When it comes to the balance between civil liberties and the war on terrorism, Americans seem to want the best of both worlds.
By an almost 20-point margin in a recent poll, they say it's more important for the government to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens than to keep the public safe from terrorism. Yet by an equally large margin, they say it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice rights and freedoms in order to stop terrorists.
Those findings, from a survey released last week by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, highlight the public's ambivalence when it comes to the war on terror.
The revelation of massive government surveillance via National Security Agency documents released to the media by Edward Snowden caused just a small shift in the public's preference toward rights over safety, yet majorities still want both. An AP-NORC Center poll in 2011, before Snowden, found that 54 percent said the government should prioritize the protection of rights and freedoms, while 64 percent said it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice those freedoms. After Snowden, 58 percent say protect rights, and 59 percent say it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice them.
But the majorities on either side mask a divided public.
Combining these two questions results in three evenly-sized groups: 28 percent who say it's more important to protect rights and citizens should never have to sacrifice them (let's call these the "all rights"), 28 percent who prioritize protecting rights yet think it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice them (the "some rights") and 27 percent who think the government ought to prioritize keeping citizens safe and that citizens sometimes must sacrifice their freedoms for safety's sake (the "safety first" group). The remaining 17 percent are unsure on either question, or are among the 8 percent who prioritize safety yet say it's never necessary to compromise rights; that group is too small to analyze.
These divisions drive opinions on nearly all questions related to government surveillance or its conduct in the war on terror:
— Among the "safety first" group, 4 in 10 say they have lost rights and freedoms as a result of the fight against terrorism, but 77 percent of them say that loss was necessary. By contrast, in the "all rights" group, 71 percent believe they have lost rights and just 17 percent of those consider it necessary.
— 60 percent of the "all rights" strongly oppose the court process authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, while only 28 percent of the "safety first" group feel the same.
— On nearly all surveillance programs tested, those in the "all rights" group express much stronger opposition than the other groups, including government monitoring of U.S. citizens' Internet use and the collection of telephone metadata.
— 61 percent in the "all rights" group say the government should prove publicly that its anti-terror programs do not violate civil rights; just 28 percent in the "safety first" group agree.
— Just 38 percent of the "all rights" say the government is doing enough to protect rights, compared with 60 percent of the "some rights" and 67 percent of "safety first."
The three primary groups comprise surprising partisan coalitions, and seem to defy the typical demographic divides driving American politics. The "safety first" group is the most partisan, while the "all rights" group is the least. A majority in the "all rights" group say they are independent or affiliate with no party (61 percent), compared with about 4 in 10 each in the other two groups.
And the group most concerned with protecting the U.S. from terrorism is predominantly female, older and lower-income — two traits typically associated with Democratic affiliation and one with Republicans. Among those on the other extreme, nearly 6 in 10 are men, about half are under age 40 and most have incomes above $50,000 annually.
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AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research: http://www.apnorc.org