So far, Americans stay coolheaded

Despite conflicting messages from Washington about terrorist threats, the US public is still showing a calm face.


Amid confusion about the nature and the extent of the terrorist attacks on America, the US public isn't panicking.

Far from it, in fact. Most signs show that, as of now, the nation is meshing old routines and a new wariness with something approaching aplomb.

The events of Sept. 11 did generate an extraordinary sense of personal grief in Americans, say opinion analysts. Reluctance to fly remains high.

But the mystery of anthrax contamination has not yet sent a significant percentage of citizens in search of gas masks and Cipro.

The public appears less daunted than some pundits by the government's sometimes conflicting statements about the dangers of bioterrorism. For now, many accept that we're in a new era, and that Washington is responding to the unforeseen on the fly.

"People are just getting back to their daily life and getting on with it," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion analyst and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

One note of caution: These attitudes do not necessarily reflect a sweeping era of new stoicism. They may just indicate that it takes some time for the gravity of new problems to sink in.

That's particularly true in regard to the anthrax cases. Polls show the vast majority of Americans aren't worried about personally contracting the disease. But a recent Newsweek survey found that only 48 percent believe the US has a "well-thought-out plan" to combat bioterror. Asked whether Washington was telling people all they need to know to respond to the anthrax threat, a recent New York Times/CBS survey found respondents split, with 50 percent saying "no."

"People are learning. They are absorbing a great deal of information, kind of a new world view," says Jean Johnson, a senior vice president with Public Agenda, a public-opinion research and citizen-education organization in New York.

Undoubtedly Americans are today living in a changed world. For many citizens, especially younger ones, the terror attacks and their aftermath constitute the most important news events of their lives to date.

The attacks may have simply pointed out, brutally, vulnerabilities that have long existed. But throughout the US, there is nonetheless a sense that everything, in some way, has changed.

Government leaders continue to urge citizens to return to normal activity. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) recently invited camera crews along as he waited in line at Baltimore/Washington International Airport for a flight to New York to promote a return to tourism. President Bush himself showed up at a World Series game to demonstrate that life and sports should go on.

But surely most viewers of the game were aware that a small army of security agents accompanied Bush to Yankee Stadium.

Vice President Dick Cheney has been notable in Washington for his public absence, as he works from a secure location to ensure government continuity in case of another attack.

The Supreme Court had to decamp and work elsewhere after traces of anthrax were found in the Supreme Court building.

Mixed messages have become a fact of daily life. The government wants citizens to return to normal - and, by the way, that "normal" now includes a need for vigilance. Thus, Washington went so far as to issue an alert on Monday that more terrorist attacks, of some sort, might be coming, somewhere, soon. Or maybe not.

"It's a difficult and fine line that we walk," said Tom Ridge, White House director of homeland security.

Security guards at malls, airport personnel, and cops on the beat were all more careful because of the warning, said Mr. Ridge.

"I think America understands and, hopefully, appreciates that when there's that kind of information available to us, we just share it," said Ridge.

To some extent, Ridge appears to be right. Public confidence in the government's actions remain high. Fully 83 percent of respondents to a new Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations poll say the war against terrorism is going well. Sixty-nine percent say they approve of the way the US is going about bolstering its homeland defenses.

Other surveys show similar results. "People are generally pretty positive," says Ms. Bowman.

But while the public appears personally unrattled, many say that they have not returned fully to a pre-Sept. 11 confidence. Women, in particular, say their lives have not returned to normal.

"Women with children at home are especially shaken," concludes a Pew Research report. "Just 28 percent of mothers say their lives have returned to normal, and 41 percent are very worried about an impending attack."

Whatever their worries, few citizens have decided to clean the junk out of old cold-war-era bomb shelters.

There's been lots of publicity about Cipro, gas masks, and other personal-defense measures, but the percentage of Americans who say they have actually obtained such items is in the low single digits in virtually all polls that ask.

Few expect the war on terrorism to be something that ends soon.

"They don't expect a quick result. There is that kind of hunkering down," says Ms. Johnson.

And support for the bombing campaign in Afghanistan remains unwavering. Recent CBS and Newsweek polls both found an 88 percent approval rating for the raids.

And 79 percent of respondents told Newsweek they believe it is at least somewhat likely the action will end with the Taliban's ouster.

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