Pew poll: September 11’s shared memories and political polarization

A new Pew poll shows that a whopping 97% of respondents say they remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Although people often don’t actually remember those sorts of events as clearly as they think they do, the poll has a slew of interesting information about what has changed in how people see those times.

People are more politically polarized than before — just as they are with so many other things. And this shows up when thinking about the broader context for the attacks.

In September 2001, a majority of Americans (55%) rejected the idea that there were things the U.S. did wrong in its dealings with other countries that might have motivated the terrorists to attack us, while 33% agreed with this idea. Public views are more evenly divided today: 43% say U.S. wrongdoing may have motivated the attacks while 45% say it did not.

Republicans overwhelmingly reject this idea (65%), just as they did ten years ago, but the views of Democrats and independents have shifted. In fact, today half of independents (50%) believe U.S. actions may have been a motivating factor in the attacks, up from 34% ten years ago.

Divides also show up in how people view Muslims in the United States.

More than half of Republicans (55%) say there is a great deal or fair amount of support for extremism among Muslims in this country; that compares with 39% of independents and 33% of Democrats. And Republicans are also more likely to think Islamic extremism is already rising in this country – 35% are of this view, compared with 18% of Democrats and 25% of independents.

As the country prepares to collectively remember September 11, these divisions will make discussions of the times politically touchy.  

Americans’ sensitivities affected how the Smithsonian marked the one year anniversary of the attacks, such that curators chose not to present any larger historical context for them.  Given our political divides, it is hard to imagine that it will much easier to consider such aspects now.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.