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Which Freedoms Will Americans Trade for Security?

Which Freedoms Will Americans Trade for Security?


Nationally, nearly four in five (78%) Americans are willing to give up certain freedoms to gain security, according to a recent study co-sponsored by The Gallup Organization and The University of Oklahoma Department of Psychiatry through a grant from the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). The study also revealed Americans' willingness to compromise certain specific freedoms:

  • 30% favor making it easier for legal authorities to access private communications such as mail, e-mail and telephone conversations.
  • 71% favor requiring national identification cards containing fingerprint or citizenship information for all U.S. residents.
  • 77% favor requiring smallpox vaccinations for all U.S. residents.

"The urge to strengthen government in a time of danger has been around a long time. The American people have, with important historical exceptions, done a good job of balancing individual liberties with the need to protect society," said MIPT Deputy Director Donald R. Hamilton. "Some restrictions placed on individuals have been temporary and some have been permanent. The good sense of the American people about how to balance freedom and security has proven durable over the long haul."

Nearly four in 10 Americans are very worried (8%) or somewhat worried (31%) that they or a family member will become a victim of a terrorist attack in the United States. Levels of worry about future terrorist attacks in the United States are considerably higher in New York City (19% very worried; 34% somewhat worried), compared with Washington, D.C. (9% very worried, 29% somewhat worried) and Oklahoma City (6% very worried, 26% somewhat worried).

When asked to rate the level of stress they were currently experiencing in their lives, one in three Americans report some notable stress (5% a lot; 27% moderate stress). Of those who acknowledged experiencing stress, 73% attributed most of their current stress to terrorism (33% directly to the Sept. 11 attacks; 10% to the threat of anthrax; and 30% to something else related to terrorism).

The telephone survey of a total of 2,519 U.S. adults conducted in April and May included oversamples of respondents in three metropolitan areas most recently affected by acts of terrorism; New York City, Washington, D.C. and Oklahoma City Metropolitan Statistical Areas. These oversamples allowed a unique look at the views of the people who have experienced terrorism close to home.

Respondents were asked to report how safe they felt now and how, in retrospect, they felt before Sept. 11. New Yorkers, who report feeling safer than the national average before Sept. 11, now feel less safe than the rest of the nation. In the New York City area, 42% strongly agree they felt safe prior to Sept. 11, but only 12% strongly agree they feel safe now (six months after the attacks). Nationally, 39% strongly agree they felt safe prior to Sept. 11, but only 17% strongly agree they feel safe now. The Washington, D.C. area, which was directly affected by the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, and Oklahoma City, where 168 people were killed in a terrorist bombing in 1995, show current levels of perceived safety that are closer to the national average.

Dr. Elaine Christiansen, Senior Research Director for The Gallup Organization, summarized by saying that "Six months after the attacks, a significant part of the population still does not feel safe. We need to find ways to empower the American public back toward the sense of security."

Gallup has been tracking the question of the public's concern about becoming a victim of terrorism for the last seven years. Not surprisingly, national levels are currently similar to those found prior to Sept. 11 with the exception of the weeks immediately following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Current worry about future terrorism appears to be more heavily based on fear of attacks using biological or chemical agents (31%) than on subsequent bombings (22%).

Compared to how they say they behaved prior to Sept. 11, four in five (84%) Americans say they are more alert (29% strongly agree; 55% agree). New York City respondents report significantly higher levels of alertness (38% strongly agree; 50% agree).

  • 64% of Americans check more often on the whereabouts of their loved ones (69% in New York City).
  • 23% of Americans report they avoid public events or crowed areas (31% of those living in New York City).
  • 42% of Americans say they are personally more afraid to fly (no differences were found across the study regions).

A comparison with Gallup historical survey data suggests (but does not establish, because the questions were not identical) that some attitudes and concerns are not new, but are more intense now than in the past. For example:

  • 42% are "personally more afraid to fly" than before Sept. 11. (April-May 2002)
  • 31% have "no confidence at all" or "not much" confidence "that the airlines that fly in this country are adequately protected from terrorist attack." (July 1976)
  • 78% are willing to surrender "certain freedoms." (April-May 2002)
  • 59% believe it is frequently (16%) or sometimes (43%) justifiable to limit civil liberties in order to stop terrorism." (January 1979)

"These findings support including community-based terrorism preparedness activities as part of the new Department of Homeland Security," said Dr. Betty Pfefferbaum, chair of the University of Oklahoma Department of Psychiatry. "This approach would provide information about the threat of terrorism and address the concerns and emotional reactions of the public."

Results for the survey are based on telephone interviews conducted between Jan. 28 and March 22, 2002 with a sample of 2,519 adults, aged 18 and older. Oversamples contain 548 respondents from New York City, 529 from Washington D.C., 508 from Oklahoma City and 934 from the remaining contiguous United States for an overall sample of 2,519 representing the entire continental United States. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±2% for the national results and ±4% for each of the cities.

This research was supported, in part, under award number MIPT106-113-2000-020 from the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism and the Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism or the Department of Justice.

For more information about this study, please contact Elaine Christiansen, Senior Research Director at The Gallup Organization.

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