Washington – In the first of what is likely to be a tidal wave of polling in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, a survey released here Thursday by the Pew Research Center found some important shifts in U.S. public opinion over the past decade.
In answer to the notorious question, “Why do they hate us,” respondents were generally more willing today to believe that U.S. policies in the Middle East might have motivated the attacks by Al- Qaeda. Immediately after the attacks took place, a majority of respondents (55 percent) rejected that notion, while only a third agreed.
Ten years later, the public's views are more evenly divided, with 43 percent agreeing with the proposition that the attacks may have been motivated by something “the U.S. did wrong in its dealings with other countries”, and 45 percent in disagreement.
The shift, however, was mainly confined to self-described Democrats and independents, half of whom now believe U.S. policies may have motivated Al-Qaeda. Republicans, on the other hand, remained steadfast, as on a number of other key issues, in their view that the attacks were not motivated by anything the U.S. had done.
The survey also found major differences between age groups on this question. More than half (52 percent) of respondents under 30 said U.S. actions may have motivated the attacks, while only 20 percent of respondents 65 and older were open to that explanation.
A similar shift has taken place over the past decade with respect to the public's belief that it may be necessary to give up civil liberties to curb terrorism, according to the survey.
While 55 percent of respondents agreed with that proposition immediately after 9/11, that percentage has fallen to 40 percent. Conversely, the percentage of those who believe that civil liberties should not be sacrificed rose from 35 percent to a 54-percent majority, the survey found.
Nonetheless, public opinion has moved in the opposite direction with respect to the debate over torture. When Pew first asked respondents whether “torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists can be justified” in July 2004, a 43-percent majority said only “often” or “sometimes.
Seven years later, however, that minority has risen to a 53-percent majority. The percentage of respondents who said it could “never” be justified fell from 32 percent in 2004 to 24 percent today.
Similarly, a larger minority of respondents said they believe that the 9/11 attacks signalled “the start of a major conflict between the people of America and Europe versus the people of Islam” as opposed to “a conflict with a small radical group”.
Those who chose the “major conflict” option rose from 28 percent in October 2001 to 35 percent today. Republicans were particularly apt to see it that light, with 40 percent describing it as a “major conflict”, a 10-percent increase compared to a decade ago.
The survey, which interviewed more than 1,500 adults Aug. 17-21, found that the 9/11 attacks have been seared into the public's collective consciousness in a way that no other modern event ever has.
Ninety-seven percent of respondents who were eight years old or older at the time of the even say they remember exactly where they were at the time of the attacks. That compares with 95 percent of respondents who remember where they were when President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963; 80 percent who remember when the U.S. landed the first person on the moon in 1969; and 58 percent when the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany came down in 1989.
Ten years later, three out of four respondents said the attacks affected them emotionally a great deal, although there were differences among age groups. While 81 percent of adults 30 or over said they were affected “a great deal”, only 55 percent of those between 18 and 30 felt that way.
Six of 10 respondents said they believed 9/11 changed life in the United States in a major way, while only one in 10 said they believe life here remains basically the same as it was a decade ago.
Respondents have also re-evaluated their assessments of President George W. Bush's handling of 9/11. Shortly after the event, 86 percent of all respondents voiced approval of his performance, including 81 percent of Democrats and 96 percent of Republicans.
Asked this month what they thought of his actions immediately after the attacks, only 56 percent said they approved. While 84 percent of Republicans remained loyal to the former president, Democratic support for his performance 10 years ago fell to 39 percent, the poll found.
Aside from partisan differences, age accounted for the largest disparities found in the Pew survey.
While younger respondents were more open to the notion that U.S. policies might have motivated the attacks, older respondents were significantly more likely to say they were “very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S.”, express support for “extra airport checks on passengers who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent”, and say that they were not bothered that Muslims in the U.S. were singled out for surveillance by law-enforcement agencies.
Younger respondents were also more likely than older respondents to believe that U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the chances of a terrorist attack on the United States, according to the survey.