Only When Those Responsible Are Identified
May 2, 2002
By Margie Burns
On September 14-15, 2001, after hijackers' attacks on the
World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, a Gallup/CNN/USA
Today poll reported that 62% of Americans favored "military
strikes, BUT ONLY WHEN those responsible are identified."
Another 14% of respondents opposed retaliation; another 18%
favored retaliating before investigating.
What happened to this poll? Oddly, major news media proclaimed
across the board that "90% of Americans" favored military
strikes, presumably right away.
In doing so, they followed Gallup's lead - the "90%" short-take
came straight from the horse's mouth. Gallup is among the
most respected of the five major polling organizations; the
round-the-clock video footage of carnage in New York and Washington
made an unequalled impression; a spontaneous outpouring of
broadly based sympathy for the victims and survivors, and
for their relatives, drew pity and generosity from the poorest
of poor inmates in Louisiana prisons to the cream of the red-carpet
crop among Hollywood stars.
But still, it is dangerous how the phrase "but only when
those responsible are identified" was lost to view. It was
quoted briefly in some news reports, not at all in others.
No commentators discussed it in substance. In other words,
reportage basically suppressed the view that a solid majority
of the public - as indicated also by other polls at the same
time - strongly favored finding out who or what lay behind
the strikes described as the largest terrorist attack on American
soil, the single biggest casualty toll on one day since the
Civil War, and the biggest attack since Pearl Harbor, etc.
As journalists know, sixty-two percent is a solid result
in any poll, and a big number in most contexts. Sixty-two
percent is bigger than the percentage by which Ronald Reagan
beat Walter Mondale in 1984 (59.2%), Nixon beat McGovern in
1972 (61.8%), or Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Alfred Landon
in 1936 (60.8%). 62% is greater than the percentage of Americans
who vote in elections (less than half), greater than the percentage
of Americans who read newspapers (58%), and unthinkably greater
than the percentage of Americans acquainted with Afghanistan
(or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia) when polled.
To this 62%, moreover, can be added the over 14% of respondents
who opposed retaliation, making a total of over 77% of respondents
who wanted - even when emotions ran highest -- to find out
what was going on, before bombing anyone. We are America,
This is so self-evidently the reasonable response, and the
predictable response, that it was somewhat startling how news
organizations filtered it into that "90%" line. After all,
what the other 18% of respondents were saying was, basically,
'I just want to bomb somebody, and I don't care who.' Assuming
that this response is sincere - rather than a political tactic
to make the administration look "centrist" - it is presumably
the response of anger, or fear. Everyone harbors impulses.
But since when does an irrational impulse get to guide foreign
We always have a minority in the polls who want to drop bombs,
to assassinate heads of state, to shoot suspects, etc.; what
else is new? (And those friendly pollsters always convey these
views, at whatever cost to civic trust.) Some respondents
allegedly even want to use nuclear weapons - apparently because
they've never heard of radiation. We always have these individuals,
and most of us try not to dwell on them, so long as they don't
act on their views - not the ideal response, perhaps, but
it does stem at least partly from our traditional respect
for privacy and our traditional belief that a generous and
forgiving nation is big enough to hold a few cranks.
What's new here is that we are being implicitly told to equate
a hysterical impulse -- and a minority impulse, at that --
with a more understandable position held by the overwhelming
majority of American citizens. This is the tail wagging the
dog, with a vengeance.
The biggest shift in public attitude last fall did not come
on September 11. It came when the bombing of Afghanistan started,
and respondents were never asked (by Gallup or anyone else)
whether they still wanted to find out who did it. No courageous
poll ran, "Is President Bush wrong to order military strikes
before investigating?" (Or, "Don't you still want those responsible
to be identified?") No major pollster ever asked, "Do you
think the administration has done all it can to find out who
was responsible for the attacks?"
Instead, within two weeks, the administration and the major
media outlets had all investigation blanketed with "wartime"
secrecy and force, while pitiful Afghanistan has been bombed
to rubble for mass crimes committed mostly by young Saudis
- and even well-meaning people attribute the terrorist attacks
to "poverty" rather than to a revolution of rising expectation
by underemployed young engineers. By the beginning of October,
the public had already been "asked" several times whether
it thought Osama bin Laden was to blame for the attacks; whether
it thought Afghanistan was to blame; whether Muslims were
to blame; and whether Arab-Americans should have to carry
identity cards; etc. None of these polls asked, "How much
time have you spent in the Middle East"? (In the interests
of pertinent disclosure, this writer admittedly has spent
only one month there.) Nor, of course, were respondents asked,
"Should the administration's ties with the Saud dynasty be
allowed to conceal the guilty?"
The USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of September 21 asked whether
respondents supported military action against the Taliban,
Osama bin Laden, etc., without even asking whether respondents
thought those were the guilty parties. The wording of the
Washington Post opinion polls (field work conducted by TNS
Intersearch, Horsham PA) shifted within two weeks. On September
11 and September 13, the Post poll asked, "If the United States
can identify the groups or nations responsible for the recent
attacks, would you support or oppose taking military action
against them?" In Post polls taken September 20 and September
27, that question was reworded, "Do you support or oppose
taking military action against the groups or nations responsible
for the recent terrorist attacks?"
And the public, with its usual forgiveness of flawed leaders
and fallible reporting in its own country, has responded not
with an insistence on getting to the bottom of what happened,
but with a certain trust and tolerance for the limited information
it has been given - as the polls show. With our usual willingness
to give the benefit of the doubt to our own, few people question
whether an administration could be so corrupt as knowingly
to bomb the people who didn't do it - while letting off scot-free
the people (in, for example, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt)
who financed, trained and supported the hijackers.
But the danger here should be obvious to our officeholders
and news molders. If global headlines continue to advertise
- falsely - that "90%" of Americans have targeted a small,
poor country, without even troubling to single out the guilty,
then all Americans become targets.
Margie Burns: firstname.lastname@example.org