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...But 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, after all.

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 policy?

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:

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