Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful

Section 7: Threat of Terrorism and Civil Liberties

Most Council on Foreign Relations members believe that America is safer from terrorism than it was at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But the majority of Americans disagree, saying that the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack is either greater (29%) or the same (38%) as it was on 9/11. Just 29% of Americans believe terrorists are less able today than then to attack the U.S.

The percentage of Council members who believe that America is more secure has risen from 44% in 2005 to 56% today. About one-in-ten (11%) Council members believe that terrorists have a greater ability to strike the U.S. today than they did on 9/11. Another 30% think the terrorists’ ability to strike has not changed since 9/11.

When George W. Bush was president, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to believe that terrorists had a greater

ability to strike the U.S. This partisan gap changed following Barack Obama’s inauguration this January. In February, just 7% of Democrats felt the U.S. was at greater risk than on 9/11, down from 21% one year earlier. Meanwhile the share of Republicans who saw the U.S. at greater risk rose from 10% in 2008 to 32% after Obama’s inauguration.

Democratic concerns have resurfaced over the course of the year, however. This fall, 27% of Democrats believe the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack is greater today than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, a 20-point increase since February. Roughly a third of Republicans (34%) share this view.

Terrorism Defenses Effective

The U.S. government gets more credit today than it did in 2005 for effectively stopping terrorist attacks. Pluralities of 44% among both the public and Council members say that there has not been another major terrorist attack on the U.S. since 9/11 mostly because the government is doing a good job of protecting the nation. This is up from 33% of Americans and just 17% of Council members four years ago. At that time, a plurality of Americans (45%) and most foreign policy opinion leaders (53%) said the country had just been lucky so far.

Public ratings of the government’s anti-terrorism efforts have strengthened in recent years, especially among Democrats and independents. Overall, 73% of Americans say the government is doing very or fairly well in reducing the threat of terrorism – up from 66% in February 2008 and a post-9/11 low of 54%

in January 2007. Democratic ratings have improved the most – with the change occurring once Obama took office. Independents’ ratings of government anti-terror efforts also have improved – 70% say the government is doing very or fairly well today, up from a low of 52% in 2007. Republican ratings have dropped only slightly since Obama took office – currently 73% of Republicans give the government positive ratings for terrorism defenses, down from 84% in 2008.

Are Civil Liberties at Risk?

The public is somewhat conflicted over the tradeoff between

civil liberties and security from terrorist threats. A slim 40% plurality say they are more concerned that government anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country, while 36% say they worry more that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties; nearly a quarter (24%) volunteer other views (13%) or give no response (11%). As recently as three years ago, 55% said security was their greater concern, while roughly half that number (26%) said they were more concerned about restrictions to civil liberties.

Among members of the Council on Foreign Relations, the numbers – and the balance of opinion – have reversed since 2005. Today, 46% say restrictions on civil liberties are their greater concern, while 33% say they worry more that anti-terrorism policies haven’t gone far enough to adequately protect the country. In 2005, 46% said they worried more about security and 33% said limits on civil liberties was their greater concern.

There is a wide gap between the public and foreign policy opinion leaders over the issue of student visas. Eight-in-ten Council members say that increased security measures that have made it more difficult for foreign students to get visas to study in American universities go too far because the U.S. loses too many good students to other countries. Just 22% of the public shares this view. Instead, two-thirds of the public believe such restrictions are worth it in order to prevent terrorists from getting into the country. In both cases, these views are virtually unchanged from 2005.

More Americans Find Torture Justifiable

Public opinion about the use of torture remains divided, though the share saying it can at least sometimes be justified has edged upward over the past year. Currently just over half of Americans say that the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can either often (19%) or sometimes (35%) be justified. This is the first time in over five years of Pew Research polling on this question that a majority has expressed these views. Another 16% say torture can rarely be justified, while 25% say it can never be justified.

There is far more consensus among Council on Foreign Relations members against the use of torture; 44% say it can never be justified, 38% say it can rarely be justified, while far fewer say it can sometimes (11%) or often (2%) be justified. The views of Council members are virtually unchanged from four years ago.

Both Democrats and independents have become more accepting of the idea that torture can be justified. Currently, 47% of Democrats say torture can either often or sometimes be justified – more than in any previous Pew poll. Just over half of independents (53%) are of the same view; from 2004 through February 2009, fewer than half of independents expressed this view. Republicans remain more open to the use of torture – 67% say it can often or sometimes be justified – and the balance of opinion has not changed substantially in recent years.

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information