Normal, but not the same
Three years after 9/11, foreign affairs and safety loom larger.
As the US marks the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans are paying more attention to the rest of the world than they have in a generation. They're also more focused on this presidential race than in years past, which could portend a higher voter turnout - especially among young people.
Virtually everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing when the airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And about 1 in 4 Americans still worries about becoming a victim of terrorism, according to a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll. Yet they're more concerned about losing their job or not being able to pay their bills, and only half of those who worry about terrorism say it affects how they live.
Most Americans have gotten over the shock and gotten on with their lives, experts have found. In the months following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there were high if short-term levels of stress and depression, particularly among those who lived near the attack sites. (Women tended to report this more than men.) But with the exception of those who lost loved ones in the attacks, feelings and attitudes have returned to normal for the most part.
"It's definitely not true that '9/11 changed everything'," says Tom Smith, director of social surveys at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Most people no longer hesitate to fly on commercial aircraft or to visit large cities, says Dr. Smith, who studies social and psychological responses to 9/11. And while Americans feel strongly that the country must be vigilant against future attacks, this no longer means being constantly suspicious of strangers. "I'm a little more alert, but I try not to dwell on it," says Candace Lopez, a young mother of three in Huron, Ohio. "I don't like to live afraid."
Not having had anything major happen here since then no doubt is a factor. Probably just being separated from most of the world by oceans helps Americans feel a (perhaps unjustified) sense of security.
Another reason for a return to normalcy, says Mr. Smith, is that public anger over the attacks was quickly channeled into the "war on terrorism" - more so than into grief or fear, which was the case when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and many people felt shame and helplessness. While politicians and national security experts may debate the issue, most Americans do sense some connection between international terrorism and the war in Iraq, and therefore believe them to be related to 9/11.
At the same time, what was a surge in national pride and popularity for President Bush has returned to more normal levels. The presidential campaign - perhaps the most polarizing in decades - no doubt is part of this. "For a while, it was as if the whole world was together," says Mary Galbraith, an English professor at San Diego State University. "But that's been replaced by partisan politics."
For the first time since the Vietnam era, Americans are more interested in foreign affairs and national security than they are in the economy. There are several reasons for this, but the 911 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a factor.
Americans are "acutely aware of and worried about the loss of international respect for the United States, given disillusionment over Iraq," according to a recent Gallup survey, and most think this is a major problem for the US. A large plurality believes that US foreign policy should strongly take into account the interests of US allies rather than be based mostly on national interests, the Pew Research Center reported last month. A survey by the German Marshall Fund and Compagnia di San Paolo finds that most Americans want the US and the European Union to have a closer partnership.
"It used to be when I looked at international affairs, they were truly international, but in the distance and not happening here," says Shara Greenberg, a paralegal in Manhattan. "Now it's like there's the possibility that they'll happen here."
Still, Americans have become "significantly less likely to say that US involvement in Iraq was a mistake," says Gallup Poll editor-in-chief Frank Newport. The number of Americans in this category has dropped to 38 percent, reports a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released this week. That's down from 54 percent who said just two months ago that they thought the US "made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq."
The "new normal," following such a shocking attack on US soil, apparently includes being more aware and engaged politically. Americans three years after 9/11 are paying much closer attention to the presidential election, which could result in a higher voter turnout. Far more people say "it really matters who wins" than was the case in 2000, a Pew survey finds.
Whether it's talk of a military draft, an increasingly uncertain future for Social Security, or heightened debate about such hot-button issues as abortion and gay rights, young people in particular are giving the election more thought. Matt Norris, an Alabama native studying accounting at San Diego State University, definitely plans to vote. "I'm concerned about the direction of the country," he says.
All of this relates back to 9/11. And while most people have gotten on with their lives and feel relatively safe and secure, a certain wariness may be returning - connected, perhaps, to recent terrorist attacks abroad and a war in Iraq that has gone on far longer and cost far more than many had anticipated.
For example, amid what seems to be a return to normalcy, and despite Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's frequent warnings, Americans are increasingly skeptical about Uncle Sam's ability to protect them from terror attacks. Recent survey data gathered by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion shows that Americans' confidence in the US government to protect them has dropped from 62 percent last year to 53 percent - just 43 percent for protecting public transportation.
"They did it once and they could do it again," says Kathy Kelly, a medical secretary and personal trainer in Avon Lake, Ohio. "There's always going to be a threat because there is terror, there are strange people in the world."
• Lisa Abend in Elyria, Ohio; Randy Dotinga in San Diego; and Alex MacRae in New York contributed to this report.