9/11’s aftermath still haunts us

The Columbus Dispatch – September 11, 2009

Do you think the U.S. government has done a good job protecting the country from terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001?

Who would’ve thought eight years ago when the twin towers tumbled that we’d wrestle so much with how to treat terrorism suspects?

By a narrow margin, we agree with President Barack Obama’s plan to shut down the controversial prison housing several hundred accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

But we sure don’t want any of those prisoners shipped to Ohio.

And we might not like what’s been done to terrorism suspects in our custody, but we feel more like moving on than bringing federal charges against those accused of torturing them.

As America marks another sad anniversary of the worst terrorism attack on American soil, a new poll of Columbus-area residents shows that we think we are as safe now as before Sept. 11, 2001, and express more confidence in the government’s ability to protect us.

And we’re less suspicious of people of Arab descent than in any 9/11 anniversary poll taken by Saperstein Associates for The Dispatch.

“That speaks well of the community,” said Martin D. Saperstein, head of the firm that conducted the poll.

But dealing with terrorism suspects remains an emotional, divisive topic for many. Even coming up with a definition of torture that most would agree with would be difficult, Saperstein said.

Poll participant Rebecca Benjamin, 43, a stay-at-home mother in Dublin, is leery of the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate alleged torture of terrorism suspects by U.S. personnel, potentially leading to criminal prosecutions.

“I actually think we should move on,” Benjamin said. “It is a big can of worms that we don’t really need to open at this point.”

Closing the Guantanamo Bay prison is a “good idea because it shows internationally that we mean business, that we don’t want to do this,” referring to the documented instances of prisoners being mistreated there and to the torture allegations.

However, Terry Ferguson, 62, said his experience as a Marine in Vietnam in 1968-69 teaches him that no Americans, whether soldiers or CIA operatives, should be allowed to break laws or the rules of the Geneva Convention to obtain information.

The retired auto worker from Columbus said he is skeptical that much good information is obtained from torture, contending that a person will say anything to stop being abused.

“The soldier doesn’t have too much out there to protect him,” he said. “If we get into another war with another country, with the precedent we have set we will never be able to hold any person in another country accountable for something. If we don’t show other parts of the world that we are held responsible for our actions, how can we hold them accountable for their actions?”

But, like several respondents, retiree Michael Toy, 65, of West Jefferson, expressed a simple philosophy to get information from terrorism suspects: “Do what you have to do. It’s wartime.”

That’s part of the reason he opposes shutting down Guantanamo.

“I think they need to be over there and get the information out of them they can get,” Toy said.

Worthington’s Eva Tinianow, 81, is part of a minority that not only wants Guantanamo closed but also is willing to take detainees in Ohio prisons.

“I’m OK with that,” she said. “I’m not sure they’re any worse than the prisoners we have now.”

The questions about terrorism brought intriguing demographic divides.

For example, men and Republicans are much more likely to say the U.S. is safer now than eight years ago and that America and its allies are winning the war on terrorism. Women and Republicans are more worried about another attack.

And men, Democrats and those younger than 34 are more apt to trust the government to protect its citizens.

While about half see no difference in the safety of the U.S. under Obama compared with President George W. Bush, those who pick one over the other choose Obama by 8 percentage points. Obama’s margin is boosted by 49 percent of families of those who have served or are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan; 11 percent of these military families say the U.S. was better protected under Bush.

Toy is among a large majority who say their lives haven’t changed a “great deal” because of the attack eight years ago.

“We had deep regret and sorrow and went through all those emotions, but I don’t think we actually changed our living style at all,” he said.

The telephone poll, conducted by random-digit dialing, of 401 adults with Columbus telephone exchanges Aug. 31 through Saturday, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. The response rate was 27 percent of the 1,482 initially contacted to take part in the survey.

Jonathan Riskind and Jack Torry of the Dispatch Washington Bureau contributed to this story.