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Americans and the Terrorism Threat 10 Years After 9/11

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

There is no indication that Americans think government has gone too far in its response to terrorism.

American efforts to build a new intelligence and national security framework to combat terrorism after the September 11 terrorist attacks have been filled with controversy. For the past ten years, pollsters have tracked the opinions of Americans as they have wrestled with the difficult questions associated with the post-9/11 world. They have probed opinions on preemptive warfare, profiling, torture, assassination, domestic surveillance, and, of course, the war itself. We have reviewed more than a thousand of these questions for a new AEI Public Opinion Study. Below, we share our insights about the evolution of Americans’ opinions on the war and the way it has been conducted.

For nine months after 9/11, terrorism occupied the top spot in polls as a national concern. Today, less than 1 percent say it is the most important problem facing the country. Still, the attack left a lasting impression, and there is much evidence from the polls that terrorism has become a permanent concern. Americans believe there will be another attack on American soil, although they do not believe they or their communities are likely targets. They tell pollsters that the United States has been lucky thus far. They worry about homegrown terrorists. People have not lost sight of the threat.

Americans’ overall evaluations of how the war on terrorism is going have been largely positive. Few people say the terrorists are winning, although they are not sure whether we are winning either. In a May 2011 CBS/New York Times poll after the killing of Osama bin Laden, only 5 percent said the terrorists were winning, 44 percent thought the United States and its allies were winning, and 45 percent thought neither side was.

Concerns about civil liberties for ‘average Americans’ have increased dramatically since 9/11.

In a time when criticism of Washington is widespread, people are giving the Bush and Obama administrations, and the government generally, good marks for protecting the citizenry. Seventy-one percent, for example, said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the government to protect its citizens against future terrorist attacks, according to a 2011 CBS poll. Americans told the pollsters that the Bush administration made us safer, and that they believe that President Obama will keep us safe. Obama polls strongly on handling terrorism, and the death of Osama bin Laden strengthened his standing.

The public seems fairly clear in its assessments of the actions government has taken. Concerns about civil liberties for “average Americans” have increased dramatically since 9/11. Sixty-one percent of respondents to a Los Angeles Times poll from September 2001 said it would be necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. A March–April 2009 Pew Research Center poll, using identical question wording, found only 27 percent giving that response—a 34-point drop. Sixty-five percent said it would not be necessary.

Privacy concerns have not, however, eliminated the public’s anxiety over safety and protection. Forty-seven percent told Pew pollsters in October 2010 that the government had not gone far enough to adequately protect the country, while 32 percent said it had gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Sixty-eight percent of those polled by ABC/The Washington Post in November 2010 said it was more important for the federal government to investigate threats even if it intrudes on privacy; 26 percent said it was more important not to intrude on privacy even if it limits the government’s ability to investigate threats.

For nine months after 9/11, terrorism occupied the top spot in polls as a national concern. Today, less than 1 percent say it is the most important problem facing the country.

Americans support the airline security measures that have been adopted since 9/11. Seventy-seven percent told Gallup in 2006 that the new security measures at airports have been an effective part of the government’s strategy to prevent terrorism. In a 2010 Quinnipiac poll, 86 percent supported new airport security measures even if they resulted in delays in air travel.

Polls show the public has wrestled with issues surrounding assassinations and torture. Unsurprisingly, sizable portions of the public have reservations about assassinations but most support their limited use. In a July 2009 Pew poll, 60 percent of respondents favored the CIA having a program to target senior Al-Qaeda leaders for assassination. Eighty percent told NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters in May 2011 that killing instead of capturing Osama bin Laden was the right decision.

When it comes to torture, majorities generally oppose the practice. However, they do not want to rule it out completely. Around a quarter of Americans say that torture is “never justified” in Pew’s long trend. A plurality of 45 percent told Fox interviewers in January 2009 that harsh interrogation techniques have probably saved American lives, while 41 percent did not think so. And while Guantanamo Bay remains controversial, majorities of Americans support the continued operation of the facility. In a March 2011 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 67 percent supported keeping the prison open. Majorities also supported the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and monitoring communications of potential terrorists without court approval.

As for Afghanistan, Americans did not shy away from the fight. All polls showed strong initial support for the war. To this day, when pollsters ask people whether taking the war to Afghanistan was the right or wrong thing to do, majorities say it was the right thing. In a June 2011 Pew poll, 57 percent said invading Afghanistan was the right decision. Thirty-five percent said it was the wrong decision.

Seventy-seven percent told Gallup in 2006 that the new security measures at airports since 9/11 have been an effective part of the government strategy to prevent terrorism.

It is much harder to assess where public opinion is on the war in Afghanistan today. People are pulled in different directions based on the specific questions pollsters ask. Moreover, there are large gaps in the polls about Afghanistan between late 2003 and 2008, when Iraq occupied most of America’s attention, making it difficult to know how and when attitudes changed. But we do know that when Americans (and the pollsters) turned their attention back to Afghanistan after Iraq had stabilized, they did so with a much more skeptical eye.

But the public is not ready to cut and run just yet. They want American efforts in Afghanistan to succeed. Majorities supported the president's troop increase in 2009. Americans also believe the war has made America safer. In the June 2011 ABC/Washington Post poll, 57 percent of those asked said the war in Afghanistan had contributed to the long-term security of the United States. But patience is understandably shorter than it was ten years ago. Americans want the war to wind down, and they support Obama’s plan to withdraw troops. In a June 2011 ABC and Washington Post poll, 73 percent favored substantial troop decreases from Afghanistan this summer.

Americans acknowledge the new sets of challenges imposed by the post-9/11 world. Above all else, they understand the vigilance required to counteract terrorist threats. They are not willing to give the government a blank check, but there is no indication that they think government has gone too far in its response. Ten years of polling on the war on terrorism shows an alert nation prudently wrestling with the demands of a more dangerous world.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where Andrew Rugg is a research associate.

FURTHER READING: Bowman and Rugg examine public opinion in “President Obama at 50—Comparing 1961 and 2011,” “The GOP's Secret Weapon: Flower Power,” “Political Report, July/August 2011,” and “The Deep Roots of American Patriotism.”

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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