Sep 5, 2013

From the Archives

The Emotional and Spiritual Aftermath of 9/11 and Boston

Most Americans remember distinctly where they were on September 11, 2001. They remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the horrifying news—four planes had been hijacked, and the World Trade Towers had collapsed. America was under attack. It was, as it’s been dubbed, “the day the world changed.” And now, 12 years later, Americans remember and are often reminded of its significance. The psychological effects of the attack are only intensified every time Americans encounter another act of terror—when Virginia Tech went on lockdown, when a midnight showing of Batman turned deadly, when a gunman entered an elementary school, when explosions shattered the finish line of the Boston marathon.

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As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Americans are reminded once again that violence casts a shadow over previously sheltered life. Barna Group’s latest survey explores how Americans have responded to the events that have changed not only our national culture but also our national consciousness. Additionally, the study examines how Christians reconcile their faith with their fear when tragedy strikes.

The Priority of Terrorism Prevention

Of course when attacks like Newtown, Conn. or the Boston bombings strike, terrorism prevention is a top citizen concern. But how does it line up with other public concerns?

Strikingly, nearly three out of four Americans say that terrorism prevention is equal to or more important a priority than things like the preservation of families, immigration, healthcare, unemployment and education. Even 12 years after the 9/11 attacks, it would seem the threat of terrorism remains a powerful public motivator in America.

For example, in a head-to-head prioritization, Americans rank terrorism prevention with nearly equal importance as family preservation (40% rank it higher and 38% rank it lower. The remaining 22% said they should be equal priorities.)

The generational differences of opinion reveal an intriguing pattern when it comes to terrorism: Millennials, currently ages 18 to 29, are among the most likely to prioritize preventing terrorism above other social concerns. The only things that came close to curbing terror among younger adults was improving education and preventing the break-up of families. Otherwise, Millennials are quite likely to place a premium on national security—the generation who, at the time of the 2001 attacks, were mere adolescents and children.

What about born again Christians, who have a reputation for championing both family values and national security? When confronted with the two options, a slight plurality (41%) say family is more important than preventing terrorism (35%). Of course, no one need choose between the two options, but it does offer a portrait of born again Christians’ priorities. In contrast, those of other faiths are more concerned about terrorism threats (48%) than families (35%).

How the Nation Responded to 9/11

The 9/11 attacks were awatershed event in history. Yet now that it’s 12 years in the rearview mirror, how do Americans feel about it—then and now?

As to be expected, sadness (47%) and anger (40%) were the dominant emotions of Americans when they first heard news of the attacks a dozen years ago. But they also report feeling fear 36%), confusion (28%) and anxiety (18%). As they look back on the event 12 years later, their emotions are mirrored, though slightly less angry: Half describe themselves themselves as sad (50%), and nearly one third (31%) describe themselves as still angry.

The Barna study also indicated that people’s spiritual outlook is connected with their response to traumatic events. For instance, born again Christians stand out in a number of ways from other self-identified Christians, adults affiliated with other faiths or no personal faith at all. For example, born again Christians are more likely than adults who are not born again to identify sadness (51% versus 44%) and anger (43% versus 38%) as one of their top-two emotions on that day.

On the other end of the spiritual spectrum, those with no personal faith are less likely than the national average to identify anger (27% compared to 40%, respectively) and more likely to name feeling confusion on that fateful day (38% compared to 28%).  The Barna study also discovers that a plurality of adults across religious beliefs (43%) agree the events of 9/11 drew people closer to God. It is not surprising more than half born again Christians (54%) agree. What is striking, however, is that in the face of a national crisis as big as this one, one-fifth of atheists and agnostics also agree that the attacks in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania drew people closer to God.

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Tragedy Strikes Again

The Boston bombing was the first major terrorist event on American soil since 9/11, yet public emotional response was far less diverse this time. This might be due to the smaller scale of the Boston bombing, or perhaps because 9/11 emotionally inoculated Americans in some way. In any case, across every single demographic category, the top two emotional responses to the Boston attacks were primarily sadness (70%) and anger (54%). In contrast, the 9/11 attacks were more likely to generate fear, anxiety and confusion.

As with 9/11, there is a significant generational differences in emotional response. In fact, a distinct pattern arises: The older the American, the more intense anger and sadness at the marathon attacks. The younger the generation, the less likely they were to name sadness or anger as emotional responses. For example, Elders were by far the most likely to describe as angry in the wake of the Boston attack (78% compared to national average of 54%).

Faith in the Face of Tragedy

Faith plays a defining role in a person’s response to tragedy, and the post-9/11 responses are a prime example.

About nine in 10 born again Christians (89%) say their faith comforted them during such terror events, compared to 48% of those not born again. Additionally, two-thirds say their faith helps them understand why such things happen, compared to one-third of those not born again.

But this isn’t true for all faith traditions. Those of a non-Christian faith are much less likely to say that their faith comforts them (58%) or provides understanding (41%).

What the Research Means

Clint Jenkin is the vice president of research at Barna Group who also studied public attitudes toward terrorism for his Ph.D. He was a graduate fellow for the Department of Homeland Security from 2003-2006.

“This survey validates some of what we assume to be true about terrorism,” says Jenkin. “It matters what you believe about the world when you experience an event like 9/11. It matters how you view God, the afterlife, and your relationship with your fellow neighbors.”

But the findings aren’t all obvious—especially generational difference of opinion and response. “We would expect to see that extreme emotions such as anger would be more common among those who were more impressionable at the time of the event” says Jenkin. “It is surprising, then, that older generations actually have a stronger anger response when they think of 9/11. Perhaps it is a greater understanding of the extreme scope of such a tragedy.”

The findings also support what is commonly referred to as the “Terrorist’s Dilemma.” Jenkin explains, “Terrorists can only bring about change if they make people afraid, and they can only make people afraid of the next attack. Their dilemma is, once the next attack comes, the people aren’t afraid anymore. Instead, they’re grieving for lives lost and damage done, they’re angry, and perhaps most importantly, they’re united.”

In the face of such tragedy, Jenkin points to the responsibility on the Christian community to step forward. “Faith provides us with a view of the world that actually makes sense of incomprehensible trauma—not only making sense of tragedy, but also providing comfort,” Jenkin says. “We know that future tragedies will come—whether it’s a terrorist attack, a school shooting, or another war. What faith leaders can do today is establish their relationships and credibility that will enable them to be a source of comfort in the future.”

About the Research

This report is based on an OmniPollSM study conducted online with 1,000 adults ages 18 or older in the United States. The interviews were conducted from July 29 to August 1, 2013. The maximum margin of sampling error for the study is estimated to be within plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Based upon U.S. Census data sources, regional and ethnic quotas were designed to ensure that the final group of adults interviewed reflected the distribution of adults nationwide. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

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About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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