Seven years ago today, the roar of exploding planes and the
spectacle of collapsing buildings riveted the nation's attention on a
single topic, terrorism - and in the terrible aftermath, it seemed that
focus would never waver.
But it has. Just 2 percent of Americans identified terrorism as
their nation's top problem in a Gallup survey in early August - the
lowest level since the 2001 attacks. And in new poll results released
Wednesday, just 38 percent of respondents said they were at least
somewhat worried that they or their families would become victims of
terrorism - a nine-point drop since the question was asked last year
and the lowest level since mid-2005.
"The majority of Americans are now not fearful of terrorist attack,"
said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. "Americans do not report
to us that terrorism is the top issue for them in this election. It is
In a separate question in the most recent poll, when asked to pick
from a short list of issues the one that would be most important in
deciding their vote for president, about 42 percent of people picked
the economy, Newport said. Just 12 percent picked terrorism, putting it
in a tie with the Iraq war, health care and energy.
The poll results emerge in the heat of a presidential campaign that
some pundits once suggested would pivot on the issue of terrorism. But
these days, John McCain and Barack Obama are more likely to be talking
about the economy, energy policy or something other than terrorism.
A mistake to ignore threat?
Some commentators think they're making a mistake.
"The next president ... must prevent al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator,
from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America,"
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times.
"Everything else - Fannie Mae, health care reform, energy independence,
the budget shortfall in Wasilla, Alaska - is commentary."
A new report from the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America
released Wednesday argues that the United States is still "dangerously
vulnerable" to terrorist attack, and a report by the American Security
Project, a think tank chaired by former Sen. Gary Hart, concluded
Wednesday that "the United States is not winning the 'war on terror.' "
Yet while terrorism was identified by nearly half of Americans after
the Sept. 11 attacks as the nation's leading problem, the issue has
been gradually slipping ever since, resurging only slightly after each
new attack overseas or a fresh terror alert at home before fading
"The longer the period of time since the event and the current time,
in the absence of any continuing provoking activity, one sees a
decline," said Larry Beutler, director of the National Center on
Disaster Psychology and Terrorism in Palo Alto. "In other words, people
Yet it's unlikely the current candidates will stop presenting
terrorism as a pressing danger, said John Mueller, professor of
political science at Ohio State University and author of the book
"Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National
Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them."
Failure to display a tough stance against terrorism by any
politician can be a career-ender if an attack should actually happen
during a campaign, Mueller noted. But taking a firm stand on the issue
carries little political risk.
Both Obama and McCain have detailed plans for improved homeland
security and have mentioned terrorism in recent speeches. And today,
the candidates will observe the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in
a joint visit to the World Trade Center.
The issue could elevate
Among voters, the issue could resurge in a number of ways, said
Gallup's Newport. An act of terrorism during the campaign would quickly
refocus attention on it. Or a candidate seen by voters as more
competent to deal with terrorism could decide to make it an issue,
Newport said. At the moment, McCain has a 55 percent to 38 percent
advantage over Obama in the eyes of the voters asked who would better
handle terrorism, he said.
While standing tall against terrorism might carry little political
risk, Mueller argues that obsessing on such a low-probability event is
becoming a problem because it perpetuates public fear.
"It's like the drug war," Mueller said. "Politicians are afraid to
say your concerns are overblown, so it will keep going on forever."
Change will come not because of public opinion, he said, but because of public cost.
"We're spending $50 (billion)-$60 billion on the Department of
Homeland Security," he said. "It's a lot of money, and there's
beginning to be a certain amount of rumbling."
But there is a danger in ignoring terrorism as a threat, too, said
Bruce Hoffman, professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown
"An enormous amount of complacency sets in when there are not
further attacks," Hoffman said. "This to me is the pre-eminent lesson
of 9/11: It's exactly when we become complacent that al Qaeda strikes."
Public disinterest lack of interest could be why, in Hoffman's
opinion, there has been little discussion of terrorism in the election
so far. Such discussion doesn't need to involve fearmongering, he said,
but can and should be a reasoned discussion about a real problem.
"Al Qaeda is still out there," he said. "It's a shadow of its former self, but its ability to engage in terrorism remains."
The next president, he said, will need to find a balance between
Mueller's scenario of harmful overreaction and Goldberg's calamitous
consequences of inadequate preparation. Hoffman called it the
"perennial challenge" of terrorism.
"Whomever is elected owes it to the American public to have a full
and substantive discussion about what precisely his administration will
do in terms of important (national security) issues," he said. "Both
candidates have said it's not a matter of popularity, it's about what's
good for the country.
"I'll wait to hear it in regards to terrorism."