In 2001, Fawaz Ismail kept his Northern Virginia flag shop open night after night until midnight, giving away hundreds of flags and flag pins, ministering to the grief of the people with whom he had come to share a country.
Last week, sales at Alamo Flag in Seven Corners were up 20 percent, but there was no mad crush of customers. This time, Ismail found himself not bound up in common cause with his fellow Americans but wondering what the country has learned in nearly 12 years of living with the prospect of terror.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans largely agreed that everything had changed. A broad consensus quickly emerged that to secure the nation, some freedoms had to be sacrificed. But then came years in which, despite warnings from intelligence officials that terrorism would certainly strike at home again, plot after plot was foiled, and no attacks were carried out.
Now that the inevitable has occurred, the impact of evolving attitudes toward terrorism is beginning to come clear as Americans react to the Boston bombing with sadness and anger but also with resilience and confidence.
Americans have rallied around Boston in ways that recall 2001: The crowd at the first Boston Bruins hockey game after the bombing belted out a heart-wrenching rendition of the national anthem. In towns across the country this weekend, ordinary people organized runs to raise money for victims of the bombing and send the message that Americans will not be deterred from reaching the finish line.
But there have been few calls for wholesale changes in defending against terrorism. Americans did not put aside politics this time; the divisive battle over gun control was back atop the news menu within 48 hours of the bombing. The Transportation Security Administration remains scheduled to lift the prohibition on small knives on airplanes starting Thursday.
Despite wall-to-wall coverage of the situation in Boston by the news media, TV ratings were nowhere near the levels sustained after the Sept. 11 attacks, and although most Americans say they tuned in to the coverage, a new Washington Post poll shows just 38 percent following the events “very closely.”
The poll, conducted Wednesday and Thursday evenings, also shows a far more muted public reaction to the bombing than the 2001 terrorist attacks. In 2001, most Americans — 53 percent — said they had changed their daily activities because of the attacks; only 6 percent said so last week. Similarly, 49 percent of those surveyed after Sept. 11, 2001, said they had difficulty concentrating on normal activities because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; only 9 percent reported that kind of impact last week.
No longer unexpected
The Boston bombing was, of course, of a wholly different order than the Sept. 11 attacks, not only because far fewer people were killed, but because the 2001 terrorism was a shock to the nation like nothing had been since Pearl Harbor.
“On Sept. 10, 2001, the notion that there might be terrorism on our soil was totally unexpected to virtually all Americans,” said Roxane Silver, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine who studies how Americans responded to terrorism in 2001 and since. “The scale is really important, and so is the fact that people witnessed the events of Sept. 11 in real time — the towers falling, the second hit, all on live TV. People who see the attacks live responded very differently both physically and mentally in the weeks that followed.”
If the popular response to the Boston bombing seems less panicky, less anxious than what Americans suffered in 2001, Silver said, that’s probably because a decade of government warnings about further attacks muted the shock of last week’s explosions.
“We’ve had more experience, and we’re handling this better. Note that we didn’t go to orange alert this week, we didn’t shut down the airports, we didn’t call out the National Guard across the country,” said Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman and undersecretary of homeland security who recently chaired an independent review of U.S. interrogation practices after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“All of these are signs that we’re more confident about the measures we have in place and more cautious about interrupting our commerce,” he said. “We’re not living in fear.”
In interviews across the country, many Americans said the Boston bombing, though enraging and unsettling, wouldn’t tear the fabric of life as the attacks on New York and the Pentagon did.
R. Conrad Stein, an author of children’s books and a former Marine who lives in Chicago, said images of the World Trade Center came to mind almost immediately after he heard about Monday’s attack. But “nuts with their own selfish agenda” won’t keep him from going to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field, he said.
“There’s absolutely nothing the authorities can do to protect us from these type of crazies,” said Stein, 75. “Are they supposed to search everyone with some type of knapsack? It’s a shame, but we have to handle it.”
After the nation’s security structure was overhauled in the wake of the 2001 attacks, and after years of relative calm at home, vigorous debate developed over the extent of airport security, the rights of terrorism suspects and the authority granted to those who work to keep us safe.
One result of that debate is a stronger sense that the country can withstand and bounce back from terrorism, said Daniel Benjamin, the nation’s top counterterrorism official in the first Obama administration and director of a global affairs center at Dartmouth College.
“More than a decade of public discussion of the importance of resilience has soaked in a bit,” he said. “We as a society still have less resolve woven in than the British or the Israelis, but we’re at a different place than we were 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve ensured that the shock and incapacitation that may have resulted earlier has been diminished. Terrorism as a public concern has diminished greatly.”
“As Americans, we’re going to go ahead and live our lives,” said Gary Gibbons, 62, a tour bus driver from Indianapolis who had just dropped off a group of eighth-graders on Capitol Hill. “You still got to live. It’s a risk, everything you do in life.” And some risks simply can’t be eliminated: “It don’t matter how much you do, it don’t prevent things like that. It’s just going to happen.”
In the Post poll, a new high of 66 percent of Americans said terrorists will always find a way to launch attacks, no matter what the U.S. government does.
Hutchinson said the American public has now lived with terrorism — and a variety of approaches to protecting against it — for long enough to have decided that “we have a deeper commitment to protecting our lifestyle, to guard our security, but to do it in a way that’s consistent with our civil liberties. There’s a sense out there that you’re not going to be able to provide 100 percent security in a free society.”
The review Hutchinson worked on, commissioned by a nonpartisan group called the Constitution Project, concluded last week that “the United States engaged in the practice of torture” in its interrogation and detention efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“As well-intentioned as our responses were post-9/11, in retrospect, we went too far,” Hutchinson said. “On the security side, you can say we spent a lot of money and some of it was wasted.”
That sense that the country may have shifted the balance too heavily toward security measures has colored the way some people reacted to the Boston bombing. Ismail, the flag dealer, went to get his oil filter changed Thursday and found himself staring at the four security cameras on the lube shop’s exterior.
“As an Arab American, I always feel secure in this country because I can live however I want,” said Ismail, who is a Muslim. “But I get sad when I think that instead of just trying to catch the guy who did this, I heard people talking again about my faith, even though we live here in peace, just trying to do for our families like anyone else.”
Some Americans say their discomfort with the restrictions placed on liberties in the first years after 2001 has pushed them to accept that some terrorism is inevitable.
“Our collective safety has been compromised in an extremely profound way, and it’ll never be the same again,” said Mario Giannoni, who spent 32 years on the Chicago police force and teaches criminal justice at the city’s Westwood College.
Giannoni said the Boston bombing won’t affect him or the country as did Sept. 11, which, like Vietnam, he said, fundamentally changed American life. “This is not the America that I had as a little boy,” he said. “How many rights do you give up because of safety?”
Politicians shift messages
Silver, the psychologist who studies responses to terrorism, said that if Americans react to the Boston bombing without the deep anxiety or depression that was widely experienced after Sept. 11, that may be in part because of improved messaging from political leaders.
In 2001, she said, the public heard competing themes from their leaders, with New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani repeatedly “telling us that we’re strong and resilient and the federal government taking a different stance, emphasizing how vulnerable we were.” Silver’s study of reactions to terrorism found that people who grew more cynical about how the government was handling the crisis suffered more acute psychological problems after the attacks.
This time, Silver said, “we’re seeing impressive and consistent messaging about resilience and reminders that we don’t know the perpetrators’ motivations, but we still want to be true to our ideals.”
However the meaning of the attacks is described, the raw violence is enough to frighten many.
“It’s really disturbing — I still can’t deal with it,” said Jose Rubio, 28, a former Marine who lives in Arlington and works as a landscaper and mover. The Boston blasts instantly transported Rubio, who lost friends and an aunt in the World Trade Center attacks, back to those dark days.
“It’s going to keep happening,” said Rubio, sitting near the Court House Metro station. “It’s not the security — it’s just hatred. Right now, a bomb could blow up in this building.”
Living in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the nation, Charlene Cummings, who is 70, hears too often about violence. “I don’t think you ever get used to it,” she said, just as she doesn’t expect terrorism will ever be accepted as routine.
She suffered from nightmares for years after the Sept. 11 attacks but doesn’t expect the Boston bombing to have nearly the same kind of effect. “It’s just really embarrassing that this is happening here,” she said. “This is the land of the free.”
“Hopefully,” she added wearily.
About the poll
The Post poll was conducted April 17 and 18 among a random national sample of 588 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points. The poll was produced for The Post by Capital Insight, Washington Post Media’s independent polling group.
Suzy Khimm in Washington and David Uberti in Chicago contributed to this report.