News Analysis: Part II 9/11 — How Did It All Change Back
Part I of this article, We Are Changed Forevermore, examined the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the international outpouring of support, the sudden and powerful unity of purpose within America, and the upsurge in confidence in many of our institutions from government to religion.
There are people for whom 9/11 irrevocably changed their worlds; nothing will ever be the same. Most are relatives or friends of the thousands who died, but many are simply Americans for whom something was shattered or altered or simply changed ... for some there are positive aspects while for others there are only the negatives.
The New Normal
For America as a whole, it seemed in the immediate aftermath that the dramatic changes in attitudes might actually be signifying a new political paradigm. But what’s striking is how quickly we returned to normal, although not quite the normal of before. Bill McInturff, of Public Opinion strategies, calls it "the new normal."
McInturff said, "It didn't take America five years to recover. It was like a year."
Trust in government soared to 64% after the attack. By the summer of 2002, it had returned to it's traditional 30%. In December of 2001, Gallop found that 71% of Americans said religion was more important in American life. By March, according to a Pew Research poll, that number had dropped to 37%.
One key to why attitudes so quickly reverted is that, despite all the rhetoric, behavior had never shifted that dramatically. For all the calls to stockpile food and water, 30% told Harris Interactive pollsters that they considered it; the reality is that 9% did. By early March, 2002, Gallup found that number jumped to all of 13%--statistically almost meaningless.
What people reported is that they way they felt changed dramatically, not their day-to-day lives. Just over 50% told Fox News/Opinion Dynamics in late 2001 and early 2002 that their lives had changed in a lasting way, but 3/4 of those said it changed their feelings, not their behavior. When behavior fails to change, attitudes often regress to their former state.
Thus we find that the number who reported feeling depressed or had trouble sleeping declined fairly quickly. By March and September of 2002 Gallup found that smaller numbers had flown the flag, prayed more than usual, cried, or called loved ones “in the past two weeks” than had done so immediately after 9/11.
Karlyn Bowman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said in a recent interview, "There was a temporary spike and people felt a little bit better about government after 9/11, but all those numbers have reverted to where they were before."
Bowman notes that people have accepted that terrorism is a real possibility in their lives, but they've incorporated that into their daily lives. The fear is worse in large cities, but, by and large, "they don't panic."
As noted in the previous article, Caroll Doherty of Pew Research said in an interview that the country has changed in ways we may not even recognize. He noted how little attention Bush and Gore paid to foreign policy in the 2000 presidential election. "That's not going to happen in the future. The landscape has changed so much since then."
He also has found that people are showing more interest and engaging earlier in the 2006 mid-term elections that is normal, and that there's more of a national and international focus than usual.
Bowman also cites "a level of pessimism in American that's just not warranted, say, by the economic indicators." People expect another attack, and they see the world as more dangerous.
Ironically, they still seem optimistic about their children's future. "What's profoundly affected is the view of the present," she said. That pessimism is reflected in how people view the war on terror. A 2005 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 24% believed the war on terror would be won in our lifetimes; 62% said it would not. Moreover, over 3/4 of Americans told Gallup in July 2002 that today's world is the most dangerous in the respondent's life.
When asked if people think life in the U.S. will ever completely return to normal, i.e., pre 9/11, 62% said no.
Civil Liberties vs. Security
In a Los Angeles Times poll taken in September of 2001, 61% of Americans said we'd have to give up some civil liberties to curb terrorism. By July 2005, in a PRSA/Pew poll, that number dropped to 40% with 53% disagreeing. The reality is that Americans are torn about this issue. Both Doherty and Bowman said that while there is great concern about government scrutinizing American's behavior, there's this sense that it may be acceptable — just as long as "they leave me alone."
Bowman, however, notes that there has been a rise in concern about civil liberties, and she attributes it to the return of suspicion about government, the reduced fears of terrorism, and that some Americans have found certain government actions "objectionable."
But public attitudes are complicated and unstable on this issue. For example, in May of 2006, an ABC News/Washington Post survey found that almost half of Americans believed that the government wasn't doing enough to protect privacy. Yet over 50% in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll at the same time said they'd be willing to give up some personal freedom to reduce the threat of terrorism.
It's U.S. vs. The World
As noted before, Americans are more aware and more concerned about international opinion than at any time in recent history. While there has been support for America's military activities, the public wants the administration to take a cooperative stance with America's allies. A majority of Americans and nearly half of Republicans say that it should be a top foreign policy priority to improve our relations with our allies. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll with the Council on Foreign Relations and found that, by 49%-37%, "the public believes that the nation's foreign policy should strongly take into account the interests of U.S. allies, rather than be based mostly on the national interests of the United States."
At the same time, AEI's Bowman warns that it's difficult to get to the heart of this issue. Clearly people are aware that our image has suffered, and they think it would be better for us to have a more positive image, but she doesn't believe we have enough data to state conclusively how important this is for Americans. Further, she says that "there's a real question in the survey research community and among political scientists about whether we're seeing a new isolationism in the U.S. based on our awareness that we're not very well liked."
The Return to Partisanship and Divisiveness
According to a September 7 article in the New York Times, a big part of the “new normal,” is the resurgence of political divisions on national security questions. The coming together of Americans in a sense of national unity just after 9/11 has been buried amidst the deeply partisan views over Mr. Bush’s conduct of the war on terror and in Iraq. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found wide disagreement between the parties on a host of issues from the war in Iraq to airport security.
David Broder and Dan Balz, in a July 16 Washington Post article, entitled, "How Common Ground of 9/11 Gave Way to Partisan Split," wrote that the spontaneous outpouring bipartisanship "was quickly swallowed up by a resurgence of partisan differences among voters and politicians." Ironically, issues of national security no longer held Americans together but created a "new fault line" that's split the parties.
President Bush has seen his ratings drop from the stratosphere to below sea level, apparently stuck below 40% approval. The challenges to his strategies in Iraq, the growing insurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, the accusations of manufacturing evidence to support the Iraqi invasion, the questions of torture and secret prisons — all have taken their toll.Part of what has caused the divisiveness is the lack of clarity of America's strategic focus. Michael Hirsch wrote in Newsweek that the War on Terror is losing its focus. "What began as a crystal-clear fight against a small, self-contained group of murderers has become a kind of murky, open-ended World War III in which the identity of the enemy is less certain and our allies seem to grow less reliable."
Even the Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy to the Arab world has been called into question and held up as a reason for the failure of our military endeavors. Jed Babbin, the former deputy undersecretary of defense in the administration of George H.W. Bush recently cited as "a strategic error in focusing on democracy as the weapon to counter radical Islam and terrorism." He said that it's irrelevant if the Arab states are democracies as long as they don't threaten our security. "By making the establishment of democracy in Iraq a precondition to other action, the president has given control of the pace and direction of the war to the enemy."
The public sees what is happening. In a Washington Post/ABC news poll taken in August, almost 90% said that politics is just as partisan — or worse — than it was pre-9/11. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said he hoped that 9/11 would make us less partisan, but "we are more divided and more partisan than I've ever seen us."
How could the spirit of unity that sustained us through the aftermath of 9/11 have dissipated so quickly, leaving scars but so little nobility behind? Pew's Doherty acknowledges that it's hard to understand why things changed so quickly. "Some of it is inevitable," he said. "It's very difficult to keep that spirit. After all, people are human beings and prone to disagree."
On the other hand, he also has no question that the Iraqi War was a major factor in breaking the bonds, citing the plummeting Presidential approval ratings.
Broder and Balz take a similar view. They believe that the return to "national rancor and partisan conflict" was inevitable. There were deep divisions in the country after the 2000 presidential elections that hadn't healed, and, as they say, "In a 50-50 America, the lust for political advantage overwhelmed calls for consensus and cooperation."
Finally, Republicans and Democrats have long disagreed about the use of American force in the world, and the role we should play as the sole super-power. Those disagreements may have been covered over just after 9/11, but they remain deep and divisive.
In balance, what we've learned from 9/11 is how little we really understand ourselves or the world around us.
News Analysis: Part II 9/11 — How Did It All Change Back
- » Published on September 12, 2006
- » Type: Opinion
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