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9 September 2011

What is the lasting legacy of 9/11?

Ten years after the twin towers fell, research indicates that it has not had a lasting effect on people's lives.

By Helen Cleary and Jerry Latter

Much has been written about the impact of 9/11 — on foreign policy, on domestic security, on attitudes towards defence and terrorism and on the role of religion in society, among many other areas of life. However, while the terrorist attacks on the US undoubtedly changed the world in many ways, and certainly created enormous anxiety at the time, our research indicates that it has not had as lasting an effect on people’s lives, or on their outlook on key issues, as some commentators suggest.

The increase in public anxiety in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 cannot be underestimated. This was demonstrated by the increase in concern about defence and foreign affairs in our monthly Issues Index — since we started this survey in 1974 no other single issue has ever rocketed in importance as did defence/foreign affairs as a result of 9/11. Just 2 per cent were concerned about this issue in August 2001, compared with three-fifths (60 per cent) a month later.

However, defence/foreign affairs tends to be an issue that burns brightly in the public’s consciousness then plummets as quickly as it ascends. By January 2002, four months after the attacks, just 13 per cent rated this as an important issue. This is a pattern we see regularly; we saw similar peaks in concern after the invasion of Iraq and the London bombings with concern falling back shortly afterwards.

ipsos graph

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We saw a similar pattern in public reactions to a military response. After 9/11, public opinion was initially in favour of military action. A News of the World/ MORI poll conducted three days after the attacks showed overwhelming support for military action against “the groups or nations responsible”- three quarters (75 per cent) supported this, and the same proportion supported the involvement of British troops (74 per cent). While fewer supported military action if this entailed getting involved in a war, and there was more opposition than support for such intervention if it involved the deaths of innocent civilians, around half of the public still supported action, even with these caveats.

However, support in Britain has tailed off over time. In October 2001, over half (56 per cent) of the British public felt that the conflict in Afghanistan would be effective in achieving its aims, however, this fell to two fifths (38 per cent) by 2009. By this time, over half of the public opposed Britain’s ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan.

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Ipsos’ Global Advisor data shows that the majority (87 per cent) of the British public welcomed the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but only one in ten felt that this would result in fewer terrorist attacks or that Britain would feel safer as a result (11 per cent and 9 per cent respectively). Indeed, half of Britons believe it will result in more terrorist attacks, indicating that the constant threat of recriminatory attacks between terrorists and sovereign states is one of the results of 9/11.

So what is the lasting legacy of 9/11? When we asked the public a month after the twin towers fell, almost four fifths (77 per cent) felt that it had changed the world forever. However, only three in ten (29 per cent) thought that it would change their lives forever. Indeed, the short-lived concern about defence as an issue facing Britain and the public’s declining support for intervention in Afghanistan both support the conclusion that, although the repercussions of 9/11 are still being felt in political circles, there has been little lasting impact upon British values or the issues that people are most concerned about in their day-to-day lives.

Helen Cleary is Head of the Politics at Ipsos MORI and Jerry Latter is a researcher at Ipsos MORI

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