Terrorism in the modern sense first began to enter the American consciousness with the rise of bombings and hijackings in Europe and the Mideast in the 1970s. The first question in our database about the fear of terrorism coming home to the US was in 1981, when the Roper Report found that 35% thought such acts would become very common here in the future, while 42% thought they would happen only occasionally if at all, and 13% thought somewhere in between. By 1985 67% told an ABC News/Washington Post survey that they would be worried about flying on some international flights because of the threat.
The first Gulf War in 1991 brought the fears to a new focus, and more directly raised the issue of terrorist retaliation for US intervention abroad. In a January 1991 Gallup/Newsweek poll, 30% were very worried at the prospect, 34% somewhat, 23% not too, and 12% not at all. The failure of such attacks of materialize led to the ebbing of those concerns –by a 1996 Pew survey only 13% were very worried and 21% somewhat, while not at all had risen to 39%. And while fears of the Y2K computer bug were widespread as the millennium came to a close, only 9% told ABC they were worried a great deal that terrorists would also use the occasion to strike. Thirty-one percent were somewhat worried.
All of that would change, along with much else, on September 11, 2001. With the possibility of large-scale attacks on US soil now a reality, concerns another such event naturally jumped upward. The month following the attacks, 28% were very worried about more strikes, 45% somewhat, 15% not too, and only 11% not at all. By the summer of 2003 13% were still very worried, 45% somewhat, and 29% not too. Terrorism was not, however, the country’s only concern—50% told a Time/CNN/Harris poll that fall that they were more worried about an economic downturn than a terrorist attack in the US, while 43% feared terrorism more.
With the “war on terror” continuing over the following years, concerns about terrorism have not much diminished. In 2006 Pew found 23% very worried, 44% somewhat, and only 10% not at all. In 2010 the responses were 21% very worried, 38% somewhat, 14% not at all. While US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, various isolated incidents in the US and the rise of ISIS in the Mideast given Americans plenty of reasons to maintain their level of concern. Just last month Pew found 25% very worried about terrorism , 39% somewhat, and only 12% not worried at all. Given current conditions in the Mideast and around the world, there is no reason to think these fears will subside anytime soon.
Carl Brown, iPOLL Acquisitions Manager, has been with the Roper Center since 1999, and currently collects and prepares new polls for entry into the iPOLL system and selects poll questions for our daily Twitter and Facebook feeds. He previously worked on the now-retired JPoll system of Japanese poll questions and prepared Elmo Roper’s papers at the Dodd Center.