Fears among Americans about terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have risen sharply a week after a major assault in Paris killed 130, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, which finds a majority believing that the country is at war with “radical Islam.”
Fully 83 percent of registered voters say they believe a terrorist attack in the United States resulting in large casualties is likely in the near future, rising from 73 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month asking the same question. Forty percent say a major attack in the United States is “very likely,” up eight percentage points since last week’s attacks to match the record level of concern recorded after the 2005 subway bombings in Britain.
The Post-ABC poll finds that a majority of Americans want the United States to join a military response to the Paris attacks, including increasing airstrikes and sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for last week’s mayhem.
But the poll also finds evidence of the public hesitation about a major military commitment, with more saying the United States should play a supporting role, and only one-third of all respondents supporting deployment of large numbers of ground forces.
The findings underscore the heightened anxiety many Americans feel after the Paris attacks, as well as a broader dissatisfaction with President Obama’s approach to terrorism. They come as the House voted Thursday by a large majority — 289 to 137 — to restrict Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States, despite a White House veto threat, and as several Republican presidential candidates are urging stricter controls on admitting refugees and a deeper military involvement overseas. The poll finds that over half of adults oppose accepting refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, even if they are screened for security.
Rather than rally around the commander in chief, the public’s ratings of Obama on dealing with terrorism have fallen to a record-low 40 percent, with a smaller 35 percent approving of his handling of the Islamic State. Obama’s ratings on terrorism have fallen seven points since January, driven largely by a 20-point drop among political independents and an 11-point drop among moderates.
Ken Kaas, a 50-year-old heavy-equipment operator in Pottstown, Pa., described the president’s approach in a single word: “Horrible.”
“I just think he’s just politically correct, doesn’t want to ruffle feathers and is not a strong leader,” said Kaas, a Republican, who added that he preferred the strategy espoused by many GOP presidential candidates. “They’re stronger, and they seem to be more caring of Americans and our cause, as opposed to trying to appease the world.”
The Paris attacks also appear to have bolstered public support for circumventing civil liberties to pursue potential terrorists. A 72 percent majority say the federal government should investigate possible terrorist threats even if they intrude on personal privacy, rising nine percentage points since January to the highest level since 2010.
Still, some surveyed said that Obama was right to defend his refugee policy and that Americans need to be wary of overreacting to the prospect of a strike on U.S. soil.
Tracey Lessard, a 45-year-old from Haddonfield, N.J., who works at a start-up and lived in New York City at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said that while “there’s a potential to have one” at any time, singling out immigrants from the region “is giving ISIS what they want; it’s going to polarize Muslims versus us.
“I want some of these people to be reminded where their families came from,” she said of those calling for tighter immigration rules.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents say the United States is “at war with radical Islam,” while 37 percent say it is not. Republicans have embraced the term and criticized Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for not using it. Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, says “radical Islam” wrongly conflates Islamist jihadists with the teachings of Islam and Muslims more broadly, but fellow partisans do not appear to have such reservations. Fifty-two percent of Democrats say the nation is at war with radical Islam.
The Post-ABC poll finds middling confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to prevent an attack; 45 percent have at least a “good amount” of confidence, while 55 percent report only a “fair amount” or no confidence at all.
Concerns about government competence are also clear on the issue of refugees fleeing Syria. Americans lack confidence that the federal government could screen these applicants properly.
Fifty-four percent say the United States should not take refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East, even if they are screened for security. Only 13 percent of Americans are “very confident” that the United States could identify and keep out possible terrorists who could be intermixed. Thirty-four percent are “somewhat confident,” while 52 percent have less confidence or none at all.
Charles H. Moore, a retired Weyerhaeuser employee in Pinetown, N.C., who voted twice for Obama, said the president shouldn’t be so dismissive of people’s concerns about letting in refugees from Syria and Iraq. “I don’t like what he said about, ‘You’re scared of little children, of 3-year-olds.’ In Vietnam, little children were killing people, little children were blowing people up,” said Moore, a 66-year-old Democrat whose cousin fought in the Vietnam War. “With all this stuff going on, it’s got to really be looked into before we make decisions about letting in refugees. Because we could be hiding our own enemy.”
Moore said he would support sending more ground troops to the Middle East, adding that he thought a large-scale domestic attack was likely. “I understand Washington, D.C.’s next.”
Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Americans tend to overestimate the likelihood of a terrorist strike within the United States because “we are, as humans, hard-wired to perceive unspecific and foreign-sounding and unclear information in a threatening manner.”
Neither politicians nor journalists have done enough to provide sufficient context for this threat, Zenko said. In the past decade, 18 to 20 Americans a year have died because of terrorism, he noted, and most of those deaths occurred in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.
“Where Americans have gone to war against terrorism, that’s where people die from terrorism,” he said. “Politicians are going to do what
they do, because it’s largely consequence-free to do threat inflation.”
Despite these fears, Americans seem overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of screening refugees on the basis of their faith, an idea Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) have raised. Obama has sharply criticized applying such a test.
When asked whether Christian asylum seekers should be given priority over Muslims and people of other groups facing persecution from the Islamic State, more than three-quarters say all groups should be treated equally regardless of their religion.
“I’m all for religion, but I don’t think we should necessarily base it on that,” Moore said.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted before gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Mali on Friday. That hostage crisis has only intensified concerns about the threat of terrorist strikes in some vulnerable African countries.
The survey took place Monday through Thursday among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, on cellular and landline phones. Results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is four points among the sample of 834 registered voters.
For a graphic of the full poll, go to wapo.st/terrorismfears-poll.