Democracy and Homeland Security: Strategies, Controversies, and Impact

Part I. Papers Presented in Panels 1–4

September 11, 2001, and Public Opinion: A Commentary

Erin O’Brien, Kent State University

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, purveyors of mainstream American news sources likely drew two conclusions: first, that President Bush and his administration were enjoying extraordinarily high approval ratings (Duffy and Gibbs 2001; Glaberson 2001; Sperling 2002), and second, that Americans felt a renewed—if not universally targeted—sense of patriotism (Kaufmann 2001; Leonard 2001). An article published on September 16, 2001, in the New York Times exemplified much of this coverage, stating, “the crisis has spurred the public to put aside its past reservations about the leadership of President Bush and instead to rally wholeheartedly behind the relatively new president and express confidence in his ability to guide the nation. His job approval rating has soared to 84 percent” (Berke and Elder 2001, 6). Referencing polling data and the dramatic surge in sales of patriotic symbols, other reports concluded that patriotism and solidarity were on the rise (Pignataro 2001; Hopkins 2001; Leonard 2001; Herel 2001) but that these sentiments did not always extend to Muslims and Arab Americans (El Sway 2001; Rodriguez 2001).

Existing academic literature on public opinion and 9/11 paints a more nuanced portrait. When measured by public opinion surveys, there is little doubt that after September 11, President Bush enjoyed the highest level of general approval of any modern president (Huddy et al. 2002a; Hetherington and Nelson 2003; Gaines 2002). However, scholarship questions the onus for this rally around the president (Schubert, Stewart, and Curran 2002), how long it will last (Moore 2002), and whether it is synonymous with support for subsequent administrative policy proposals (O’Brien and Rothstein 2004). Empirical treatments of presidential approval following 9/11 thus call into question whether the American populace truly issued the administration carte blanche for future political action. Ambivalence existed. The public generally supported the president, but this support was conditional and did not necessarily extend into all policy arenas.

On the issue of solidarity and American identity, existing research reiterates points made in the mainstream press: Americans voiced more patriotism, but notions of “us” sometimes excluded Muslims and Arab Americans (Schildkaut 2002). However, the notion of a unified “us” unblemished by Myradal’s color line is problematized by this literature. Many African Americans reported DuBoisian reactions to 9/11 whereby the difficulty of balancing one’s “American” identity with the experiences of civil rights abuses were made highly salient by September 11 (Gilmore 2003). These differentiated responses are witnessed in polling data showing that African Americans were less willing to trade civil liberties for “antiterror” policies post-9/11 and were similarly less supportive of proposals giving government more surveillance power when compared to whites (Davis and Silver 2004; O’Brien and Rothstein 2004). These more critical responses undermine any notion that Americans responded in a singular fashion to 9/11.

Other more general properties of public opinion were also witnessed (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996). For example, civic engagement and trust in government both rose substantially (Traugott et al. 2002; Skocpol 2002). Nonetheless, misinformation characterized many views. As the fallout from 9/11 continued, many Americans believed there was hard evidence linking Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein and that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq (Jones 2002; Kull, Ramsay, and Lewis 2003–04; Moeller 2004). Citizens endorsing these views were subsequently more supportive of the executive administration (Kull et al. 2004).

The picture that emerges from these findings is thus one of an ambivalent American public. Characteristics that normally condition public opinion—like misperceptions and demographic differences in opinion—were witnessed in 9/11 responses. Unique patterns also emerged. Citizens reported surges in civic engagement and general support for the president. Simultaneously, many took more critical views of the administration’s subsequent policy proposals—especially African Americans. The notions of solidarity, so often referenced in the popular press, actually buttressed against increased prejudice toward Arabs, Arab Americans, and Muslims. Sizable minorities also questioned whether the brand of patriotism and solidarity being given the most voice was normatively productive and demographically inclusive. All this undermines the notion of a solidaristic political community singularly united behind governmental policy proposals.

Collectively the three chapters that fall under the panel titled “September 11, 2001, and Public Opinion” build on the above themes while pushing scholarship forward. Gone is the sole focus on American public opinion in the wake of September 11. Public opinion is conceptualized more broadly to include citizens outside of the United States. By placing groups traditionally denied political and social voice center stage in the analysis, the tendency to discuss public opinion about 9/11 without looking for subgroup differences is also lessened. Methodologically, these three chapters move beyond analyzing singular cross-sectional survey instruments. When read in tandem with existing work, these chapters highlight how disparate methodological approaches more fully illuminate public opinion. Collectively, then, these chapters represent a step forward in understanding how public opinion was formulated and voiced after September 11, 2001.

The Chapters Themselves

Several general themes link each chapter, chief among them social and political relevance in the post-9/11 environment. Shiekh’s chapter, “9/11 Detainees and Deportees: Are They Transforming Images of the United States?” examines how visions of the United States evolved abroad in response to American policies of deportation and detention. Shiekh interviewed fifty deportees and detainees from India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey who were forced to return to their home countries after 9/11, as well as their friends and family members. Ethnographic interviews were conducted during fieldwork in each of these countries. This strategy of data collection provides unique insight into public opinion post-9/11: the paper conceptualizes public opinion beyond the borders of the United States and looks at how U.S. policy following September 11 reconstituted images of America in world opinion. Among deportees and detainees, Shiekh finds ambivalent responses toward the United States. Most of the interviewees want to return to the United States because of economic opportunity. Selective deportation for relatively minor offenses produces skeptical views on America’s true commitment to the values it purports to embrace.

Many deportees also report being too ashamed or embarrassed to share their experiences with friends and family in their home countries. This combines with a fear of retribution if they share their experiences. Shiekh’s analysis points to how these responses prevent deportees and detainees from developing a shared injustice frame and engaging in collective action. Yet she also notes how those who shared their experiences were embraced by local communities and how the vision of the United States they detail permeates social networks. The long-term consequences of these findings are discussed in light of the Department of Homeland Security’s formal mission statement.

Walker’s chapter, “Two Years Later: Children’s Understanding of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks,” also relies on interviews to gauge public opinion. She conducted in-depth interviews with children of various ages to address two research questions. First, how do children describe the events of September 11 two years after the fact? Specifically, how much knowledge do they have and what characterizes this knowledge? Second, where did this information come from—particularly what role, if any, did the media play? Walker finds that knowledge and descriptions of 9/11 vary considerably by age. Older cohorts voiced more nuanced opinions. Those children under 6 who held opinions typically described planes crashing into buildings and how people were hurt. Blame was placed on “bad guys,” which usually meant Osama bin Laden. Children between ages 7 and 10 discussed the locale of the attacks more, the deaths that ensued, and the general destruction. Perceived motivations for 9/11 varied from anger at the United States to poverty in the hijackers’ home countries. Adolescents relied more on cultural explanations and U.S. foreign policy decisions when explaining what motivated the attacks and, like their younger counterparts, focused on the destruction that followed. Among each age, Walker found a subset of “critical responses” that questioned how U.S. actions might have contributed to motivation for the 9/11 attacks, as well as confusion between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Several children used the two figures interchangeably. This mirrors the confusion found among adults.

The chapter then documents how television was more influential for opinion formulation among older cohorts. Walker thus found that many children had distinct public opinions two years after September 11, many were quite nuanced, some were critical of the United States, misperceptions were prevalent, and television mattered most for older children. The piece concludes by discussing potential long-term political consequences when children share a collective victimization in their formative years.

The final chapter from Spirek builds on Walker’s emphasis on the media in opinion formulation. Spirek set out to do a meta-analysis of the potential effects of media consumption on attitudes about those living inside and outside the United States. These research questions tap into issues of solidarity, construction of “other,” and the reconstitution of the political community. Spirek was interested in whether American citizens created “us v. them” dichotomies when making sense of September 11. Essentially, did a new racial hierarchy develop? Did individuals differentiate between Muslims, Arabs, Arab Americans, and those who carried out the mission on 9/11? Were these disparate groups unjustly linked? However, Spirek’s analysis cannot answer these important questions. Despite the numerous studies done addressing September 11 and public opinion, not one meets her broadly conceived search criteria. Ultimately, then, Spirek’s piece provides testament to the deep but rather narrow range of inquiry into “public opinion and September 11.” The chapter bears witness to why both Walker’s and Shiekh’s chapters are innovative contributions. Make no mistake; the published work to date is nuanced and important. It asks socially and politically pressing research questions. But Spirek’s chapter lends credence to the idea that numerous important research questions remain.

Links Across Shiekh, Walker, Spirek, and Existing Scholarship

Individually each of these chapters clearly offers much insight. As a collective, five links emerge. The first is a challenge issued by Shiekh and Spirek to think about how political community and democratic group boundaries were reconstituted post-9/11—often in ways that do not produce tolerance. Shiekh shows us this in the international context with the selective racial and religious targeting of detainment and deportation policy. The reevaluation of the United States, its citizens, and its ideals by deportees, detainees, and their friends and families illustrates this in the international context. Spirek’s original research question regarding the media’s role in reconstituting notions of solidarity similarly presses the issue of tolerance and community post-9/11 in the American context. These findings further document bias directed toward Muslims and Arab Americans (Schildkaut 2002).

In Walker’s and Shiekh’s work, a second theme emerges. Walker makes children both her unit of analysis and observation. Shiekh makes deportees, detainees, and their friends and family the central focus. These decisions place aggrieved groups (deportees and detainees) and groups often ignored in politics and public opinion (children) center stage. The opinions uncovered challenge existing notions of a singular opinion response to 9/11. This pushes scholars to conceptualize public opinion more broadly and look for subgroup differences beyond the important ones defined by black and white.

The media’s capacity to cultivate one opinion image, as well as frame public “facts” regarding September 11, are also illuminated in these chapters. Spirek’s original research questions address media influence in these areas as well as the tendency for individuals to believe themselves immune—but others highly susceptible—to media effects. Walker’s analysis demonstrates how the frames that the media rely on when explaining the motivations for September 11 can be internalized across age groups. Regardless of whether there was an actual link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, she finds that children exposed to this media frame were more likely to believe a connection existed. These chapters begin to illuminate the media’s prominent role for opinion and September 11. Simultaneously, they call for more research into potential connections between 9/11, public opinion, and the media.

The next link across chapters concerns the ethnocentrism that emerges when the empirical treatments of public opinion and 9/11 are viewed as a whole. Shiekh’s chapter conceptualized 9/11 as a global event with ramifications for public opinion outside of the United States. Spirek’s original research questions similarly suggested ramifications for public opinion beyond American borders. Globalized visions of public opinion thus characterize these chapters.

The final link across chapters adds further credence to the nuance, ambivalence, and sometimes critical nature of public opinion post-9/11 (Davis and Silver 2004; O’Brien and Rothstein 2004). Critical opinions were voiced following September 11—if not necessarily given much attention in most mainstream media sources. The vast majority that voiced these views were horrified and saddened by the events of 9/11. However, these reactions did not necessarily mean that individuals did not include U.S. actions among their explanations for what motivated the attacks. A subset of children interviewed for Walker’s chapter questioned the motives of the president and wondered how U.S. economic and foreign policy might have provided motivation for the attacks. Shiekh’s respondents certainly challenge the legitimacy of U.S. deportation policy immediately following 9/11—especially its selective enforcement. They highlight how some immediate policy reactions did not conform to democratic principles and how this influenced global opinion of the United States.

The three chapters that form this section thus refine mainstream accounts of public opinion following 9/11. They build and expand on existing empirical literature. Most importantly, they matter socially and politically, and they illuminate the variety of ways in which 9/11 influenced national and international public opinion.


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