Terrorism fears found greater today than after 9/11

The Columbus Dispatch – September 10, 2007

Every year, fewer and fewer think our country is safer than before the 2001 attack. In fact, about two-thirds of us have concluded that the war on terror is essentially a stalemate.

We’re actually a bit more worried that our family will become a victim of a terrorist attack today than we were a mere year after the New York skyline was changed forever.

And despite six years of reassurances about mainstream Islam, we’re still not too sure about Muslims or people of Arab descent.

And that was before Osama said he’d leave us alone if we’d all just convert.

The latest in a series of polls of Columbus-area residents for The Dispatch by Saperstein Associates demonstrates continuing suspicion of those of Arab descent. A little more than 40 percent admitted to such sentiments the year after the terrorist attack, and the figure has hovered in that neighborhood ever since.

Poll respondent Henry Spohn, 71, a retired electronics worker, is one who readily concedes he is more suspicious of Arabs because of 9/11: “Why wouldn’t I be?”

A set of new questions about Islam shows that two-thirds think that the terrorist threat from Islamic fundamentalism is constantly growing and presents a real, immediate danger to America.

A bare majority thinks that U.S. Muslims are equally loyal to this country and Islam. But of the remainder, those suspecting that American Muslims’ loyalties lie more with Islam make up nearly a 2-to-1 majority.

And in a test of just how extreme attitudes might turn if America is hit again by radical Muslims, one in five says that, if the U.S. is hit again, Muslims should be rounded up and herded into detention camps.

That percentage is disturbing, said Martin D. Saperstein, president of the polling firm, noting America’s unfortunate dealings with Japanese-Americans during World War II.

“I guess I think it’s unfortunately high but not surprising,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are not tolerant, and this is just an indication of that.”

But respondent Maurice, who would give only his first name, says he legitimately wonders whether some Muslims in America would side with terrorists.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” he said. “Everyone who is a non-Muslim has the same question. When push comes to shove, what are they going to do? I think most Americans are more suspicious of Muslims” since 9/11.

Two men based in central Ohio have been convicted in terrorism cases, and another has been charged. Nuradin Abdi proposed blowing up a local mall; Iyman Faris studied destroying the Brooklyn Bridge. Christopher Paul, a native of Worthington and a Muslim convert, is charged with helping train terrorists for bomb attacks on Americans overseas.

Doug Bryant, 45, an unemployed New Albany resident, said that probably has bolstered doubts among Columbus-area residents.

“It’s just a shame, that mistrust of Muslims,” he said. “But they have caught people here in Columbus. They are legitimately out there.”

Saperstein said the negative aura of the Iraq war is showing up in people’s fears about terrorism.

“This is just reflecting an increasing frustration,” he said. “People are unhappy with the war; they see lots of casualties, they see foreign leaders not praising American policy, they feel we’re less safe as a country.”

President Bush and the Iraq war “have made us a bigger target for terrorists and made us less safe than after 9/11,” said survey participant Brian O’Brien, 50, a computer security specialist at Ohio State University.

He said he doesn’t feel any less safe personally, nor does he worry particularly about terrorism in central Ohio. But nationally, “I don’t think the government has done more to protect us. I don’t think the lack of terrorism (in the U.S. since 9/11) is caused by the government’s actions to protect us. It is a matter of time before (an attack) happens somewhere.”

If an attack were to hit central Ohio, O’Brien worries that authorities would not be prepared to handle the aftermath.

“The entire country is unprepared,” he said. “Katrina proved that.”

Barely a fifth of those polled said that local authorities are prepared to prevent a terrorist attack on Columbus. Saperstein said, however, that many respondents may think federal officials, not the locals, are the main bulwark against terrorism.

The telephone poll of 400 randomly selected adults with Columbus phone exchanges was conducted from Aug. 28 through Sept. 3. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. The response rate was 24 percent.