Summary of Findings
Five years later, Americans’ views of the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have changed little, but opinions about how best to protect against future attacks have shifted substantially. In particular, far more Americans say reducing America’s overseas military presence, rather than expanding it, will have a greater effect in reducing the threat of terrorism.
By a 45% to 32% margin, more Americans believe that the best way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. is to decrease, not increase, America’s military presence overseas. This is a stark reversal from the public’s position on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. In the summer of 2002, before serious public discussion of removing Saddam Hussein from power had begun, nearly half (48%) said that the best way to reduce terrorism was to increase our military involvement overseas, while just 29% said less involvement would make us safer.
Similarly, in 2002 a 58% majority felt that military strikes against nations developing nuclear weapons were a very important way to reduce future terrorism. Today, just 43% express the same level of support for such action.
Yet most Americans do not believe that the ability of terrorists to launch another attack against the U.S. has been diminished. Rather, 62% say terrorists’ capabilities are the same (37%) or greater (25%) than they were at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. This view has remained stable since the summer of 2002.
Opinions about how to deal with terrorism have changed over this period. An increasing number of Americans see nonmilitary approaches such as decreasing U.S. dependence on Middle East oil and avoiding involvement with the problems of other countries as effective in this regard. Fully two-thirds (67%) say that decreasing America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East is a very important step in preventing terrorism the highest percentage for any option tested. A year after the attacks, about half of Americans (53%) saw this as a very important way to reduce future terrorism.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Aug. 9-13 among 1,506 adults, finds that nearly every American (95%) can still recall exactly where they were or what they were doing when they first heard the news of the Sept. 11 attacks, and roughly half (51%) say that the attacks changed life in America in a major way. On a personal level, 22% report that their own lives have changed in a major way because of the events of Sept 11, up slightly from 16% one year after the attacks occurred. In the view of nearly half of Americans (47%), the 9/11 attacks are about as serious as the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and another 35% say the Sept. 11 attacks were more serious than that event.
Public concerns about another terrorist attack have neither increased nor decreased substantially in the years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In October 2001, just over a quarter (28%) said they were very worried about another attack, a proportion that fell to 16% by the summer of 2002, and stands at 23% in the current survey. The current survey was largely conducted immediately after the Aug. 10 revelations that a major terrorist plot against trans-Atlantic jet liners had been foiled.
The public also continues to give the government generally favorable ratings for its response to terrorism. Most say the government is doing very well (22%) or fairly well (52%) in reducing the threat of another attack. But a majority believe that the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack in the U.S. is the same (37%) or greater (25%) today than it was at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Just a third say the ability of terrorists to strike the U.S. is less now than it was then.
The turnaround in public views of the effectiveness of a strong overseas military role in countering terrorism has a decidedly partisan cast. In the summer of 2002, Democrats were divided over whether increasing or reducing the U.S. military presence overseas would have a greater effect in reducing the terrorist threat; 41% said an increased military presence overseas would reduce terrorism, with 34% favoring a decreased role.
But today, Democrats favor a diminished U.S. military presence by nearly three-to-one (58% vs. 22%). Independents, too, have shifted their view. In 2002, a 49% plurality favored a larger American military presence overseas; today a 49% plurality believes a decreased American presence would have a greater effect in reducing the threat of terrorist attacks.
The views of Republicans on this issue have been more stable. The percentage of Republicans saying an increasingly robust overseas military U.S. presence will be more effective in countering terrorism has fallen from 58% to 45% over the past four years. However, just 30% of Republicans say a smaller overseas military presence would be more effective, up only modestly from 2002 (22%).
There also are signs of increasing partisan division in other opinions about ways of reducing terrorism. In 2002, roughly equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents all said that decreasing America’s dependence on Middle East oil was a very important way to reduce terrorism. While this view has increased across party lines, it has become a particular priority for Democrats; 75% of Democrats now see this is very important in reducing terrorism in the future, compared with 63% of Republicans.
Similarly, four years ago relatively few Americans regardless of party said that “not getting involved in trying to solve the problems of other countries” was a very important way to reduce terrorism. But today, half of Democrats take this view, while Republican attitudes remain largely unchanged (32% then, 35% today).
Public Sees U.S. Image Declining
As has been the case since 2004, Americans widely believe that the U.S. has lost respect in the world in recent years. Roughly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say that America is less respected by other countries these days, while just 7% believe America is more respected and 23% say the U.S. is as respected as in the past. Just under half of Americans (48%) see America’s loss of respect as a major problem, while 16% say we have lost respect but that it as little or no problem for the country.
Roughly three-quarters of Democrats (76%) and independents (73%) believe America has lost global respect, and the vast majority who believe this say it is a major problem for the nation. Republicans are significantly more divided while a 48% plurality believes that America is less respected by other countries these days, nearly half of those who say this (21% overall) see it as only a minor problem or no problem at all. Only about a quarter of Republicans (26%) see a major problem in this area, compared with 65% of Democrats and 57% of independents.
Recent events in the Middle East may have raised the profile of America’s support for Israel as a possible reason for discontent with the U.S. Today, 46% see U.S. support for Israel as a major reason why people around the world are unhappy with America, up from 39% in October 2005.
But even with this increase, Israel remains a relatively minor factor in people’s perceptions of reasons for global unhappiness with the U.S. The war in Iraq and the general sense that others resent America’s wealth and power continue to top the list of reasons for discontent with the U.S. around the world.
Democrats (78%) and independents (73%) overwhelmingly see the war in Iraq as a major factor driving anti-American sentiment around the world; a much smaller majority of Republicans (55%) agree. Republicans, on the other hand, are most likely to say that unhappiness is based on America’s wealth and power. When it comes to Israel, there is no significant difference of opinion along party lines; fewer than half of Democrats, Republicans and independents say that U.S. support for Israel has had a major negative effect on America’s reputation.
Was Sept. 11 Start of a Major Conflict?
Four-in-ten Americans now say that the Sept. 11 attacks signified the start of a major conflict between the people of America and Europe versus the people of Islam, up slightly from 35% at the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and just 28% one month after the attacks. The plurality view held by 49% of Americans is that it is only a conflict with a small, radical group. These views are fairly consistent across the public; in no major segment of society does a majority see 9/11 as the start of a major global conflict.
Suspicion of Middle Easterners
Roughly a third of Americans (35%) say that since the terrorist attacks they have become more suspicious of people whom they think are of Middle Eastern descent. This view has not changed much since August 2002, when 37% said they were more suspicious of people they perceived as Middle Eastern.
Somewhat more people in the South than other regions say that, since 9/11, they have become more suspicious of people they think are of Middle Eastern descent. There is no partisan divide on this issue; 37% of both Republicans and Democrats say they have become more suspicious of people who they think are of Middle Eastern descent
Nearly All Remember Where they Were
Reflecting the lasting emotional impact of 9/11, fully 95% of Americans say they can remember exactly where they were or what they were doing the moment they heard the news about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This is down only slightly from the 97% who said the same about a year after the attacks.
Older Americans are the most likely to have forgotten, but 85% of those age 65 and older say they can remember exactly where they were when they first learned of the attacks. By comparison, nearly everyone under age 30 (99%) can recall the event with this level of clarity.
Roughly half of the public (47%) continues to view the Sept. 11 attacks as being about equal in importance to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Four-in-ten people under age 30 view the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as more serious than Pearl Harbor, a view taken by fewer (29%) of those age 65 and over. But the plurality view in all age categories is that the Sept. 11 attacks were equally serious as Pearl Harbor.
The Continuing Threat
Significant partisan divisions persist over the government’s performance handling the threat of future terrorist attacks on the country. Republicans give the federal government considerably more favorable marks than do both Democrats and independents. But there is a substantial ideological divide within the GOP over how well the government is doing. Fully 43% of conservative Republicans give the government the highest mark for its performance, saying it is doing “very well” in reducing the threat of terrorism. But just 17% of moderate and liberal Republicans concur with this favorable assessment. This is comparable to the number of liberal Democrats (15%) who give the government this same “very good” rating.
There is also a partisan gap over the relative risk of another major terrorist event. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans (35% vs. 18%) to say that the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the U.S. is greater than it was at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In turn, Republicans are nearly twice as likely as Democrats (42% vs. 22%) to say that we are safer today than in 2001.
This is an uncommon instance in which the balance of opinion among independents has more in common with Republicans than with Democrats. Just 21% of independents see the U.S. at greater risk of attack today than in 2001, while 37% believe terrorists have less capacity to strike today than at the time of the 9/11 attacks.