Sept. 11 anniversary: Most Americans say the attacks completely changed the world and the country

September 09, 2021, 7:05 PM UTC

Twenty years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., most Americans in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll believe the events of that day completely changed the world and their country, and more than one-third think the country hasn’t recovered.

But most Americans don’t see Sept. 11 as having a major effect on their daily lives today. Americans also worry about whether the U.S. can prevent future attacks as the Taliban, which ruled most of Afghanistan on Sept. 11, resumes control of the country.

Americans’ responses to questions about Sept. 11 vary little by their demographic and political attributes — with a notable exception. Younger adults, those under age 30, were less likely to report their daily lives had been changed a little or completely (27% compared to 41% overall). Members of this group have lived most or all of their lives since the attacks. And they recognize that the attack changed the country (78% compared to 88% overall) – and the world (71% compared to 84% overall) a little or completely. 

Americans are closely split on whether the country has recovered from the Sept. 11 attacks. Four in ten (40%) say the U.S. has recovered; (36%) say it has not. More college graduates (47%) than people without college degrees (37%) say the U.S. has recovered. More men (45%) than women (36%) say the country has recovered. And more people with higher annual family incomes ($100,000 or more) say the U.S. has recovered from the attacks (50%) than do people with lower annual family incomes (35% of those with family income under $50,000).  

Twenty years after 9/11, fears of an imminent major terrorist attack in the United States remain widespread. More than half of Americans (55%) believe it is at least somewhat likely that there will be a terrorist attack against the United States in the next 12 months. One in five (21%) say it is very likely, including 34% of Republicans and 11% of Democrats.

But the level of fear today is far lower than it has been since the Economist/YouGov Poll started asking about it in 2009—including just last week. After the 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt, the 2015 Charleston church shootings, and the 2017 truck attack on cyclists in New York, that percentage rose to between 35% and 45%. And 30% said in last week’s poll, conducted soon after a deadly attack outside the Kabul airport, that a terrorist attack was very likely in the next 12 months. At other times, such as Dec. 2018 and Dec. 2019, less than one in ten Americans said a terrorist attack was very likely in the next 12 months.

Americans today are just as likely to believe the U.S. is less safe today than it was in 2001 than to think it is safer now than it was 20 years ago.

9-11 Attacks

Some discomfort appears to stem from disapproval with President Biden’s handling of the issue: One in three Americans (34%) approve of his handling of terrorism while nearly half (46%) disapprove. Nearly three times as many people think President Biden’s policies have made the world less safe (43%) than believe his policies have made it more safe (16%). His three predecessors get better, though still mixed, evaluations on their handling of terrorism.

As many Americans are confident that the country can prevent major terrorist attacks in the future as are not confident (43% vs 43%), with more Democrats (58%) very or somewhat confident than Republicans (38%). But few Americans (17%) have confidence every global terrorism organization can be defeated. People who say the country has recovered from the Sept. 11 attacks are more likely to believe that the country also can prevent future major terrorist attacks (54%) than are people who say the country hasn’t recovered (39%). 

New threats have emerged from the just-ended war in Afghanistan. One in three Americans (33%) say the newly resurgent Taliban poses a serious and immediate threat to the U.S., down from 51% last week. The Taliban ranks between the Islamic State (36% said ISIS, or ISIS-K in Afghanistan, poses a serious and immediate threat), and China (30%) at the top of a list of countries and groups that respondents were asked about as potential threats—ahead of Iran (21%), Russia (18%), and North Korea (16%).

A greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats see a serious and immediate threat from the Taliban (52% of Republicans, 26% of Democrats) and ISIS (50% of Republicans, 28% of Democrats).

Just as many Americans see the Taliban as posing a potential threat, most want little to do with the Afghanistan ruling party. One in five Americans (21%) would negotiate with the Taliban, and one in four (26%) would be willing to recognize and have diplomatic relations with the new Taliban government there.

Amid continued threats, Americans don’t necessarily want to step back from global engagement. But about half (49%) think that the U.S. will be safer from terrorism if it stays out of other countries’ affairs. And many have concerns about how the 20-year war against terrorism has been fought. Were the 20 years of fighting terrorism worth the cost? Maybe; 43% say the costs were worth it, while 30% disagree. By an 18-point margin (45% to 27%), Democrats think the fight was worth the cost, while an even greater proportion of Republicans think it was (57% to 22%). Independents are evenly divided: 36% say it was worth it, while 38% say it wasn’t.

Last week: National security becomes Republicans’ top issue after Afghanistan withdrawal

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov Poll

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between September 4 - 7, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 2.8% for the overall sample. 

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