TWENTY YEARS after the September 11th attacks, America is still fighting the global “war on terror”. Recent events—including the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and suicide-bombings by affiliates of the Islamic State—show that many of the threats present when the twin towers collapsed two decades ago are still present today. And yet a plurality of Americans believe the war has been worth it, according to a new poll by YouGov on behalf of The Economist. Few are confident that Joe Biden, America’s president, is equipped to carry on the fight.
Such views are not confined to Republicans. According to the poll, conducted between September 4th and 7th, a plurality of Americans (43%) believe the “war on terror”, including military operations abroad and increased security and surveillance at home, has been “worth the risk”. Just under a third (30%) disagree, while 28% are unsure. Although there is polarisation across parties—with Republicans much likelier than Democrats to believe that the benefits of the prolonged conflicts outweigh the costs—both groups are likelier than not to think the economic and human price-tags were justified.
Still, most Americans shrink at the prospect of curtailing civil liberties to fight off a future threat. A majority of adults (51%) oppose rolling back “traditional” rights in the name of national security; just a quarter agree such actions might be necessary. The poll also found that Americans are nearly as concerned about the threats posed by strategic enemies, such as China and Russia, as they are about terrorist groups. Most believe antagonistic states such as Iran and North Korea are dangerous as well.
These results suggest that the threat of terrorism remains politically salient, but also that Americans views on what to do about it remain confused and led by events. Far more Americans, for instance, believe that Donald Trump’s policies made America safer than Joe Biden’s, despite the lack of jihadist attacks on American soil during either administration. This view, which in part reflects Mr Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, may reverse over time. Americans also seem to oppose rolling back rights while also believing that the war on terror’s broad, intrusive surveillance has been “worth it”—a circle impossible to square. Yet while Americans may remain confused about how to combat terrorism, what is clear is that 20 years after the attacks, the scars on America’s psyche have not healed.