Attitudes towards the war on terror and the war in Afghanistan: a ten-year review

Michael L. Casteel/US Army

U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph Evans scans the area through a pair of binoculars while Spc. Brendon Quisenberry pulls rear security during a security halt on a route reconnaissance mission near Mir-e, Afghanistan, Apr. 4, 2007.

Article Highlights

  • Americans say that #Bush made us safer, and #Obama has kept us safe

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  • In concern for civil liberties, do Americans think the #government has gone too far or not far enough?

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  • Is it true Americans support re authorization of the #PATRIOT Act?

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In the decade since September 11, 2001 AEI public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman has tracked Americans' views on terrorism and the War in Afghanistan. As the tenth anniversary of those attacks draw near, AEI is releasing the results of that work. Dozens of pollsters have asked over a thousand questions, and Bowman and researcher Andrew Rugg have compiled that data into a tremendously useful resource.

The proportion of Americans that believe the United States is winning the war against terrorism has fluctuated.

9/11 and the War on Terror

  • Americans believe there will be another terrorist attack, but they don't believe they will be victims. 69% told CBS News/New York Times pollsters in May 2011 that there would be another terrorist attack on our soil. In another CBS question, 22% were concerned about an attack where they lived.
  • At a time when criticism of government is widespread, Americans believe the country is safer due to the government's efforts. They also believe George W. Bush made us safer and that Barack Obama has kept us safe. 69% told Pew that the government was doing very or fairly well in reducing the threat of terror. 50% in 2008 told CBS that George W. Bush had made the country safer; 21% said less safe. 63% approved of the job President Obama was doing handling terrorism in a June 2011 Quinnipiac poll.

The War in Afghanistan

  • Americans continue to believe that the initial decision to send troops was the right one. In 16 questions asked by Gallup since 2001, a majority has said it was not a mistake to send military forces to Afghanistan. In May 2011, 58% gave that response.
  • After the surge in Iraq, when most pollsters turned their attention back to Afghanistan, Americans were more critical about our involvement in the war. In summer 2011 Quinnipiac and CBS polls, majorities said we shouldn't be involved now.

Conduct of the War

  • Concern about civil liberties for "average Americans" has risen over the past ten years. 61% in mid-September 2001 Pew polling said the average person would have to give up some civil liberties; 27% gave that response in 2009.
  • Still, Americans think the current balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting the nation is satisfactory. They tilt in the direction of government actions to protect the country. More say the government's policies have not gone far enough than have gone too far (47% and 32% respectively in Pew's polling).
  • Americans supported reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act (53% a good thing in a 2006 Fox poll, 30% bad thing). Majorities believe it is acceptable to monitor phone calls of people suspected of terrorism without court approval. Americans don't want to use torture. Still, only 25% in a 2009 Pew poll said it is never justified. Americans are understandably cautious about assassinations but believe killing Osama bin Laden was the right thing to do (80% in an NBC survey). 60% in a CNN/ORC survey from March 2010 wanted to keep Guantanamo open.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI. Andrew Rugg is a research assistant at AEI.

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