The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Have Americans become complacent in the face of terrorism?

In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell posed a provocative question in the wake of the Boston bombings: Have Americans become complacent about the risk of terrorism?

“On 9/11, we were forever disabused of the notion that attacks like the one that rocked Boston yesterday only happen on the field of battle, or in distant countries,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “With the passage of time, however, and the vigilant efforts of our military, intelligence and law enforcement professionals, I think it’s safe to say that, for many, the complacency that prevailed prior to September 11th has returned. And so we are newly reminded that serious threats to our way of life remain.”

To some extent, McConnell is right. President Obama on Tuesday felt compelled to remind Americans that they should report any package or situation that seems unusual to law enforcement. "This is a good time for all of us to remember that we all have a part to play in alerting authorities,” Obama said during a news briefing. “If you see something suspicious, speak up." (Even the catch phrase “see something, say something” has become “background noise," according to Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security.)

Americans still see terrorism as a high-stakes public policy issue, though it has almost disappeared altogether from their list of the nation's top problems. A Gallup poll released Monday -- which was conducted in early April -- found zero percent of Americans volunteering “terrorism” as the country's most important problem. Terrorism has ranked at 1 percent or below in six separate priorities polls conducted before the Monday Gallup poll, compared to above 20 percent in the year after the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Part of this stems from the fact that most Americans believe the country is safer since Sept. 11; two-thirds of respondents held that view in a Washington Post-ABC News poll in 2011.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said the fact that Americans have not been on a heightened state of alert recently shows that "life just normalized after the attacks and following the creation of a rather elaborate counterterrorism program."

"That is the objective of effective policies," Zelizer wrote in an e-mail. "That said, like before 9/11, it is clear that there are many areas of national security that still need work -- from sporting events to "soft target" terrorism (broadly defined) in places of commerce like malls. This event is likely to prompt renewed attention to what needs to be done to strengthen our security, as much as possible, in those areas."

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said in an interview that much of the challenge has been hidden from public view.

"You’re dealing with evil people who are very hard to control, and frankly there are sleeper agents that we’ve found in the past that have been here for years, and they show up and you had no idea," Hatch said. "Generally, we’re an optimistic people in this country, and we generally believe we’re going to be all right, and that’s what we want people to believe, but we also have to do a better job.”

The fact that major cities such as New York have been successful in heading off potential terrorist acts has allowed Americans to feel more secure when out in public. But, Greenberger said, the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon serves as “a stark reminder we live in dangerous world and we’ve got keep our guard up.”

“It’s just a sense that since nothing’s happened since September 11th, the guard has been let down a bit,” Greenberger said in an interview. “The silver lining from this is they’re going to be built back again.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Monday's strike "shows we’re still vulnerable."

"Now, do we want to change our everyday lives?" he asked. "No. but I think we need to recognize that we’re still a country that needs to maintain a high level of security and balance that security as an open society."

Capital Insight survey research analyst Scott Clement and staff writer Aaron Davis contributed to this report.