Impact of the Attacks on America

Concern over terrorism and future attacks rising again, ratings of government leaders remain high



Key Summary Points

  • The attack had the immediate effect of raising Americans' fear of terrorism striking their own lives. That heightened concern had diminished in the last several weeks, but according to polls conducted this weekend, has risen again.
  • Eighty-three percent of Americans think additional terrorist attacks are likely in this country, including 41% who say they are very likely. The percentage who say "very likely" has almost doubled since late September.
  • A majority of Americans say they are now more suspicious of strangers and more aware of things that affect their personal safety than they were prior to Sept. 11.
  • Most Americans report that they are not making major changes to the way they live their lives in order to reduce their chances of being a victim of a terrorist attack.
  • The vast majority of Americans support increased security measures at airports and public buildings.
  • Americans are willing to allow the government to assassinate known terrorists or leaders of governments who harbor terrorists in order to prevent terrorism.
  • The public does not universally support increased restrictions on the civil liberties of average Americans, such as allowing authorities to monitor mail or telephone calls.
  • Public support for government leaders remains extraordinarily high, close to the "rally" level set in the immediate aftermath of the September terrorist attacks.
  • Eighty-seven percent of Americans currently approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president, including 60% who strongly approve. Bush's approval rating remains among the highest Gallup has ever measured.
  • On a number of character dimensions, ratings of Bush's character have improved following the attack. About eight in 10 say Bush is sincere in what he says and can manage government effectively.
  • The public expresses high levels of support for other government agencies and for the government's ability to deal with the situation.


Concern about Terrorism Rising Again

Americans' fear of terrorism has been on a bit of a roller coaster since Sept. 11. There is no doubt that fear of terrorism has escalated as a result of the attacks, but the data suggest the public is still a long way from being "filled with fear" as Osama Bin Laden stated in his videotaped statement released yesterday.

The attacks had the immediate effect of raising Americans' fear of terrorism striking their own lives -- on the evening of Sept. 11, 58% said they were very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family will be a terrorist victim. This was up from 24%, the measurement Gallup found in April 2000, the last time the question was asked. Public concern waned somewhat in the first two weeks after Sept. 11, dropping to 49% by late September. But in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Oct. 5-6, two days before the commencement of U.S. and British air strikes on Afghanistan, that fear level rose to 59%.

How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of a terrorist attack -- very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried, or not worried at all?

There has been a corresponding increase from late September to early October in the percentage of Americans who believe that there will be further terrorist attacks in the United States, a concern most likely amplified by the warnings of Attorney General John Ashcroft and other authorities that more terrorism is inevitable. A special one-day survey conducted Oct.7, after the start of air strikes, found 83% of Americans saying it is likely that further terrorist attacks will occur in the United States over the next several weeks, including 41% who feel it is "very likely." This is up from 66%, the percentage who told Gallup in a late September poll that such terrorism was likely, including 22% who felt it was very likely.

The latest ABC News survey, conducted Oct. 7, shows no major change in recent weeks in the number of Americans worried about "more major terrorist attacks in this country." Today, 41% say they are concerned "a great deal" about more attacks, down slightly from the 49% recorded on Sept. 11. However, today's fear level on this measure is almost twice as high as it was when ABC News last asked this in 1997, when 21% were highly worried.

In addition to tracking overall fear of terrorism, it is important to focus on the subset of Americans who are "very worried" about terrorism striking their own lives -- perhaps the best indicator of whether Americans are "filled with fear." In the Oct. 5-6 Gallup poll, just one in four Americans, 24%, report this level of fear, similar to the 23% who felt this way on Sept. 11. In late September that figure had dropped to 14%, similar to the percentage who felt fearful after the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. The lowest level of concern about terrorism that Gallup has recorded came in April 2000, when only 4% of Americans said they were "very worried."

Americans Say They are More Careful, But Not Making Major Changes to the Way They Live

Americans' heightened concern about terrorism is evident in other surveys that show Americans have grown more attentive to their safety. Two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) told Gallup in the Oct. 5-6 survey that they have become more aware of things that affect their personal safety since Sept. 11. Half the nation's adults also admit to being "more suspicious of strangers."

Perhaps as a result of this still restrained level of fear among Americans today, Gallup finds little evidence that Americans are on the verge of making wholesale changes in the way they conduct their lives. Only 27% of Americans told Gallup this past weekend that they expect to change any aspect of their personal lives or activities in order to reduce their chances of becoming a terrorist victim. This is down from the 36% found on Sept. 11.

Despite Americans' surge of patriotism in the face of the international terrorist attack on the United States (evident in increased support for President Bush, among other measures), only 31% of Americans say that the attacks have made them less likely to say things "that might be unpopular."

Americans Willing to Go To Great Lengths to Prevent Terrorism

A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Oct. 5-6 reveals that many Americans support rather extraordinary measures as means of dealing with terrorism. The United States has an official policy against assassinating or torturing foreign leaders or non-American citizens suspected of criminal activity. There has been some talk of changing this policy in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows 77% of Americans would be willing to allow the U.S. government to assassinate known terrorists, and 52% would be willing to allow the government to assassinate leaders of countries that harbor terrorists. Americans are less supportive of torture than of assassination, as 45% would be willing to allow the government to torture known terrorists if they know details about future attacks in the United States.

On a more immediate level, Americans are willing to put up with considerable inconvenience, especially when it comes to air travel, in the national campaign against terrorism. Strong majorities favor additional security measures at airports and in public buildings. Americans are less likely to favor increased restrictions on civil liberties, such as random searches and the monitoring of credit card purchases.

Ratings of Political Leaders Ascend to New Levels Following Attacks

American support for government leaders has surged in response to the terrorist attacks, according to several polls, including four CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls. President Bush's current approval rating from the Oct. 5-6 Gallup poll is 87%, down only slightly from the record-high 90% rating he received in the Sept. 21-22 Gallup poll. Sixty percent of Americans say they "strongly approve" of the job Bush is doing in the latest poll.

Immediately before the attacks, Bush's job approval rating stood at 51%. The jump in President Bush's approval rating shows the largest "rally effect" ever recorded by Gallup, and the highest rating received by any president. Bush receives very high marks across the board:

  • Ninety-two percent approve of the way he is "handling the campaign against terrorism." [Oct. 7 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll]
  • Eighty-one percent approve of Bush's handling of foreign affairs. [Oct. 5-6 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll]
  • Despite a weak economy, 72% of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the economy, while only 23% disapprove. A July 10-11 poll found only 54% approved of Bush's handling of the economy. [Oct. 5-6 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll]
  • Prior to the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan, seven in 10 Americans said President Bush had "done about right" in his military response to terrorism. Immediately following the strikes, 72% said the United States waited the right amount of time to take military action.
  • Public ratings of Bush on a variety of personal characteristics have increased following the terrorist attacks. Eighty-four percent say Bush is "sincere in what he says," 79% say he "can manage the government effectively," 75% say he is a "strong and decisive leader," and 69% say he "cares about the needs of people like you," and that he "understands complex issues." [Oct. 5-6 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll]

But the surge in positive feelings is not limited to the president. The public expresses a record high level of approval for Congress, and high levels of confidence in other government leaders and agencies as well. This general rally phenomenon is also found in public sentiment about the economy and about the way things are going in the country as a whole.

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