April 11, 1996

Public Apathetic about Nuclear Terrorism

Summary

Most Americans acknowledge the fact that terrorists could strike a U.S. city with a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon, yet few worry about the possibility, according to the findings of a recent nationwide Pew Research Center survey. The poll confirms the lack of public engagement on this issue experienced by Senator Richard Lugar, who made this the central issue of his unsuccessful Republican presidential campaign.

The nationwide survey found 72% believe there is a chance that terrorists could use a weapon of mass destruction to attack a U.S. city, but only 13% worry a great deal about this and 27% are somewhat worried. Fully 59% profess to be not worried about such dangers. But indifference to a nuclear threat is part of a broader pattern, the survey revealed. One year after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, the public is not particularly concerned about any kind of terrorism within the United States. Two out of three (66%) Americans said they are not much or not at all worried about terrorism in public places.

A plurality of respondents (49%) believe the greatest terrorist threat to the country comes from inside the country , while 39% see it originating outside. This result is similar to a Los Angeles Times poll one year ago (40% inside, 33% outside). But considerably more respondents take a position on the question now (88% vs. 73%) compared to April 1995 in the immediate wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy. A strong majority (56%) believe anti-terrorism laws on the books now are too weak, which is almost exactly the same result as in last year’s poll (57%).

But sentiment has reversed itself on whether civil liberties will have to be curbed in order to combat terrorism in this country. By a two-to-one margin, Americans believe now that it will not be “necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties” in the fight, 65% to 30%. Last year, however, a plurality of 49% said they thought some sacrifice of civil liberties would be required, compared to 43% who did not.

 

                    Trends in Attitudes on Terrorism
                          -LA Times-
                           April '95       March '96
                              %               %
Greater Threat From:
     Outside U.S.             33              39
     Inside U.S.              40              49
     Neither/Both/DK          27              12
                             100             100
Anti-Terrorism Laws:
     Too Strong               3               3
     Too Weak                 57              56
     About Right              21              29
     DK                       19              12
                             100             100
To Curb Terrorism:
     Need to Give up Some
       Civil Liberties        49              30
     Not necessary            43              65
     DK                       8               5
                             100             100

These numbers, while remarkable in themselves, mask significant differences within the populace on many of the questions. Most striking is the way in which the races perceive the threat. Perhaps reflecting their fear of home-grown racism, non-whites were much more worried about terrorism in public places than were whites (51% vs. 31%) and less convinced that the source of the threat is external (33% vs. 41% of whites). On the other hand, fewer non-whites saw some chance of nuclear terrorism than did whites (62% vs. 74%). Another notable difference was that Independents and Republicans saw the terrorist threat as primarily internal to the country, while Democrats were evenly divided on whether it was mainly internal or external.

Young Worry Less

Young American adults were less worried about the threat of attack by nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction than were older respondents, perhaps because their generation did not grow up with the Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust and radioactive fallout from nuclear testing. Almost two out of three (65%) of 18 to 29 years olds said there was a chance of nuclear-chemical- biological terrorism, compared to 77% among the 30 to 49 year olds and 74% among 50 to 64 year olds. The younger people also worried considerably less about the danger of such an attack: 36% of the 18 to 29 year olds worried somewhat or a great deal compared to 44% of those 65 years old and older.

High school graduates were more worried (47% worried somewhat or a great deal) than college graduates (33%) about nuclear terrorism. Among regions, westerners saw more chance of nuclear attack, but southerners expressed the most worry of the regional respondents (19% worry a great deal vs. 9% in all other regions). Also surprising is that respondents who followed foreign news stories most closely saw no greater chance and had no greater worry of nuclear terrorism than those who followed domestic stories very closely.

A one-third minority of Americans say they are worried about terrorism in public places (21% somewhat and 13% a great deal). Women were much more concerned than men, older people more than younger ones, as well as the less educated and the poorest ones. More worried than average were regular listeners to talk radio shows (41%) and southerners (40%, with westerners least concerned at 28%).

A Threat From Within

Much as with perceptions of the nuclear threat, sharp age differences were found on where the threat comes from. While the population divided 49% internal vs. 39% external on the question, fewer than one in three respondents (29%) 65 years old and older considered the threat internal, while majorities (over 50%) of all younger age groups saw it that way. Regular talk show listeners were more convinced the threat was internal (59%) rather than external, as were Independents (57%) and Republicans (49%), with Democrats split evenly (43% and 43%) on the point.

An age division appeared again on the question of whether laws are too weak or not. Most Americans (56%) said they were, but only 48% of those 18 to 29 years old felt that way. Midwesterners, more than respondents in other regions, also believe the laws are inadequate.

 

      Attitudes on Terrorism & Nuclear Attack By Race and Age

                           --Race--        -------Age-------
                               Non-
                  Total  White White     18-29 30-49 50-64 65+
                     %     %     %         %     %     %    %
Worry About
Terrorism:
     Great Deal      13    10    32        10    10    14   25
     Somewhat        21    21    19        19    22    22   21
     Not much        27    28    17        24    27    24   29
     Not at all      39    40    32        47    41    39   24
     DK              *     1     0         0     0     1    1
                    100   100   100       100   100   100  100
Greater Threat
From:
     Outside U.S.    39    41    33        42    38    28   51
     Inside U.S.     49    49    51        51    55    53   29
     Neither/Both/DK 12    10    16        7     7     19   20
                    100   100   100       100   100   100  100
               (N=751)(N=619)(N=126) (N=165)(N=310)(N=142)(N=126)

Chance of Nuclear
Attack:
     Yes             72    74    62        65    77    74   67
     No              25    24    32        33    23    19   26
     DK              3     2     6         2     *     7    7
                    100   100   100       100   100   100  100
Worry About Nuc.
Attack:
     Great Deal      13    12    22        11    12    16   16
     Somewhat        27    28    26        25    29    25   28
     Not much        32    32    27        35    30    35   28
     Not at all      27    28    23        29    28    23   27
     DK              1     *     2         0     1     1    1
                    100   100   100       100   100   100  100
               (N=749)(N=596)(N=147) (N=158)(N=328)(N=133)(N=127)

 

Cite this publication: “Public Apathetic about Nuclear Terrorism.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 11, 1996) http://www.people-press.org/1996/04/11/public-apathetic-about-nuclear-terrorism/, accessed on July 23, 2014.