Americans Reject Extreme Anti-Privacy Security Measures
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Americans Reject Extreme Anti-Privacy Security Measures

National ID cards OK, but not random searches or electronic snooping

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE | August 8, 2005
by Lydia Saad

PRINCETON, NJ -- The recent London suicide bombings seem to have elevated Americans' own anxiety about terrorism, although not to as great an extent as did the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Since the London bombings, there has been a sustained increase in Americans' expectations that a terrorist attack is likely to happen in the United States in the next few weeks. There has been a less pronounced increase in Americans' personal fear that they or a family member will be a terrorism victim.

Still, Gallup finds that Americans are not so fearful that they are willing to surrender their personal privacy. In the name of domestic security, most Americans are willing to endure metal detectors and security checks at buildings, and are in favor of a national ID card. They also think it's OK for the police to profile Arab Americans at airports. But most reject more extreme measures, such as allowing the police to search people and homes at random or without a warrant, expanding government surveillance of e-mail and telephone calls, and suspending the right to a speedy trial of terrorist suspects who are U.S. citizens.

More Americans Expect a Terrorist Event Than Fear It

In Gallup polling conducted right after the July 7 backpack bombings that killed 52 passengers on London's transit system, there was a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans saying that an act of terrorism was likely to happen in the United States within the next several weeks. This figure was only 35% in June, but shot up to 55% in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted July 7-10, and it remains at about the same level today.

According to a July 22-24 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, only 12% of Americans think another terrorist incident is "very likely" to happen in the coming weeks, but a combined 57% say it is "very" or "somewhat" likely.

By comparison, Gallup finds a smaller increase between June and today in the percentage of Americans who are personally worried that they or a family member will be a victim of terrorism. Forty-seven percent of Americans now say they are worried this will happen, up from 38% in June.

Terrorism fears today are somewhat lower than they were in the first few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorist hijackers brought down the World Trade Center towers, crashed into the Pentagon, and would have directed a fourth airplane at a target in Washington, D.C., if not for the plane's heroic passengers.

Ten days after those attacks, Gallup found a similar level of fear to today's about being a victim of terrorism (47% today vs. 49% in September 2001), but a much higher expectation that further acts of terrorism were imminent (57% today vs. 66% then).

Privacy Concerns Trump Security

Finding the right balance between liberty and security has been an ongoing challenge for policymakers since 9/11. Controversy over the Patriot Act is a case in point, and now a similar battle is being waged in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has just proposed tight new restrictions on Muslims.

As much as Americans want to be safe from terrorism, they are reluctant to expand government surveillance of private communication or suspend basic privacy rights such as freedom from unreasonable searches.

A supermajority (two-thirds or more) of Americans do support making metal detectors and identity verification a routine part of entering buildings and other public places; a similar number support the establishment of a national ID card. More than half also are in favor of subjecting all Arabs, including Arab Americans, to special security checks at airports.

Next, please tell me if you would favor or oppose each of the following as a means of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States. How about -- [random order]?

Favor

Oppose

 

%

%

Requiring every person going into an office building or public place to go through a metal detector

81

18

Requiring mass transit systems like subways, buses, and trains to institute security systems similar to what is found in airports

78

20

Requiring every person going into an office building or public place to show ID

70

30

Requiring all Americans to carry a national ID card

66

33

Requiring Arabs, including those who are U.S. citizens, to undergo special, more intensive security checks before boarding airplanes in the U.S.

53

46

Americans are closely split on whether police should be able to do random checks of pedestrians or whether Arabs in the United States should be required to carry a special ID.

 

Favor

Oppose

%

%

Allowing police to stop people on the street at random and ask them to show their ID

48

51

Requiring Arabs, including those who are U.S. citizens, to carry a special ID

46

53

A majority of Americans oppose giving the government the authority to search through people's library loan records.

 

Favor

Oppose

%

%

Allowing the government to search a list of books people have checked out of the library

37

60

A supermajority of the public opposes random police checks of people's possessions; increased government surveillance of Americans through their mail, e-mail, and telephones; suspension of certain legal rights for terrorism suspects; and allowing police to enter people's homes without a search warrant.

 

Favor

Oppose

%

%

Allowing police to stop people on the street at random to search their possessions

29

70

Making it easier for legal authorities to read mail, e-mail, or tap phones without the person's knowledge

25

73

Allowing the government to imprison U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorism without putting them on trial for years

21

75

Allowing police to enter a person's home at any time without a search warrant

6

93

A subset of these items was first tested in September 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and the results were not much different then. Americans were only slightly more likely at that time than they are now to favor some of these proposals.

Republicans More Security Minded

Public reaction to these proposals is quite similar across different demographic groups. The largest differences tend to be according to politics, with Republicans being the most likely to favor certain proposals.

This is especially evident with respect to some of the least popular strategies, such as making it easier for legal authorities to conduct surveillance on private communication, and allowing the police to stop people on the street at random to search their possessions. Still, the majority of Republicans oppose these measures.

Percentage Favoring Measures to Fight Terrorism:
Areas of Greatest Partisan Disagreement

 

Republicans

Independents

Democrats

 

%

%

%

Allowing police to conduct random searches on people

41

21

23

Making it easier for legal authorities to conduct surveillance on private communication

35

22

16

Allowing the government to search individuals' library loan records

46

30

34

Allowing the government to imprison U.S. terrorist suspects without putting them on trial for years

30

19

14


Americans appear to be on a heightened state of alert about terrorism as a result of the July 7 London suicide bombings, but they are not so fearful that they are willing to surrender their personal privacy, or to suspend the right to a fair trial of terrorist suspects who are U.S. citizens. In the name of domestic security, most Americans are willing to endure metal detectors and security checks at buildings, and are in favor of a national ID card. They also think it's OK for the police to profile Arab Americans at airports. But most reject allowing the police to search people and homes at random or without a warrant, or expanding government surveillance of e-mail and telephone calls.


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