Effects of Sept. 11 attacks fade for many Americans, poll finds

Most want government to concentrate on security at home, not fight abroad

September 06, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON-Americans are turning inward and putting less faith in government as the aftershocks of last Sept. 11 fade, a new national poll has found.

Half the country reports that everyday life is basically the same now as it was before the terror attacks on New York and Washington. Partisanship is increasing, with Democrats more critical than Republicans of the government's anti-terror effort.

"Increasingly, Americans want the government to focus on homeland defense rather than rooting out terrorist networks abroad," conclude the authors of the survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted in association with the Council on Foreign Relations.

The one-year-later poll shows that much of the country remains transformed by the attacks. About one in six Americans surveyed said their lives have been altered in major ways.

Almost half of those questioned said their own thinking about politics and national affairs had changed a great deal. National security issues continue to receive more attention from the public than before the attacks.

But with midterm elections two months away, worries about the economy now outrank terrorism when the public is asked what their government's top priority should be, this survey and others show.

Approval of the homeland defense effort has slipped, especially among Democrats, even though a clear majority of Americans continues to rate it as excellent or good.

The public's willingness to surrender some civil liberties to combat terrorism has also declined. Support for the idea of mandatory, government-issued identity cards, for example, has fallen from 70 percent last September to 59 percent now.

Even before yesterday's deadly bombing in Kabul and the assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai, fewer than one in six Americans rated the war against terrorist organizations in Afghanistan a success.

The overwhelming majority of those questioned thought it was too early to tell whether the U.S.-led effort there would eventually succeed, while 12 percent called it a failure.

The poll, conducted Aug. 14-25, looked at ways in which the personal lives of Americans have changed since the attacks. It found that many people feel more afraid, distrustful or vulnerable and fearful of another terrorist strike.

Fully 97 percent of those surveyed say they remember exactly where they were the moment they heard that the World Trade Center had been hit. Most said they still think of the attacks several times a week, and one in four said they think about them every day.

The surge of patriotism and interest in spiritual matters touched off by Sept. 11 has continued, along with a desire by parents to spend more time with their children, the poll found.

But terrorism has left its mark in other ways: A significant number of Americans say they continue to feel anger, sadness, depression and heightened suspicion of others.

The pollsters also probed attitudes in the New York and Washington areas, where the attacks occurred. They found, not surprisingly, that people there were more prone to feel the aftereffects in their daily lives.

New Yorkers and Washingtonians are more likely than other Americans to handle their mail carefully, avoid taking trips by air or stay away from crowded places, the poll said. And almost one of every five has thought about moving away from where they currently live. Nationally, that figure was about one in 20.

Perceptions of Sept. 11 are changing as well.

Immediately after the attack, an NBC poll found that two-thirds of Americans believed it had been a more serious event than the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Today, only 37 percent of Americans hold that view, while 43 percent consider the two events of equal historical importance.

Most Americans regard the attack as part of a limited clash with Islamic radicals, rather than the start of a broader conflict between Western civilization and Islam. But the number who foresee a wider clash has grown since October, to 35 percent from 28 percent.

The poll hints at the magnitude of the task President Bush faces in making the case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Using military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power wins the support of almost two in three adult Americans polled. However, most Americans also say they would oppose any attack on Iraq unless U.S. allies join in.

Slightly more than one-third of those questioned - 37 percent - said Bush had clearly explained the reasons for using military force to overthrow Hussein. But most of those surveyed said he had not.

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