Did Boston Cause Americans to be More Worried About Becoming a Victim of Terrorism?

With the recent bombing in Boston, terrorism has returned to the forefront of American minds.  But did the horror of last month’s attack have the effect of making Americans more worried about becoming a victim of terrorism themselves?  Fortunately, there is historical data available to answer that question.  Many thanks to the public opinion archives of Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, which made it easy to find this information.

After the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, Gallup asked the following question: “How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of a terrorist attack similar to the bombing in Oklahoma City?” 

Four days after that terrible attack, around four-in-ten (42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) adults were worried that they or a family member could become a victim of a terrorist attack.  Intensity was soft; a mere fourteen percent responded they were very worried about becoming a victim.  As far as I can ascertain, April 1995 was the first time this question was asked.   

Just after the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in late July of 1996, Gallup/CNN/USA went into the field and asked nearly the same question, of course replacing “Oklahoma City” with “Atlanta.”  The results almost mirrored attitudes from a year before.  Thirty eight percent (38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) were worried about becoming a victim, with only eleven percent very worried.  This data are surprising, as one would expect fear of becoming a victim of terrorism to spike after an attack.

Indeed, numbers did show dramatic change after the September 11th terrorist attacks. From April 1995 through May 2001 (seven data points), on average one third of adults were worried about becoming a victim of a terrorist attack and one-in-ten were very worried.  But when Gallup asked the question on the evening of September 11, 2001, results showed almost sixty percent (58{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) were worried about becoming victims, with nearly one quarter (23{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) very worried.  Not surprisingly, given the timing of the survey, these results were the highest since the question has been asked.

The fear of being a victim faded over the decade and attitudes have been consistent since. Results from Gallup/CNN/USA Today over the last ten years show that approximately forty percent of adults are worried about becoming a victim of terrorism and about ten percent of adults are very worried. These numbers show a return to pre-September 11th levels.

chart 1

So, what impact did the events in Boston on have on attitudes? Apparently, very little. Americans show an unchanged level of anxiety about the potential impact of a terrorist attack on their own lives, with 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} worried and 13{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} very worried. 

Americans’ fears of being a victim of a terrorist attack have remained largely unchanged over the past eighteen years. And despite recent tragedies, a majority of Americans do not live in fear.

Public Opinion Strategies