Interestingly, some studies indicate that American attitudes regarding minorities, specifically Muslims, were not changed as a result of 9/11. Generally speaking, among minorities Muslims have been "rated lower" than other groups both prior to and following the events of 9/11. Nevertheless, physical and verbal attacks on Muslim Americans did escalate in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Additionally, following the attacks law enforcement agencies focused their attention more heavily on individuals of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin. Following the 9/11 attacks, a large percentage of Caucasians and African Americans supported this racial profiling of individuals whose facial features appeared Middle Eastern.
Modern communication technology allows the viewing public to observe events in real time and to continuously revisit them through 24-hour news programs and on the Internet, where news and opinions are shared between people all over the globe. Additionally, during and following national and international events, many self-avowed "experts" provide commentary on television, in print media, and through other venues. These forums provide additional perspectives that no doubt impact the public's perception of the event.
Terrorism utilizes and manipulates national and international news venues, particularly television, which becomes a propaganda medium that impacts global and U.S. public opinion. Replayed images, numerous commentaries, and a variety of perspectives tend to heighten feelings of insecurity and alter or strengthen preexisting views relative to a national or global traumatic event.
Civil Liberties and Public Policy
With respect to impingements on civil liberties, the attitude of many Americans was initially one of acceptance and tolerance. In their view, 9/11 demanded some curtailment of civil liberties and a more intrusive role by government in the lives and activities of the average citizen. For example, enhanced airport security screening and other measures that restricted certain items from entering an aircraft's passenger sections, although irritating and inconvenient to travelers, were, for the most part, viewed as necessary in a heightened security environment. Most people realized that the "new normal" spawned by 9/11 necessitated some impact on activities that were heretofore taken for granted.
For example, a poll conducted by ABC News/Washington Post almost four years after 9/11 found that although 59% of those responding to a telephone questionnaire continued to support the PATRIOT Act and favored its continuation, the majority of these respondents were against the implementation of provisions allowing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) authority to have open access to private records and U.S. postal service mail.
The War on Terror
Several polls conducted in the first few weeks following the attacks showed that the American public was generally supportive of and trusted the government's response to 9/11; regarding the use of military force, this remained true 18 months after 9/11. On October 7, 2001, the date the U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan (Operation ENDURING FREEDOM), an ABC News/Washington Post poll indicated that 94% of those surveyed supported the U.S. attack on that country. In July 2008, this same organization reported that only 51% of those surveyed believed that the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting. Moreover, various opinion polls revealed that between 69% and 80% of those surveyed initially supported military action against Iraq. This support remained high into and following the March 2003 invasion. A CBS News opinion poll taken in March 2003, one week after the United States launched a ground and air assault on Iraq, found that 69% of those surveyed viewed the invasion of that country as the right course of action. This number differs significantly from the CBS News poll, which, in August 2008, reported that only 38% of those surveyed viewed the U.S. invasion as the right course of action.
A fairly recent issue that garnered quite a bit of controversy was a proposal by a New York imam to build an Islamic community center and mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks. In August 2010, a public opinion poll published by Rasmussen Reports indicated that over 60% of the respondents were against the building of a mosque near Ground Zero, while an equal number considered the proposal to be "insensitive" to the family members of victims of this tragedy.
The events of 9/11 have altered the views and perceptions of many Americans on a variety of security-related issues. Public opinion, while sometimes volatile, remains a powerful catalyst for action, both shaping and shaped by the ever-changing world around us.
Frank Shanty, PhD, is cofounder and director of research for the Cobra Institute, a terrorism and counterterrorism research firm in Abingdon, MD. Dr. Shanty is the author of The Nexus: International Terrorism and Drug Trafficking from Afghanistan (Praeger, 2011). He has also coauthored two published works on terrorism and served as general editor and contributing author on Encyclopedia of World Terrorism, Vol. 4 and ABC-CLIO's Organized Crime: From Trafficking to Terrorism. Dr. Shanty was also chief consultant and contributing author for Mafia. He is currently working on Counterterrorism: From the Cold War to the War on Terror (Praeger, 2012).
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