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Sept. 11 Effects, Though Largely Faded, Persist

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

Sept. 11, 2001, will not soon be forgotten by most Americans. The day's events had a profound impact on the nation's government, its security, and its people. The impact of Sept. 11 on Americans' attitudes and behavior was immediately evident in a Gallup Poll conducted the night of the terrorist attacks, and continued to manifest itself in subsequent polls. Two years later, most of the effects on the American public have dissipated, though signs are still evident today in Americans' expressed patriotism, their trust in government, their views on immigration, and ratings of President George W. Bush.

Government Ratings

In the wake of Sept. 11, Gallup observed an unprecedented surge in support for government and its leaders, which persisted into 2002. Now, most government ratings are back to pre-9/11 ratings, although Bush's approval ratings remain above his last rating before the terrorist attacks (which has been the lowest rating during his administration). American's trust in the government to handle domestic and international problems is also higher than before the terrorist attacks.

Bush's presidential approval ratings skyrocketed from 51% to 86% immediately after the attacks, and reached a high of 90%. One year after the attacks, his approval rating stood at 66%, and continued a slow decline, temporarily interrupted this year by the war with Iraq. The most recent rating has Bush at 59%, still above his pre-9/11 rating.

George W. Bush Approval Ratings

Pre-9/11:
Sep 2001

Post-9/11:
Oct 2001

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

Most Recent:
Aug 2003

Percentage Approving

51%

89

66

59

Americans' ratings of Congress and their satisfaction with the course of the nation -- both of which soared in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks -- are now back at pre-9/11 levels. They were slightly higher than the current readings a year ago.

Congressional Job Approval Ratings

Pre-9/11:
Sep 2001

Post-9/11:
Oct 2001

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

Most Recent:
Aug 2003

Percentage Approving

42%

84

52

45

Satisfaction With the Way Things Are Going in United States

Pre-9/11:
Sep 2001

Post-9/11:
Oct 2001

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

Most Recent:
Aug 2003

Percentage Satisfied

43

67

47

46

Trust in government to handle both domestic and international problems remains slightly higher than what was measured before 9/11. Prior to the attacks, 14% of Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in the government to handle international problems, and 6% in its ability to handle domestic problems. Those numbers increased to 36% and 24%, respectively, in an October 2001 poll. Currently, the figures are 17% and 14%.

Trust in the U.S. Government

Pre-9/11:
Sep 2001

Post-9/11:
Oct 2001

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

Most Recent:
Jul 2003

Percentage with great deal of trust to handle international problems

14%

36

18

17

Percentage with great deal of trust to handle domestic problems

6%

24

11

14

Americans' Daily Lives

Many believed that the terrorist attacks would permanently change the way Americans lived their daily lives. In fact, the Gallup Poll from the night of the attacks found 49% of Americans said they would permanently change the American way of life. In many cases, there were unmistakable short-term differences in Americans' behavior, but few lasted beyond more than a couple months.

Following Sept. 11, Gallup data showed a spike in the percentage of Americans who reported attending church in the past seven days, from the generally stable level of 41% to 47% right after the attacks. A year later, the number had returned to the 40% level, where it remains today.

Self-Report of Church Attendance in Past Seven Days

Pre-9/11:
May 2001

Post-9/11:
Sep 2001

First Anniv:
Dec 2002

Most Recent:
Feb 2003

Percentage Attending

41%

47

43

38

A similar effect was evident with respect to Americans' ratings of the importance of religion in their lives. This increased from 57% before the attack, to 64% shortly after. One year later, 65% said religion was very important in their lives, though this included a short-term spike as the one-year anniversary approached. The most recent data show 58% saying religion is important in their lives, virtually the same as in May 2001.

Religion's Importance in Life

Pre-9/11:
May 2001

Post-9/11:
Sep 2001

First Anniv:
Dec 2002

Most Recent:
May 2003

Percentage Saying "Very Important"

57%

64

65

58

Some news organizations reported a sharp increase in gun sales following Sept. 11, but increased gun ownership was never evident in Gallup's data. Polls conducted in August 2000, October 2001, and October 2002 all showed roughly 4 in 10 Americans reporting that they had a gun in their homes.

Self-Report of Gun Ownership

Pre-9/11: Aug-Sep 2000

 

Post-9/11:

Oct 2001

 

First Anniv: Oct 2002

 

 

Most Recent

Percentage Having Gun in Home

39%

40

41

--

Following 9/11, many Americans were concerned about flying. Just days after the events, 43% of Americans said they were less willing to travel by air because of the terrorist attacks. A Gallup Poll conducted in September 2002 showed a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans who said they had traveled by air in the past 12 months, from typical levels of 45% to 50% to 39%. It is unclear whether this mainly resulted from Sept. 11 or whether the slow economy may have also put a significant dent in air travel.

Self-Report of Air Travel

Pre-9/11:
Aug-Sep 2000

 

Post-9/11:

 

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

 

Most Recent

Percentage Who Have Flown in Last Year

45%

--

39

--

The terrorist attacks did spark a surge in patriotism in America, most commonly observed in public displays of the American flag. Just days after the attacks, 82% of Americans said they had displayed a flag because of the terrorist attacks. Gallup data also recorded an increase in patriotic feeling, one that has not yet subsided and even shows signs of increasing. A January 2001 poll first measured Americans' patriotic feelings and found 55% of Americans saying they were "extremely proud" to be Americans. One year later, 65% said the same, and that percentage increased to 69% on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. The most recent data, from a June 2003 poll, show 70% saying they are extremely proud to be Americans.

Self-Reported Patriotism

Pre-9/11:
Jan 2001

Post-9/11:
Jun 2002

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

Most Recent:
Jun 2003

Percentage "Extremely Proud to Be American"

55%

65

69

70

Terrorism

A declining, but still-present fear of terrorism is evident in Americans' perceptions of the most important problem facing the United States. In the Sept. 7-10, 2001, Gallup Poll, less than 1% of Americans mentioned terrorism as the nation's No. 1 problem. Not surprisingly, this leaped to 46% in an October 2001 poll. One year after the terrorist attacks, 19% of Americans thought terrorism was the nation's top problem, and the most recent data (from August 2003) finds 12% of Americans saying the same.

Percentage of Americans Mentioning Terrorism as Most Important Problem

Pre-9/11:
Sep 2001

Post-9/11:
Oct 2001

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

Most Recent:
Aug 2003

Percentage mentioning terrorism

<1%

46

19

12

Prior to Sept. 11, Gallup had most recently measured the public's level of fear of terrorism in an April 2000 poll, and found 24% saying they were very or somewhat worried about "being the victim of a terrorist attack." On the night of Sept. 11, 59% of Americans expressed this level of concern. As time went by, fear of terrorism gradually declined, but has shown increases whenever the government increases the "terror threat level" or when there is news of terror attacks in other parts of the world. As recently as July, only 30% of Americans were very or somewhat worried about being the victim of a terror attack, which increased to 41% in late August shortly after the attack on a U.N. building in Iraq.

The public's views on the proper trade-off between keeping Americans safe from terrorism and preserving people's civil liberties has changed in the time since Sept. 11. When the question was asked in a January 2002 poll, the public was divided as to whether the government should err on the side of preventing terrorism (47%) or preserving Americans' civil liberties (49%). Over time, however, the public has swung in the direction of individual freedom. By June 2002, the margin in favor of preserving civil liberties over taking all steps to fight terrorism had grown to 56% to 40%. One year after the terrorist attacks, the public said the government should protect civil liberties by a 62% to 33% margin. The most recent poll finds that margin increasing further to 67% to 29%.

Terror Prevention vs. Civil Liberties Trade-Off

Pre-9/11

 

Post-9/11:
Jan 2002

First Anniv:
Sep 2002

Most Recent:
Aug 2003

Percentage willing to violate civil liberties to prevent terrorism

--

47

33

29

Percentage NOT willing to violate civil liberties to prevent terrorism

--

49

62

67

Immigration attitudes appear to have been greatly affected by 9/11, which is not surprising given that many of the hijackers were non-U.S. citizens who were living or had lived in the United States. The public's views on immigration are still much more negative now than prior to the terrorist attacks. A June 2001 Gallup Poll found 41% favoring a decrease in U.S. immigration levels. That percentage spiked to 58% in October 2001, and was still above a majority nine months after the terrorist attacks (54%). Gallup's most recent data on immigration, from June 2003, shows 47% favoring decreased immigration. As is the case with air travel, it is difficult to determine whether the lower support for immigration mainly results from the terror attacks, the poor economy (since Americans are less supportive of immigration when the economy is slow), or a combination.

Immigration Attitudes

Pre-9/11:
Jun 2001

Post-9/11:
Oct 2001

First Anniv:
Jun 2002

Most Recent:
Aug 2003

Percentage wanting immigration levels decreased

41%

58

54

47

Percentage wanting immigration levels kept the same

42%

30

26

37

Percentage wanting immigration levels increased

14%

8

17

13

Bottom Line

Historical and new polling data provide valuable insight into the effects of Sept. 11. While those events did not dramatically transform the way Americans go about their daily lives, the fact that certain attitudes and behaviors have yet to return to their pre-9/11 levels two years later illustrates that the terrorist attacks still affect Americans today. This is most evident in Americans' patriotism, but also their ratings of the government, their views on immigration, and their concerns about terrorism more generally.

Results are based on Gallup Polls conducted in 2000-2003, each of approximately 1,000 national adults aged 18 and older. For these samples, the maximum margin of error attributable to sampling is ±3 percentage points.

Gallup

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