A solid majority of Americans consistently tell pollsters that they favor attacking Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein. But beneath that bedrock of support lies a deep sense of anxiety.The worries poured out in dozens of interviews conducted in recent days across the nation, from this bustling Atlanta suburb to the North Side of Chicago, from Maryland shopping malls to Los Angeles coffee shops. Americans wonder whether the nation can wage war even as the economy is slumping, and worry that war would make things worse. They are concerned that the Middle Eastern world will label the United States a bully if it attacks Iraq, and they fear retaliation. And there are new fears about North Korea.
"It's a very scary time -- both with the war and the economy," says Jan Wilson, 55, who designs living rooms here when she isn't volunteering at a shelter for abused women. "We're nervous."
To many Americans, one crisis at a time seems manageable. But pile on the worries, and the mind starts to race. The video image of a hospital ship sailing from Baltimore's harbor starts a conversation about global unrest and nuclear threats in Iraq and North Korea, which leads to a gripe session about the cost of sending troops to Iraq, which circles back to the ailing U.S. stock market.
And always, in the background, are worries about the possibility of another massive terrorist attack.
"It's all wrapped together," Gwen Andrews says as she chases her 3-year-old son, Andrew Lane, around Decatur's McKoy Park. "I think we need to be very, very careful."
Andrews, like many Americans -- both those who favor war with Iraq and those who oppose it -- is jittery about the future. Right now, she sees the tenants in her husband's rental homes struggling to pay the rent on time because their hours are getting cut at work. But looking ahead, she predicts bigger problems, and is worrying that a war with Iraq might worsen the economy and eventually backfire, leading to retaliatory attacks on American soil.
Such pessimism has been increasingly palpable in the past year. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last month showed that 57 percent of those surveyed were less hopeful about the world's prospects for the coming year, up from 38 percent the previous December, just three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
More than six out of 10 of those polled favored using force against Iraq. The numbers are familiar. Since November 2001, the percentage of those supporting an attack against Iraq has typically hovered between the low 60s and high 70s, dipping below 60 percent -- to 56 percent -- just once in 11 polls.
But the poll taken last month also suggests that support for using force against Iraq is highly conditional. Support dipped to 42 percent when respondents were asked whether they would favor an attack that involved ground troops and to 30 percent if the attack would result in significant casualties.
Here in Decatur, a racially and economically mixed suburb east of Atlanta, the possibility of war with Iraq appears to be crystallizing fears about the future, in part because the connections are so easily drawn: Everyone knows the United States needs lots and lots of oil, and everyone knows Iraq is oil-rich. Everyone knows that a conflict in Iraq could inflame tensions in the Middle East.
"It's just about oil," Andrews says. "We want this oil; we are so greedy."
Wells Gaines, a 60-year-old retired book binder who lives in Evanston, Ill., envisions a faraway war starting a chain of events that leads back to his own neighborhood.
"The economy is in terrible shape, and it's definitely going to get worse if we go to war," Gaines says. "There will be a ripple effect -- gas and oil prices will go higher, so homeowners will have to pay more, and landlords will have to charge more rent to cover heat costs."
But, for some, the fear of pricey gas and big heating bills is not enough to dissuade them from supporting a war in Iraq.
"I don't want a war. Killing people is bad in my point of view. . . . I don't want to see that," Anthony Gomez, 80, says as he sips coffee at the Montebello Town Center mall on the east side of Los Angeles. "But sometimes we have to . . . It's either them or us."
Gomez's logic makes sense to Sandy Sengebusch, 55, of Sykesville, Md. Sengebusch worries that a slumping wartime economy could cost her the job she took six years ago at J.C. Penney in Columbia, Md., to help pay the mortgage. But that doesn't mean she opposes taking on Hussein.
"You have to go after the bad guys," she says.
Indeed, even as dissent about the war grows on college campuses and peace rallies are planned, the fundamental backing for the war seems to persist. A popular president pushing for war has something to do with it. President Bush's favorable ratings have hovered in the mid 60s in recent weeks, down from the astonishing 90 percent favorable ratings he garnered shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but still extremely high.
Allison Pelot, a staunch opponent of war with Iraq, has gotten weary of the steely glances and pursed lips of pals in her Decatur neighborhood whenever she criticizes Bush.
"If you say anything negative about him, they get really turned off," says Pelot, 30, a personal trainer who biked to McKoy Park with her 17-month-old son, Murphy. "Are we in a Communist nation now that I can't voice my opinion? You're 'anti-American' if you dare to question."
Haiden Turner, 86, a retired high school principal, has heard the same sentiment. But it doesn't worry him. He paid his dues, serving tours of duty in World War II and the Korean War, and no one is going to stop him from planting a blue sign with a dove and the words "War is Not the Answer" on his front lawn in Avondale Estates, a suburb just east of Decatur.
"With the state of the country's finances and the economy, we do not need that expense," Turner says. "I think we are destined for a very stark future."
Candace Woolford, 19, thinks the future is now. She quit her waitressing job after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because the tips got so bad. She tried unsuccessfully for months to get a better job, finally settling for $6.50 an hour, plus 2 percent commission, to sell jewelry at J.C. Penney at the Mall in Columbia. But it's far from a dream job.
"A lot of people don't have money," she says during a cigarette break. "I sell nothing all day."
Now, Woolford says, imagine if war breaks out: People won't have diamonds on their minds, and her $450-a-month rent in Catonsville, Md., will be that much harder to pay.
For a long while, none of this war talk seemed real to Alicia Lew -- not the retired generals analyzing strategy on cable television, not the surprise visits from U.N. weapons inspectors in Baghdad, not the bellicose words from a dictator half a world away. From her little cable television sales kiosk at the same mall where Woolford works, world events seemed almost imaginary, like some weird reality show that airs on CNN. The Persian Gulf War was the same.
But a call from her brother rattled Lew's nerves. "He said he was worried about flying to Jamaica for a vacation because we could be at war any day now," she recalls.
At the time, all she could do was laugh. She thought he was being silly. But then thoughts of war began creeping into her head. She started watching the news more closely. She started to worry. "It's sad to see people dying, no matter where they are from," she says.
Army Maj. Joseph Wagner, of the 121st Engineer Battalion, tries not to talk about the possibility of war too much in front of his wife and children, ages 8 and 2. He doesn't want them to worry.
But Wagner, who lives in Ellicott City, Md., had to say something, so he just told his 8-year-old that he might need to "go help the country" for a while.
Wagner did one other thing, too, but he did it without saying a word to his kids -- he updated his will.
The prospect of soldiers' wills being read to grieving relatives isn't far from the minds of the lunchtime regulars leaning against the counter at the funky Crescent Moon restaurant in downtown Decatur, either. Wilson, the interior designer, lowers her voice when she talks about it. She has so many friends who have children in the military, and she wonders if the younger generation that may soon go off to war really understand the risks.
"They think they're going off for something like [the television reality show] 'Survivor,' " she says. "At that age, you feel immortal."
Amanda Owens, the 25-year-old who holds court behind the counter at Crescent Moon, worries about body bags, too. But, for now, she has other -- more immediate -- concerns on her mind. As the economy gets shakier, she says, it seems as though the people in power are focused on the wrong things. There's too much talk about sending U.S. troops all over the world, she says, and not enough about the environment and people's livelihoods. And she is downright angry about what she perceives as unfair targeting of people of Middle Eastern descent in the United States.
"Who's to say we're not going to end up with people from the Middle East in camps for 'homeland security'?" she says.
Owens can't chase away the unsettling thoughts. She worries about a terrorist strike at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just a few miles away in Atlanta. She frets about bombs going off at Dobbins Air Force Base, near her parents' home in nearby Marietta, Ga.
But when she tries to sort it out, she ends up more uncertain than ever about the future. In that way, Owens is not unlike many Americans balancing work, worries and the possibility of war.
"You never know what can happen tomorrow," Emory University student Yonis Muhiyadin, 23, says as he loads groceries into his mother's car outside the farmers market. "That's the beauty of the future."
Davenport reported from Columbia, Md. Washington Post polling director Richard Morin in Washington and special correspondents Kari Lydersen in Chicago and Kimberly Edds in Los Angeles contributed to this report.