In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans responded with increased national pride and confidence in political institutions and fellow citizens, according to the recently released National Tragedy Study by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation as well as private foundations, used questions from NORC's annual General Social Survey to measure the reaction both of Americans nationwide and New Yorkers in particular to the event.
"People certainly feel more supportive and proud of being an American and had more confidence in institutions than is generally seen," said Kenneth Rasinksi, a NORC senior research scientist who co-authored the report along with Tom W. Smith, the director of the General Social Survey at NORC. "We compared our results with those of the General Social Survey done every year. We used the same questions so we could make that comparison and found that people rallied around the flag," Rasinski said.
The study found that 77 percent of the over 2,100 United States residents questioned expressed high confidence in the military compared to 61 percent during the Gulf War and 50 percent in previous NORC surveys. Additionally, people expressed more confidence in organized religion, corporations, and congress than in surveys over the last three decades, and 97 percent of those polled said they would rather be citizens of the U.S. than any other country, a seven percent increase.
In addition to comparing Americans' reactions to the yearly General Social Survey, the study also contrasted public political and emotional reactions with those of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, also studied by NORC. Researchers asked a variety of questions about people's emotional and physical responses and found that Americans were considerably more affected after the Kennedy assassination. Many felt ashamed and angry then compared to feeling simply angry after the September 11 attacks.
"In comparison to what NORC found when President Kennedy was shot, we found that the national response based on the physical indicators was not as great. People reacted more after Kennedy was shot than after the terrorists' attack, except for New Yorkers, who reacted as much or more," Kasinski said. "We thought that this being another crisis of great magnitude, we would find a similar response to that of the Kennedy assassination."
According to Rasinski, a possible reason for the different reactions is habituation due to increased tumult and national disasters over the last 38 years and increased exposure by the media. The study found that only 15 percent of Americans were informed of the September 11 events from personal contact compared to 36 percent in 1963. "Perhaps we just live in a more volatile world," Rasinski said. "Or perhaps we just have a way of communicating that volatility through the media more graphically, and people are getting more habituated to disaster."
NORC is also still in the process of investigating the differences in American opinions of these two events as international and national events. Preliminary findings indicate that while Americans internalized the Kennedy assassination, they regarded the September 11 bombing as an international attack.
"We haven't really finished counting the responses up, but so far roughly two-thirds thought this was a terrorist attack from outside the country," Rasinksi said. "There were two questions that were asked: Did this make you angry? And did you feel ashamed that this might happen? In 1963 both anger and shame were predominant; in this situation anger was very predominant and shame was next to nothing. It's not the kind of thing we are internalizing as a country; people recognized it as a blatant attack that just made them really angry."
Unlike typical NORC studies, which often take many months, the National Tragedy Study was both initiated and completed with startling rapidity. "Our goal was to get immediate reactions so we started our data collection on Thursday [September 13], which for an organization like NORC is pretty remarkable. We were done two weeks later, before the anthrax started," Rasinski said.
NORC is currently seeking funding for further studies. "We are hoping to do a follow up. I am sure we will include questions about how people are reacting to the current scare, and we will also be able to relate that to their responses to the World Trade Center attack," Rasinski said.
The National Tragedy Study and other NORC studies are used as raw data to provide comprehensive analysis for Congress on issues of policy as well as to University faculty engaged in research. "We try to have a strong social science base so the studies will have some enduring value," Rasinski said. "We are also planning to look at the public health implications to the September 11 event, which is something that the pollsters can't provide."