The after Effects of September 11: What the Polls Tell Us

By Pobst, Kevin | Social Education, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The after Effects of September 11: What the Polls Tell Us


Pobst, Kevin, Social Education


ONE PHRASE often heard since September 11 is that "the United States has been transformed." Some significant changes have indeed taken place in the attitudes of Americans to the threat of terrorism and challenges related to it, but opinion polls show that otherwise much has remained the same.

This article examines surveys of American attitudes to a number of major issues from September 11 to the end of January 2002. In addition to exploring views on the war on terrorism, America's political leadership, and civil liberties, it also reports on responses by the American public to a number of questions asking how September 11 has affected them more personally.

The War against Terrorism

From the time of the Vietnam era, the reluctance of the American public to engage in military intervention overseas has been a constraint on U.S. foreign policy. Since September 11, this constraint has not been in evidence, and opinion polls show a much greater support for military intervention abroad, not only against al Qaeda, but also against countries considered to sponsor terrorism, even if they had no direct connection with the attacks of September 11.

Support for the war against terrorism compares very favorably with support for other U.S. wars of the second half of the twentieth century. More than 90 percent of persons surveyed in polls have regularly expressed approval of the insertion of ground troops into Afghanistan. Approval ratings for the use of ground forces in the Gulf War in 1991 were never this high. After the Gulf War ended and the question of reinserting troops came up in 1992-93, approval ranged from 55 to 70 percent. Support for the use of American ground troops in Bosnia (1995-1998) never rose higher than 53 percent and was usually less than 50 percent, while public disapproval of placing troops in Haiti in 1994 exceeded approval. (1)

Americans appear to have accepted the notion that the war on terrorism is likely to be a long one. That practicality greatly surpasses Americans' reactions to the war against Japan following the Pearl Harbor attack. Only 51 percent of Americans in December 1941 expected a long war, while 87 percent of the public in November 2001 understands that this unconventionally defined war may drag on and on. While 26 percent of Americans conceived of the war against Japan at the time as probably a "comparatively easy war," only 4 percent of Americans have such a view toward this war. (2)

Despite the overwhelming public support for the war, three important factors that might affect this support in future are evident in opinion polls.

The success of the war. Although the war in Afghanistan was strongly supported from the start, optimism built from October to January. Poll results from October and early November reflected somewhat guarded expectations for the war effort and its progress to date, but as the air and ground offensives destroyed the Taliban and al Qaeda resistance, the enthusiasm of Americans understandably increased for the prospects of the more globally conceived war on terrorism described to the public in September. For this kind of war, a modest pessimism initially characterized the public attitude. In late September, only 37 percent of the public was "very confident" about succeeding (compared to 61 percent who were "very confident" at the beginning of the more narrowly and conventionally defined Gulf War). (3) However, in early October, this kind of war garnered 49 percent support, and by late November, 62 percent of the public was on board.

Just as support for the war seems correlated to the success of the war, it also seems to be influenced by the extent of casualties suffered. Support for the use of ground troops in a war on terror, in Afghanistan or against other targets, decreased when pollsters qualified the question with the prospect of substantial military or civilian casualties, even though a sizable majority still supported conventional war in such circumstances.

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