Five Years Later, 9/11 Still Resonates; Eight in 10 Say Their Outlook’s Changed

Five years later the shock of 9/11 still echoes across the American landscape. Seven in 10 Americans continue to think about the attack regularly. Nearly eight in 10 say it changed their personal outlook in a lasting way -- for most of them, in a greater sense of insecurity and risk. And ratings of the government's response to terrorism have weakened.

Just 38 percent in this ABC News poll now say the government is doing all it can to prevent further terrorist attacks in this country, a new low -- virtually half what it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And barely over half -- 52 percent, another low -- say the war on terrorism is going well. That peaked at 88 percent the winter after 9/11.

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Fewer than half now say the government has done a good job breaking up the al-Qaeda terrorist network, down 15 points. Many have soured on the reorganization of federal agencies to better fight terrorism. And in the Bush administration's lowest score, just 38 percent say it's done a good job winning international cooperation against terrorism, another low.

Nonetheless, 55 percent say the country is safer now than it was before 9/11 -- down from a high of 67 percent, but still a majority, and still George W. Bush's cornerstone issue. People who say the country is safer are 40 points more apt to approve of Bush's job performance overall -- crucial support as his popularity has ebbed under the weight of the Iraq war.

Three-quarters of Americans are worried that there will be more major terrorist attacks in this country, a level that's held fairly steady since October 2001. Just under half, 46 percent, are confident in the government's ability to prevent such an attack -- roughly average since mid-2002, but 20 points lower than immediately after 9/11.

PERSONAL IMPACT -- On a personal level, about a third of Americans worry that they themselves might be a victim of terrorism, steady the last five years. (That concern peaks among married women with children -- so called "security moms.") Three in 10 adults -- a minority, but still a vast number of individuals -- sometimes feel nervous or apprehensive about another attack when they're in a public place. Four in 10 worry about the risk of air travel (down from six in 10 just after 9/11).

Almost everyone -- 95 percent -- remembers where they were when 9/11 occurred. And about half of Americans, unprompted, call it the single most important world event of their lives. That rises to a majority, 55 percent, of adults under age 50.

Notably more women report an impact: Compared with men, women are 19 points more likely to worry about being a victim of terrorism, 11 points more apt to think often about 9/11 and to say it's changed their personal outlook in a lasting way, 13 points more apt to feel apprehensive about terrorism when they're in public places, and 20 points more apt to worry about air travel. They're also 11 points less likely to say the country is safer now than it was before 9/11.

To some extent, naturally, the grip of 9/11 on the public's consciousness has eased. Seventy-one percent still think about it often, quite similar to what it was in 2002 and 2003. But the number who think about the attacks "pretty much every day" has declined from 40 percent in 2002 to 23 percent now.

OUTLOOK -- Nonetheless, a huge number, 78 percent of Americans, say the 9/11 attacks changed their personal outlook -- how they think or feel about things -- in a lasting way.

When asked, without prompting, how their outlook changed, 57 percent cite personal security concerns -- being more safety conscious (27 percent) feeling more vulnerable (18 percent) or feeling more anxious or suspicious of others (12 percent). All other answers are in the single digits, led by six percent who say they appreciate life more, and five percent who are more aware of world events or international issues.

Just one percent describe themselves as mainly more patriotic since 9/11. Indeed, while 84 percent are proud to be Americans, the number who call themselves "extremely" proud is down from 74 percent in 2002 to 60 percent today. (The war in Iraq is a strong factor: Compared with people who support the war, those who say it was not worth fighting are 30 points less apt to call themselves extremely proud to be Americans.)

Religiosity does not appear to have been affected. Among those who report a lasting change in their outlook, just one percent volunteer that they've mainly become more religious since 9/11. In another measure, 57 percent say religion is "very important" in their own lives -- almost precisely its average in decades of polling. This number rose slightly immediately after 9/11 -- to 64 percent -- but then fairly quickly reverted to norm. It showed a similar blip at the first anniversary, but not since.

ISLAM -- One change related to religion has been in views of Islam. While they've stabilized since earlier this year, they're considerably more negative than a few years ago. Nearly six in 10 Americans are unfamiliar with the tenets of Islam, nearly half hold an unfavorable opinion of the religion -- and one in three believe mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims.

People who lack a good basic understanding of Islam are much less likely to view it favorably or to see it as a peaceful religion. Negative views peak among groups including evangelical white Protestants, Republicans and conservatives.

BUSH -- For his part, Bush stands at the 9/11 anniversary with a job approval rating less than half what it was after the attacks five years ago, dragged down above all by the now steadily unpopular war in Iraq.

Bush, however, is in better shape now than he was this spring, as spiking gasoline prices added to his woes. Today 42 percent of Americans approve of his overall performance in office, up from a career low of 33 percent in May. The advance has come mainly among Republicans returning to their president's side as Election Day 2006 draws closer.

While it's a significant rebound, still the intensity of sentiment remains strongly against Bush. Not only do 55 percent of Americans disapprove of his work, but 43 percent disapprove "strongly" -- significantly outnumbering his strong approvers (24 percent).

Times have changed dramatically since Bush's near-unanimous approval in the "rally 'round" effect shortly after 9/11. His rating spiked to 86 percent on Sept. 13, 2001, and to 92 percent three weeks later, a record high for any president in polls since 1934.

Iraq is chief among Bush's troubles: Fifty-seven percent disapprove of how he's handling the situation there, and again a very large 47 percent disapprove "strongly." Fifty-six percent say that given its costs versus benefits, the war was not worth fighting; a majority has said so continuously now since December 2004. And despite Bush's recent speeches on the subject, 61 percent say the administration doesn't have a clear plan what to do in Iraq. (On this, the Democrats in Congress fare even worse.)

The public, moreover, divides on whether the war has improved long-term U.S. security, its basic rationale: Fifty percent say it has, but 47 percent say not. And just 28 percent say it's done "a great deal" for U.S. security.

CORNERSTONE -- Bush's situation would certainly be worse were he not aided by the issue that has been the cornerstone of his presidency, his administration's response to terrorism. It's been his best issue in polls since 9/11 and the one that won him re-election. Today 53 percent approve of how he's handling terrorism -- more than half, albeit vastly diminished from its post 9/11 level, and well below his career average, 66 percent.

Crucially for Bush, as noted, 55 percent of Americans say the country is safer now than it was before the attacks five years ago. But that view is split by partisanship. While 76 percent of Republicans say the country's safer now than it was before 9/11, that falls to 50 percent of independents and just 39 percent of Democrats.

Other results also show some criticism of Bush's work on terrorism. The number of Americans who say the administration is overstating the level of threat the United States faces has more than doubled since summer 2002, albeit just to 29 percent. As many say the administration is understating the real threat, but that's dropped by 11 points.

As noted, moreover, just 38 percent now say the country is doing all it reasonably can to prevent further attacks, a new low, and down from a peak of 71 percent three weeks after 9/11. Even among the president's core support groups, Republicans, conservatives and evangelical white Protestants, no more than half say the country is doing all it can.

PERFORMANCE -- The administration receives majority positive marks on some specific anti-terrorism efforts -- preventing further attacks, improving anti-terrorism intelligence gathering and reorganizing the government to fight terrorism. But these ratings all are lower than they've been in the past, and as noted, positive ratings fall lower on two others -- winning international cooperation and breaking up al-Qaeda.

Fifty-nine percent, for instance, say the government has done an excellent or good job in improving intelligence gathering, but that's down from 72 percent in 2002. Positive ratings for reorganizing the government have dropped from 71 percent to 54 percent. Even for "preventing further terrorist attacks," positive ratings are 66 percent now, vs. a high of 80 percent in 2003.

The declines in these positive assessments have occurred mainly among Democrats and independents, with Republicans holding steadier for the administration. Notably, its rating on winning international cooperation has worsened by about 20 points among Democrats and independents alike -- while gaining 13 points among Republicans.

In another performance measure, the public roughly divides on whether or not the United States has to capture or kill Osama bin Laden for the war on terrorism to be a success: Fifty-one percent say it's not necessary, 45 percent say it is. This number fluctuated in 2001-2003 polls; in September 2003 more, 62 percent, called it necessary.

SECURITY and PRIVACY -- In the contest between the competing aims of security and privacy, security continues to prevail. By a 2-1 margin, Americans say it's more important right now for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy, than for it to avoid intruding on privacy, if that limits its ability to investigate terrorism.

That doesn't mean people don't value their privacy; rather that they'll tolerate limited and targeted intrusions if and when necessary to combat terrorism effectively. Indeed while six in 10 think the government currently is intruding on some Americans' privacy rights, most of them also think those intrusions are justified. A net total of 24 percent see government intrusion that they think is unjustified -- slightly down from early this year.

Some possible security measures are divisive: The public splits about evenly on security profiling -- whether the authorities should be permitted to use characteristics such as religion, ethnicity or nationality in deciding whom to search in security lines at airports or other locations. Forty-seven percent say it should be allowed; 49 percent say not.

Security that inconveniences everyone equally, however, is much more accepted. Eighty-five percent of Americans say they'd support new airport security measures even if they caused long delays in air travel; 62 percent say they'd "strongly" support such measures. That support and intensity are lower now than immediately after 9/11 -- but their still-high levels today show again how the attacks continue to resonate in U.S. public opinion.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 5-7, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF with full questionnaire and results.

Click here for more ABC News polls.