The greatest threat to U.S. national security for over 70 years, the spread of communism, shriveled rapidly in 1989-1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Prior to 1989, the Soviet military build-up terrorized opponents and made it the No. 1 terrorist threat to the United States. The 1940 murder of Leon Trotsky, a one-time Stalin rival, in Mexico City, confirmed that communist terrorists had global reach, 61 years before Sept. 11, 2001. A Gallup question in 1947 when the Cold War was starting found that by almost 3 to 1 (66%-23%) the public saw communism as a serious threat to our democratic government. The question was never asked again. Everyone believed that the threat was only increasing in strength and clarity. It would be the waste of a question to repeat that question.
The made-for-TV events of 9/11 shifted the thinking of Americans to a totally different image of terrorists. Overnight, the No. 1 terrorist threat to the United States became Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. But during the intervening years of 1992-2001, Bill Clinton was president and the No. 1 terrorist threat was something we have almost forgotten today.
The 1992 assault at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the collapse of the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas, a year later, seemed excessive use of murderous force by federal agents in the minds of some Americans (29%, NBC/WSJ 6/95), especially those who prized the Second Amendment Constitutional right to bear arms and participate in well-regulated militias. In the next few years, credible stories spread that people's militias were forming and training around the country with intention to strike against the government and any who would stop them. Most Americans thought of militias as potential terrorists in increasing numbers (70%, NBC/WSJ 6/95) rising to 83% two years later, (Pew 6/97).
On April 9, 1995, half the Murrah Building in Oklahoma collapsed from a truck bomb explosion killing 168 people. This most "heinous terrorist attack in the history of the United States," the media concluded, must have been organized by militia elements. In the absence of alternative evidence, that view was widely adopted.
Within two weeks of the bombing, by a curious stroke of luck, Timothy McVeigh was arrested and soon admitted a role in the bombing. Although the FBI seemed to have enough evidence for an indictment of McVeigh, for two years it delayed bringing him to trial as the FBI prosecutors desperately sought the militia elements supporting him that their theory expected. Terry Nichols was clearly a McVeigh accomplice, but did not participate in the bombing itself and neither one had any discernible links to militias. They were two loners.
The FBI, abandoning their cherished militia theory, finally brought McVeigh to trial and got a conviction in less than two months. But sentencing took more than another two years. If he was put to death, all chance of the prosecution getting the full explanation they had sought before and during the trial -- and believed could ultimately be found -- would be gone. McVeigh's insistence on calmly asserting that his action was reasonable and necessary to bring the government to its senses was a very unsatisfactory confession on which to base a sentence. McVeigh's absence of remorse made victims' loved ones demand the death penalty, a view that ultimately prevailed. As the government wrestled with these options, however, four more years slipped by with the convicted but not sentenced McVeigh remaining incarcerated, cool and uncooperative.
It was only upon his execution, six years after his arrest, that the public too gave up expecting the emergence of a militia connection. At the midpoint of a transition between two eras, two months before McVeigh's execution on July 11, 2001, (exactly two months before 9/11), Fox News found "terrorists from foreign countries" were thought slightly "more of a threat than homegrown terrorists such as McVeigh" (41% to 39%). During the nine long years after the murder at Ruby Ridge, anyone thinking "terrorist," was increasingly likely to think "militia".
After 9/11, the image of the serious terrorist was totally transformed from militias to suicide bombers -- Muslim extremists, based in the Middle East, and supported by the global reach of the al Quaeda network. The new terrorists, being vicious, resourceful, largely foreign, anti-Christian and anti-Israel, represented a mighty challenge to the sole superpower, the United States. The administration of President George W. Bush, endorsed by Congress, declared "War on Terrorism." The war would be fought largely on enemy territory (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) where the overwhelming U.S. military capability could be brought to bear in countries harboring terrorists, while the U.S. homeland remained protected.
Osama bin Laden's credibility in much of the Muslim world skyrocketed. Al Qaeda shifted operations into countries friendly to them, some the very countries that Bush was choosing to invade. Some in the CIA believed that the Bush invasions were exactly the reaction that bin Laden and al Qaeda knew would most advance their cause. That both bin Laden and Bush prefer fighting in the same places exhibits a classic co-dependency of the two men.
To most Americans who realize how vulnerable the United States is to major terrorist attacks, it seems incredible that such attacks will not likely occur again. Getting a group of suicide bombers with the competence to successfully plan, train for, and execute a major attack that gets as much TV coverage as the 9/11 events, is difficult, risky, and likely to fail. So far, there have been no such attacks for the 26 plus months following 9/11/01. I continue my prediction, first published on July 1, 2003, in The Polling Critic column, "Defeating Terrorism": Al Qaeda now prefers attacks outside the United States. The absence of new major terrorist attacks in the United States is very likely to continue indefinitely.
Reactions to 9/11 events by our political leaders, such as the War on Terrorism and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and largely supported by mainstream media) were enormous and indeed changed the world completely, but only became coherently formulated beginning with Bush's State of the Union address in January 2002. Prior to that, in the three months following 9/11, the people were reacting primarily to the events of 9/11 themselves.
A Gallup question asked on the very day of the events, found this response,
"Americans will permanently change the way they live:" 49% yes, 45% no,
Later in the month, the Los Angeles Times, giving the public two choices, found 57% agreeing that 9/11 began a "fundamental change," as compared to 39% accepting somewhat reluctantly a weak alternative, "it will soon go back to business as usual." Within two months, this 57% to 39% response too shifted to a balanced 48% to 48%. People were pretty evenly split on the lasting importance of the 9/11 events in the early months.
But by 2002 and 2003, the public was also reacting to the unprecedent Bush doctrines and initiatives. By 9/11/02, the public believed that the country had largely bought into the massive government military and security programs, but they personally had not. A Washington Post poll found 82% agreed that 9/11 had "changed this country in a lasting way," most of whom, 55%, said "changed for the better." When the question was about "your own personal life" instead of "this country," support dropped to 56% agreeing it had changed for them personally -- 29% "for the better," 27% "for the worse," and 40% said personally "no change."
When speaking to groups about 9/11, it is still required to assume that Americans will never forget these events. Admitting any likelihood of 9/11 forgetfulness, is felt to be unpatriotic and thoughtless -- whether new major terrorist acts have occurred in the United States or not.
The ringing phrase, "Remember Pearl Harbor," was a national rallying cry, boosting the spirit of America during the long struggle against Japan, but serving no role when World War II ended. Every war against countries is accompanied by a similar call to arms. But a war against terrorism is, by nature, unfocused. People will not say "Remember 9/11." This is because even if such sentiments are fed only by tiny groups of new terrorists emerging here and there, now and again, in the global maelstrom, continuation of the war can be justified indefinitely by our leaders or may simply be stopped at an appropriate time by their replacements. History shows that the pervasive belief that we will never forget 9/11 will be forgotten.
Remembrance of McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah building, then thought of as the "worst act of terrorism in the United States ever," has vanished from public thinking when terrorism is considered today, whether it is in discussions between individuals, on talk shows discussing terrorism, or the flood of terrorism articles and books. The militias as terrorists only emerged after the Soviet terrorist image of the Cold War collapsed. If this pattern persists, it is likely that some new major developments will find 9/11 events increasingly irrelevant to future discussions of threats to national security. It may seem callous, but it is accurate to recognize that over the long term in the modern world, security threats of all kinds, including terrorism, go in and out of fashion.
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