The Denial of Innocence and the War on Terrorism

By Marc Sapir, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 08, 2007

In the last week of April, more than five years into the “War on Terrorism,” Retro Poll asked a national sample of Americans this question: “Do you agree or not with the government’s assertion that people seized and detained at Guantanamo are presumed to be dangerous terrorists or they would not have been seized in the first place?” A slightly different wording last October had garnered 37 percent agreement. In the recent poll 48 percent agreed. We conclude that a substantial proportion of people do not grasp a key principle of democracy: Unless everyone is presumed innocent under the law until proved guilty of a crime in a fair trial, dictatorial powers of government achieve supremacy. Civil rights like this exist not just to protect criminals, but to protect the public from arbitrary government abuse of authority. The War on Terrorism promotes the denial of this democratic tenet.  

Retro Poll data, based on small random samples—in this case 164 people—are not projected to precisely represent the general public on individual questions. Retro Poll instead focuses on statistically significant comparisons and unexpected findings within its random samples. In the current sample only nine (out of 164) people could identify Maher Arar as the “Canadian citizen awarded $11 million for being tortured under the U.S. extraordinary rendition.” Two times that number (18) misidentified him as one of the 9/11 hijackers and 136 didn’t know. Likewise 70 percent did not know that Italy has brought charges for kidnapping against 26 CIA agents in a case of “extraordinary rendition.” Why are such important stories of extraordinary rendition, an anti-democratic if not outlawed process, not common knowledge? Where do people buy their ignorance and where is the source of this ignorance?  

To get answers, Retropollsters asked the extent to which people believe various major corporate media organizations present the truth. The options were “usually”, “mostly when it suits their interests”, and “half the time or less.” Whether asking about CNN, NYTimes, Fox, CBS, MSNBC, NBC or others, in every case fewer than 40 percent of the respondents thought the media “usually” tells the truth. Moreover, between 22 and 28 percent said that each outlet tells the truth “half the time or less.”  

Even though Retro Poll is a media critical group, this can’t be true. Even if the media manipulates, distorts, censors, its methods must be more subtle than to lie half the time. This response represents mass disaffection and mistrust of media. But it also turned out to be one marker of ignorance.  

Those who think Fox “usually” tells the truth were consistently less aware or blind to important facts. For example, despite now overwhelming evidence, two out of three claimed that the “United States opposes and does not teach, sanction or engage in torture” and more than three out of four denied that the administration “fabricated intelligence on Iraq” before the war. Seventy-seven percent of these Fox supporters (within the “usually truthful” group) held the presumption that Guantanamo captives are terrorists. Yet the respondents who were most opposed to presumption of innocence (by 77-90 percent) were those disaffected who said that all the various corporate media lie half the time or more. This group (20-30 percent of our respondents) feel manipulated and have little trust in the reliability of public information. Their ignorance and disaffection combined make them susceptible to pure demagoguery about terrorism.  

On the other hand, asked whether Homeland Security responded effectively to the tragedy after hurricane Katrina, two out of three (and 79 percent of those responding) said no, a very high level of awareness. Likewise, 68 percent of respondents agreed that people cross U.S. borders without papers mainly because of enforced inequalities between nations. We conclude that most people are somewhat aware of contradictions and defects in national domestic policy regarding immigration, treatment of ethnic minorities and of poor Americans. Also, that many believe they are being manipulated by media, but often lack the tools to discern between false and accurate presentations of international events.  

The full questionnaire, poll responses and links defending factual questions can be found at www.retropoll.org.  


Marc Sapir is executive director of Retro Poll.