In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Americans and their lawmakers seemed willing to pay any price to secure our safety.
Congress overwhelmingly approved resolutions in 2001 and 2003 authorizing military attacks against al-Qaida’s bases in Afghanistan and to prevent Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from providing chemical and biological weapons to terrorists.
And lawmakers, with widespread public support, approved the Patriot Act to allow the FBI and National Security Agency to conduct extensive electronic surveillance on potential terrorists as well as American citizens.
Now, a dozen years after al-Qaida terrorists slammed jet airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and killed 3,000 people, attitudes have changed. A growing number of Americans are increasingly weary of international conflicts and seem deeply suspicious of the monitoring of their telephone records by the NSA, an agency of such mystery that it has been jokingly referred to as No Such Agency.
“9-11 was a traumatic event that we witnessed on television,’’ said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. “Maybe we suffered a collective post-traumatic stress disorder from it. I think that has faded.’’
Americans are increasingly concerned about the implications of what they agreed to in the aftermath of 9/11, according to Stanley, and have grown more distrustful of government and its power to monitor the actions of its citizens.
The dramatic shift in American public opinion can be vividly seen with Syria. The Senate and House this week are expected to vote on a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to launch military strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is believed to have used sarin gas against his own people last month.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll last week showed that 59 percent of Americans oppose the use of military force in Syria, with more than 60 percent of political independents against an attack.
The Senate is expected to approve the resolution authorizing force. But even though House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are backing the resolution, most analysts believe it will be exceedingly difficult to win House approval.
“In 2004, if Syria had used chemical weapons, I don’t think we would have sat around and waited too long because of the intense fear they would get to terrorist groups,’’ said Richard Herrmann, a professor of history at Ohio State University and former State Department official.
Former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Bainbridge Twp. near Chardon, who was in office during the 9-11 attacks, agrees the public has become “war weary.”
“Having been in the classified briefings where we were told unless action is taken in Iraq, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, it makes you suspicious. It makes you want to double-check your sources six to seven times.’’
“Iraq and Syria are the same,’’ LaTourette said. “People are scratching their heads and saying, ‘OK, but what does this have to do with the United States?’ ’’
A Gallup poll in November of 2001 showed that 80 percent of Americans favored using ground troops in Afghanistan. But by 2013, Gallup reported that that the percentage of Americans who believe that sending troops to Afghanistan was a mistake had leaped from nine percent in 2001 to 44 percent this year.
Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California, said America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan soured the public on another war. “Americans generally regard Iraq as a disaster and Afghanistan as a tremendous sacrifice for minimal results,’’ he said.
Nearly 7,000 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Iraq while U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $1 trillion. U.S. forces swiftly ejected Al-Qaida from Afghanistan, but thousands of Americans remain in the war-torn country propping up a weak central government in its struggle against the Taliban, who once shielded Osama bin Laden from the Americans.
Saddam Hussein, who in 1988 killed nearly 5,000 Kurds with chemical weapons, was toppled and executed. But by the time U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi dictator had disposed of his stocks of chemical weapons, forcing President George W. Bush to explain to skeptical Americans why the Iraq war was necessary.
American weariness of getting involved militarily is matched by their wariness of how much the federal government seems to know about them.
Earlier this year, NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government has been gathering Americans’ phone records on a massive and widespread scale.
Although the Obama administration insists that everyday Americans are not having their phone conversations recorded, government officials acknowledge that the NSA has used the phone and Internet records in an effort to establish links to potential terrorists.
“People loved the Patriot Act the day after 9-11 and today they hate it,’’ said James Carafano, a foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative non-profit in Washington. “What does that tell you? It just tells you what they were feeling that day.’’
In the days after the 9-11 attacks, widespread alarm of another terrorist attack gripped ordinary Americans. Today, the mood is much different.
Even after two terrorists killed three people last April with a bomb at the Boston Marathon, most Americans seem to have little fear about an attack on a massive scale.
“Because it was 12 years ago,” LaTourette said of the 9-11 attacks, “people’s senses sort of dull a bit.’’