April 30, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Before Marathon Bombings, American Concern over Terrorism Was At Lowest Point Since 9/11

As the investigation into the Boston marathon bombings continues, several polls have recently been published on the impact the Boston attack has had on the public's sense of threat.  An April 18-21, 2013 Pew Research Center survey  finds that public concern about a future terrorist attack in the United States is basically the same as in their 2010 poll.

But a Washington Post survey, conducted around a similar time frame, shows that those who are concerned a great deal about future terrorist attacks is higher now (32%)  than in surveys fielded close to the anniversaries of the September 11 attacks in 2008 (18%) and 2007 (25%) - though only slightly higher than in 2006 (29%).  (We assume that public anxiety over terrorist attacks would be palpable on the eve of the September 11 anniversary, which is likely related to the timing of the previous WP surveys).  There may be an immediacy effect in these results, and a media effect, since the story is being so closely covered at the moment.  It will be interesting to view trends on these type of questions in a longer term context after the attention subsides.

The Chicago Council Survey trends from 2002-2012 found that while majorities were still concerned about international terrorism as a critical threat facing the United States, that proportion had declined from 91% in 2002 to 67% in 2012. Fear of Islamic fundamentalism was also much less widespread in 2012 than it was ten years ago (39% versus 61% in 2002). These declines could have reflected the fact that there had not been another major terrorist attack in the United States since 2001; that Osama bin Laden was killed; or that Americans were placing a greater focus on domestic economic concerns.

At this point, the Boston incident seems to be a plan hatched here in the US rather than international terrorism, and while tragic, it is not on the vast scale as the September 11th attacks.  Several commentators have questioned whether the Boston marathon attacks should even be labeled a terrorist act.  For example, former CIA Deputy Director Phil Mudd (who is interviewed in the documentary film Manhunt on HBO this Wednesday) believes the Boston attacks have as much to do with Columbine as with al Qaeda.  I tend to agree - at least at this point with the evidence that's been shared - as no terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for the Boston bombings, and as of yet,  there has been no revelations of a political or social motivation behind the attacks.

Most of the polling questions asked in the wake of the Boston bombings use the term terrorism. An April 16 Fox News poll finds that currently more Americans are worried about threats posed by locally-based perpetrators than violent Islamic extremists.   Almost twice as many say that "homegrown terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh" are more of a "threat on US soil" (51%) than "Islamic terrorists" (26%, with 12% saying both equally and 10% unsure).  When asked to venture a guess, a majority believe that "homegrown terrorists" (62%) rather than "Islamic terrorists" (20%) are likely to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings (with 19% unsure).  While I suppose "Islamic terrorists" worded as such could also be based in the US, the responses suggest that the public makes a distinction between the two options.

As details are still being uncovered, some wonder whether such home-grown extremism will become a new trend.  There's a lot left to be revealed from the investigation, including whether or not the brothers operated as lone wolves.  At the same time, Americans may be adjusting to a world punctuated by occasional attacks:  three in four Americans in Pew's most recent survey agree that "occasional acts of terrorism in the US will be part of life in the future" (75% in 2013, 64% in 2012, 62% in 2009, 70% in 2007, and 74% in 2003).


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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