War and Torture as ‘Just Deserts’

Recommended citation: Peter Liberman, "War and Torture as ‘Just Deserts’,” Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Spring 2014): 47–70. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nft081

Abstract: Ordinary citizens sometimes favor making foreign actors pay for their crimes at punishment levels that exceed the dictates of national security. In an online survey of adult U.S. citizens, individual differences in the general approval of retributive justice predict support for military responses to international crimes, but only when the casualties are mentioned. Retributivists also are more supportive of torturing captured terrorists. These relationships control for partisanship, ideology, humanitarianism, and hawkish foreign-policy beliefs, and occur only among citizens with low and medium levels of political sophistication. Sophistication increased citizens’ reliance on instrumental hawk/dove beliefs, and—in the case of torture—their reliance on political ideology, thus attenuating the temptation to support policies aimed at retribution. These findings suggest that less sophisticated citizens’ gut-level desires for retribution heighten their support for the torture of terrorist detainees and for the use of military action to retaliate for vividly described international offenses.