STATS Spotlight

Paranoid Polling

by Howard Fienberg
October 2001

In the heat of the moment, people think or say things they later regret. Unfortunately, thanks to opinion polls, those thoughts and words can be recorded and shared. For instance, on September 24, the Associated Press reported that over a third of New Yorkers favored putting those the government suspected as terrorists into internment camps.

The startling results came from a Siena College Research Institute poll, conducted September 12-19, which asked the question, “Would you favor establishing internment camps in the United States for individuals who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes?” Thirty-five percent of those in New York City and thirty-four percent of those in the rest of the state said yes.

The question was vague, seeming to equate those who might sympathize with those actually suspected of being or aiding terrorists. The loaded language could have skewed the results, but other national surveys found similar results from similar questions.

A survey from the Pew Research Center, conducted September 13-17, found that 29 percent of respondents would allow “the U.S. government to take legal immigrants from unfriendly countries to internment camps during times of tension or crisis.” A Time/CNN poll, conducted on September 27, found that 31 percent of Americans would “allow the Federal Government to hold Arabs who are U.S. citizens in camps until it can be determined whether they have links to terrorist organizations.”

So should policy makers consider a repetition of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, placing Arabs, immigrants, or those “sympathetic” to terrorists, into camps?

Not from these polls. Taken so soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, they should have been expected to unearth strong emotional responses. Such results are neither news-worthy nor of much use for steering policy decisions.

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