When Americans go to the polls to choose a new president on November 8, they will be choosing the candidate they believe has the best approach to dealing with terrorism.
One reason it has become such a large factor in this election is that terrorism tears at the essential fabric of American life: the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. But another reason is that recent attacks have pushed the issue to the forefront of everyday living.
For example, the latest wave of terrorist attacks – Boston, San Bernandino, Orlando – have made Americans warier while out in public, especially in crowded places. Sixty-four percent say they’re more anxious when congregating in a public area or riding on public transportation, according to a new survey by ReportLinker. And 62% say they believe air travel is risky, despite a stronger security process put into place after 9/11.
These feelings are more pronounced among older Americans, 25% of whom say they are warier now while in public places. By contrast, 32% of Millennials say they’re somewhat less likely to be worried about terrorist threats if they’re in crowded locations.
Guns, Racial Profiling and Self-Protection
Such anxiety, however, seems to have been translated into a willingness to act. Despite their wariness – or perhaps because of it – two-thirds of Americans said they would notify authorities if they spotted something suspicious, according to the ReportLinker survey. Interestingly, Millennials, perhaps because they are somewhat less wary, are less likely than other generations to speak up.
Some Americans are willing to defend themselves more vigorously. Even though conservative commentators and pro-gun organizations have argued that carrying a gun acts as a deterrent and can save lives, Americans are divided on this issue. More than half of respondents to the ReportLinker survey say carrying a gun is the best way to protect themselves, while half disagree. Along political lines, however, 73% of Republicans believe a gun will make them safer.
Yet, while gun control advocates have pushed limitations at the federal level, gun rights have continued to expand in the states. In recent years, gun advocates have pushed for open-carry laws and to eliminate gun-free zones, which they say are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The argument is gaining foothold among some Americans, who are now buying handguns with the express purpose of protecting themselves and their families. According to a survey by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers, 63% of respondents said they own a gun for protection against other people. And handguns are now the largest share of privately owned guns, representing 42% of all guns in 2015, up from 34% in 1994, according to the study.
This is despite numerous studies showing that owning a gun increases the odds of being injured or killed by a family member. For example, one meta-analysis of 16 studies found that access to a gun doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide. Meanwhile, the odds of a U.S. citizen being killed in a terrorist attack is one in 20 million. In the decade leading up to and including the San Bernadino attack, just 38 Americans had been killed by terrorists on U.S. soil, compared to 280,024 killed by gun violence.
For some ethnic groups, the need for self-protection plays out in other ways. According to ReportLinker, more than 70% of U.S. citizens believe the terrorist attacks have led to increased racial profiling. This is especially true among Democrats, 87% of whom believe racial profiling is now more prevalent than before. The trend has created an unsettling environment for Muslims, blacks and Hispanics. Muslims, for example, have taken precautions in what they perceive as a new, threatening climate. Some have limited travel or feel less comfortable pursuing everyday activities, such as shopping alone.
Opinions Diverge on National Strategies
When it comes to national strategies for fighting terrorism, 23% of Americans perceived international terrorism intelligence exchanges to be the best approach, followed by tackling radicalization at home and international diplomatic strategies, according to the ReportLinker data. Along generational lines, 23% of Millennials ranked international diplomatic strategies highest, compared to 19% of all respondents. Notably, 16% of Millennials cited mass surveillance as the best approach. That’s almost three times the rate of other generations, 7% of whom cited it as the best option.
Although the Obama administration is already using these measures to fight terrorism, 54% of respondents say they’re not confident the government is doing all it can to ensure optimal security, ReportLinker’s data shows. Distrust is highest among Republicans, 69% of whom say they’re not confident in the government’s ability to fight terrorism.
These sentiments will factor into voter decisions in the upcoming election. Two-thirds of respondents to the ReportLinker survey say their decision will be influenced by the candidates’ plans to combat terrorism. And Republicans (78%) and older generations (70%) are more likely than Millennials (54%) to say this issue will impact their choice of candidate.
The Impact of Media Coverage on Terrorism
Some media critics and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, have suggested less media coverage of terrorists would be an effective way to combat terrorism. By denying terrorists publicity for their acts, the thinking goes, they’ll be less motivated to plan attacks. However, almost half of US respondents believe media should continue coverage as is. This is especially true among older generations, 52% of whom feel this way. The remaining half of respondents are evenly divided – 26% percent would like to see more coverage, and 25% would like to see less. However, both Republicans (36%) and Millennials (32%) would like to see the media expand their coverage of terrorism.
Regardless of how they feel about media coverage, a majority of respondents – 80% – say the threat of terrorism is likely to continue for at least the next 10 years. Yet, Millennials are more optimistic than others. According to the survey, 7% believe the war on terror could end in the next two years, compared to just 2% of older generations.
Terrorism, however, is likely to remain a standard feature of daily life for at least the foreseeable future. President Obama – and President Bush before him – argue that Americans need to build resiliency. This approach includes both efforts to fight terrorism and to bounce back more quickly after an attack, through greater preparedness and an effort to minimize the costs of terrorist attacks. Such efforts won’t fully end the need for heightened awareness in daily life, but they would make attacks far less appealing to those who plan them.
This survey conducted by ReportLinker reached 503 online respondents representative of the US population, aged above 18 years old. Interviews were conducted on October, 14th.