end.

    I think people will tend to make good, humane decisions, if they are (a) informed of all of the facts and arguments in an honest and open way, and (b) asked to have such debates in a calm, rational way, without the pressures of time, and outside the context of a perceived threat.

    The problem is getting Gvts to stage the debate in this fashion.

    I subscribe, to a certain degree, to the Finnis view that people tend towards practical reasonableness.

  4. Anonymous JollyRoger | 10:12 a.m. |  

    I think the "50%" number has to be a knee-jerk response. It's hard for me to contemplate that half of America would think that Nazi policies would be a good thing. Not when we have lost so many, in so many wars, fighting this very thing.

  5. Blogger Cian | 12:14 p.m. |  

    Im glad to see that al of us can still have faith in our polity. I agree with both of you. An electorate is likely to make a good decision when well informed. Perhaps the question misses the potential for mis-information from power.
    There is certainly few reasonable arguments to put forward for the thin-end philosopher king solution, i was simply looking for them. Devils advocate if you will.

    Honest and open debate is something one certainly will not find in U.S. MSM.

    To reiterate though, i am also of the opinion that democratics decision making is the best way to govern a society. Yet i think there is an issue in there somewhere if one brakets our natural disposition to democracy.

  6. Blogger London Denizen | 1:02 p.m. |  

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Blogger London Denizen | 1:04 p.m. |  

    I've a more complete rant here.

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