September 19, 2001

American Psyche Reeling From Terror Attacks

Introduction and Summary

Americans are standing tall at a time of crisis — they are united in their approval of the nation’s leaders, paying rapt attention to news, and say they are willing to suffer thousands of military casualties in a protracted conflict to retaliate for last week’s terrorist attacks. But at the same time they are reporting a heavy psychological toll from those extraordinary events — 71% have felt depressed, nearly half have had difficulty concentrating, and one-in-three report having trouble sleeping at night.

There is near universal public engagement in the crisis. As was the case during the Persian Gulf War, over eight-in-ten (81%) say they are constantly tuned in to news reports, but even larger percentages report coverage-related stress today than did a decade ago, when Americans previously experienced round-the-clock news coverage of national trauma. A larger percentage now than then reports being addicted to that coverage (63% vs 50%). Americans are more saddened, more frightened and more fatigued by what they are watching than was the case during the Gulf war.

Though horrified at the images being broadcast from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Americans give the news media higher grades for its reporting than during the Gulf war — an unprecedented 89% give the media a positive rating, with 56% judging it excellent, 33% good. CNN, which stole the march from other news media in the Gulf conflict, again gets top grades, but by a much smaller margin — 24% say it is doing the best job, followed by ABC News (at 14%), the Fox News Channel (12%) and NBC News (11%). CBS News gets the lowest performance rating of the three broadcast networks, with just 7% rating its coverage best.

The latest Pew Research Center survey of 1,200 adults, conducted Sept. 13-17, finds that the attacks have had far-reaching effects on Americans’ everyday lives. Nearly seven-in-ten say they are praying more, and 54% of parents of young children have been restricting their viewing of television coverage of the tragedy.

The public appears ready for sacrifice with regard to the human costs of military action, but also with respect to civil liberties. Nearly eight-in-ten favor retaliating against those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, even if it means the loss of thousands of U.S. casualties. And few expect the military action to produce quick results — 69% say it will take months or years to dismantle terrorist networks.

To bolster anti-terrorism defenses, the public seems willing to accept dramatic changes in law enforcement policies. They strongly favor the institution of national identification cards and the relaxation of rules barring the CIA from conducting assassinations and contracting with criminals overseas.

But Americans are unwilling to give up aspects of their personal privacy in order to combat terrorism. They draw the line at suspending rules limiting government surveillance of personal phone calls and e-mail. And a solid majority (57%) oppose the creation of internment camps to round up legal immigrants from potentially hostile nations.