9/11: Over 20 years, public opinion on wars, terrorism shifted, Pew says

Saturday marks 20 years since Americans witnessed the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil when 19 hijackers took over four jetliners — slamming the planes into the World Trade Center twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives that day. 

Over the past two decades, the Pew Research Center has surveyed Americans to see how they’ve endured the painful memories throughout the years. The center said 93% of people 30 years and older remember exactly where they were on 9/11. 

The center also examined how people’s attitudes have changed over time. For example, many people supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the attacks. But research shows that most people supported the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021, and 69% of U.S. adults said the U.S. has mostly failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.

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Nearly all Americans were depressed, enraged in the immediate days after 9/11

Research showed that between Sept. 13-17, 2001, 71% of Americans said they felt depressed, 49% had difficulty concentrating and 33% said they had trouble sleeping.

At the time, most people still received their news from television which also had an impact on people’s mental state. A survey showed 92% agreed with the statement, "I feel sad when watching TV coverage of the terrorist attacks." 

Meanwhile, 77% also found it frightening to watch – but most did so anyway.

Three weeks after 9/11 attacks, 87% of Americans said they felt angry about the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Fear was also a prominent emotion through the fall of 2001. Most Americans said they were very or somewhat worried about another attack. A year later, about half of the adults said they felt more afraid, more careful, more distrustful or more vulnerable as a result of the attacks.

Researchers found that concerns of terrorism were higher in major cities than in small towns and rural areas. Nearly a year after 9/11, 61% of New Yorkers and 63% of Washingtonians said the attacks had changed their lives at least a little, compared with 49% nationwide. A similar sentiment was shared by residents of other large cities. 

American patriotism and bipartisanship skyrocketed after 9/11

As tragic as 9/11 was, the terrorist attack led to a profound and deep sense of patriotism immediately following the devastation, according to Pew research. 

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By October 2001, 79% of adults said they had displayed an American flag. A year later, a 62% majority said they had often felt patriotic as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

Politics were also pushed aside as 60% of adults expressed trust in the federal government – a level not reached in the previous three decades, nor approached in the two decades since then, according to the center. President George W. Bush saw his job approval rise 35% in the span of three weeks. In late September 2001, 86% of adults – including nearly all Republicans (96%) and a sizable majority of Democrats (78%) – approved of the way Bush was handling his job as president.

Americans also seemed to tap into their faith. In the days and weeks after 9/11, most Americans said they were praying more often. 

Patriotic sentiment and trust in government started to wane in the years after 9/11. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 31% of Americans said they trusted the federal government, half the share who said so in the months after 9/11. By April 2021, only 24% of Americans said they trusted the government just about always or most of the time. As for Bush, his approval rating dropped to 24% in December 2008 at the end of his presidency. 

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Most Americans supported wars following 9/11 — until they didn’t

Americans overwhelmingly supported military action against the terrorists responsible for the attacks. In mid-September 2001, 77% of Americans wanted the U.S. to take military action. In fact, many Americans were impatient, with 49% saying their larger concern was that the Bush administration would not strike quickly enough against the terrorists. Just 34% said they worried the administration would move too quickly.

Support for the war in Afghanistan continued at a high level for several years after 9/11. A 2002 survey showed that a few months after the start of the war, 83% of Americans approved of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. 

But as the conflict dragged on for two decades support wavered and a growing share of Americans favored the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. In June 2009, during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, 38% of Americans said U.S. troops should be removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible. A month after Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid, 56% of Americans said that U.S. forces should be brought home as soon as possible, while 39% favored U.S. forces in the country until the situation had stabilized.

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In 2021 after the tumultuous exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, 54% of Americans said the decision to withdraw troops from the country was the right decision while 42% say it was the wrong decision.

In April 2003, during the first month of the Iraq War, 71% said the U.S. made the right decision to go to war in Iraq. In 2018, 43% said it was the right decision. 

Concerns about the threat of terrorism have dwindled

The Pew Research Center said in January 2002, just months after the 2001 attacks, 83% of Americans said "defending the country from future terrorist attacks" was a top priority for the president and Congress, the highest for any issue. 

In recent years, the share of Americans who believe terrorism is a major national problem has declined sharply as issues such as the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic and racism have become more pressing problems in the public’s eyes.

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For example, in 2016, 53% of Americans said terrorism was a very big national problem in the country. From 2017 to 2019, that number declined to 40%. Last year, only 25% of Americans said that terrorism was a very big problem.

9/11 precipitated a shift in Americans’ views of Islam

Despite the spirit of unity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, researchers said it didn’t last. In a September 2001 survey, 28% of adults said they had grown more suspicious of people of Middle Eastern descent. That increased to 36% several months later.

The Pew Center said Republicans increasingly came to associate Muslims and Islam with violence. In 2002, just a quarter of Americans – including 32% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats – said Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers. Today, 72% of Republicans and 32% of Democrats express this view, according to an August 2021 survey.

Many people in the Muslim community are feeling targeted. Surveys of U.S. Muslims from 2007-2017 found more and more Muslims saying they have personally experienced discrimination and received public expressions of support.

"In many ways, 9/11 reshaped how Americans think of war and peace, their own personal safety and their fellow citizens," the study’s authors said. "And today, the violence and chaos in a country half a world away brings with it the opening of an uncertain new chapter in the post-9/11 era."