The latest opinion polls surveying U.S. attitudes a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks show that most Americans agree the United States has changed dramatically in a variety of ways, but they do not see any major changes in their own daily lives. The surveys also show that most Americans are reluctant to engage in a war against Iraq, without allied support. The Pew Research Center poll compares its surveys of 1,800 Americans conducted in the months after the attacks and now.
The most dramatic and far-reaching change in public opinion about the United States in the year since terrorist attacks in New York and Washington is a newfound sense of vulnerability. "What comes out of this survey very clearly is, seeing the country as vulnerable is the most obvious legacy of those horrible attacks," said Andrew Kohut.
Mr. Kohut directs the Pew Research Center in Washington. He supervised the latest survey of how public feelings have changed about foreign and domestic policies in the wake of 9-11. He says the fear of future attacks remains high.
In contrast, Mr. Kohut says, the poll results show decreasing confidence in the government's efforts to prevent them. "Americans want more of a focus on homeland defense, rather than routing out terrorist networks abroad, than they did right after the attacks," he said. "Last fall, we had a 36 to 45 percent plurality giving greater priority to military action overseas than homeland defense, but now those numbers have reversed to 51 to 30 percent. And there's been a steady change in that attitude in the course of the year."
Still, when it comes to U.S. policy toward combating terrorism beyond U.S. borders, Mr. Kohut says, nearly half the respondents to the survey have shifted significantly toward a more unilateral American approach. "We found more support for basing U.S. anti-terrorism policies mostly on national interests, rather than strongly taking into account allied interests. The margin on that question was 45 to 35. It had been 30 to 59, just the reverse," he said.
Six out of 10 respondents give high priority to taking military action against countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But, when it comes to the possibility of waging war against Iraq, two thirds of those responding to the survey shy away from moving ahead without international support.
Mr. Kohut says much of the current negative attitude toward the idea of attacking Iraq has to do with the administration's failure to articulate a rationale for war as a means of removing Saddam Hussein from power. "The public has mostly heard about criticisms about a potential war," said Andrew Kohut. "They've heard not a great deal from President Bush. And that was one of the messages in this poll. In the end, it's the president who has to sell war and he hasn't sold war yet."
The survey shows that, a year after the attacks in New York and Washington, most Americans are a bit more concerned about the economic downturn than the war against terrorism.
Mr. Kohut and other pollsters have also noted a major shift in attitudes toward immigration, with an increasing number of people supporting tighter controls on who comes into the United States and who should be allowed to stay.
In the end, despite the profound shock and anger that dominated American attitudes in the days and months after the September attacks, the Pew Center poll shows most Americans have not drastically changed their way of life.
Social policy analyst Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution attributes that in part to stubborn determination. "I think there are three possible reasons," she said. "One is the sense that this would be giving in to terrorists, that we should continue life as normal, as much as we can. The second is that these kinds of major changes in the way we spend our lives are very hard to bring about, and we may see some changes over the longer term that we haven't seen yet. And, the third is, I think, is a sort of psychological defense mechanism."
Ms. Sawhill says the fear of another terrorist attack has faded with time. But, she adds, when questioned about it, most Americans will agree the threat remains very real.