December 2, 2010

Despite Years of Terror Scares, Public’s Concerns Remain Fairly Steady

Overview

Since 9/11, there have been major terrorist attacks in Great Britain, Spain and other countries. And in the United States, there have been Orange Alerts and numerous near misses involving bombs smuggled aboard aircraft and in parked cars.

But over the course of all of this, there is little evidence that close calls in this country or terrorist attacks overseas have led to a fundamental change in the public’s worries about terrorism.

A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Nov. 4-7 among 1,255 adults, finds that 59% say they are very (21%) or somewhat (38%) worried there will soon be another terrorist attack in the United States.

This is little changed from July 2007 (20% very, 42% somewhat worried). In fact, looking back over nearly a decade, the public’s worries over another attack have been fairly steady, with a few exceptions. In June 2002, following the arrest of Jose Padilla, an American accused of planning a “dirty bomb” attack on the U.S., the percentage saying they were very worried about an attack jumped to 32% from 2o% six months earlier. But by August 2002, just 16% said they were very worried.

The proportion saying they were very worried also rose in February 2003, shortly before the Iraq war. At that time, 34% said they were very worried about another terrorist attack in the United States, almost double the percentage from January (18%). However, just a month later the percentage saying they were very worried slipped back
to 22% and by August 2003 to just 13%.

The latest Pew Research survey was conducted shortly after reports of an aborted plot to smuggle package bombs aboard cargo jets destined for the United States. The survey was conducted before the most recent terrorist scare – the arrest of a Somali-born man in Portland, Oregon who allegedly had sought to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

The survey finds the public is divided over whether the U.S. is winning or losing its campaign against terrorism around the world: 38% say the United States is winning, while about the same number (43%) say it is losing. This also is little changed from 2007.

Recent Scare Attracted Modest Interest

Public interest in the failed package bomb plots was lower than for two other incidents in the past year – the attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas and the failed effort to detonate a car bomb in Times Square last May. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) followed the recent package bomb plots very closely, compared with 37% each for the failed Christmas and Times Square attacks.

Of the many terrorist incidents since the 9/11 attacks, the one that attracted the greatest public interest was the attempt to blow up multiple airliners travelling from Great Britain to the United States and Canada in August 2006. More than half of Americans (54%) followed that story very closely. Interest in that story also surpassed interest in terrorist attacks overseas since 2001, including the attacks on London subways and buses in July 2005 (48% very closely).

Notably, while the airliner plot of 2006 and the London attacks of 2005 attracted widespread interest, the public’s concerns about the prospect of a new terrorist attacks in this country rose only modestly in the wake of each incident. The August 2006 survey was being conducted as news broke about the transatlantic airliner plot: In interviewing conducted before the plot became public, 17% said they were very concerned about another attack on the United States; afterward, 25% said they were very worried. (See “American Attitudes Hold Steady in Face of Foreign Crises,” August 17, 2006.)

Few See Diminished Terrorist Threat

Only about a quarter of Americans (26%) say that the danger of a major terrorist attack is less now than it was before 9/11. About as many (28%) say the danger is greater while 43% say the danger of an attack is about the same as it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

These views, like concerns about the possibility of a new attack, have shown little overall change since 2007. However, about as many Republicans now see a greater terrorist threat as a reduced threat (32% vs. 30%). In July 2007, 46% of Republicans said the threat was less than it had been at the time of 9/11 while just 19% said it was greater. Opinions among Democrats have shown less change, though somewhat more see a reduced terrorist threat than in 2007 (32% vs. 21%).

Republicans, Democrats and independents express comparable levels of concern over the possibility there will soon be another terrorist attack in the U.S.: 23% of Republicans say they are very worried there will be a new attack, as do 20% of Democrats and independents. The partisan differences in terrorism concerns also were modest in 2007.

Divided Views of Struggle Against Terrorism

Public opinion about the country’s campaign against terrorism around the world is divided; 38% say the United States is winning, while about the same number (43%) say the nation is losing the campaign. This is similar to public sentiment in the summer of 2007, when 40% said the U.S. was winning the war on terrorism and 39% said the country was losing it.

Today, there is little difference in the opinions of Republicans, Democrats and independents, with opinion divided in all three partisan groups. By contrast, although overall opinion was similar in 2007, there were significant partisan differences three years ago: By a ratio of more than three-to-one (63% vs. 19%) Republicans said the country was winning rather than losing the war on terrorism, while Democrats were about twice as likely to say the country was losing (55%) rather than winning (27%) the war.

A Pew Research Center survey last month found little change in recent months in the public’s ratings of the government’s efforts to reduce the threat of terrorism. In that poll, 69% said the government was doing very well (15%) or fairly well (54%) in reducing the threat of terrorism. (See “Continued Positive Marks for Government Anti-Terror Efforts, Oct 22, 2010.)