Special Reports

Sept. 11 crisis brought out the best in America

"Everything's changed" became the American mantra immediately after Sept. 11. "Nothing's changed," came the echo back a few months later. Although the imprint of Sept. 11 on the public is largely fading, a year later it remains clearly visible in many of the ways Americans think about their country, their leaders and themselves, according to a Washington Post survey.

Public support for the military, which surged after the terrorist attacks, has not wavered in the intervening months and may even be increasing. Feelings of patriotism and national pride remain strong. Most surprising, America still basks in the rosy glow fueled by the heroism and everyday acts of selflessness and charitable giving that followed Sept. 11.

About 6 in 10 Americans say that most of the time people "try to be helpful," a view shared by fewer than half of those questioned in a survey conducted a year before the attacks. Americans also are significantly more likely to say that people are "fair" than they were before Sept. 11 - an unexpected renewal of faith in humanity that has largely persisted over the past 12 months.

"This crisis brought out the best in America - and made it better," said Amitai Etzioni, former president of the American Sociological Association and a professor at George Washington University.

The survey also found that many attitudes that changed dramatically in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 have largely changed back.

President Bush's job approval rating, which soared to record heights, has lost much of that increase and continues a steady decline. The public's trust in the federal government doubled to its highest point in nearly four decades, but now is not much higher than it was two years ago.

An overwhelming majority of Americans said the country was headed in the right direction in the days after the attack. Today, a small majority believe the country is "pretty seriously off on the wrong track," according to the poll. Even Americans' sense that the country was permanently changed by Sept. 11 appears to be slowly eroding. Eight in 10 - 83 percent - believe the attacks "changed this country in a lasting way," down from 91 percent in December.

Six in 10 said Sept. 11 had permanently changed their personal lives. Half of those whose lives had been affected said the changes were for the better, but the other half said those changes were for the worse - nearly double the proportion who had expressed that view 10 months ago.

"I was flying before. I haven't flown since," said Anatoly Savich, 28, a furniture-maker who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., and is a native of Ukraine. "Before, we lived not worrying about anything, but now, I have fear of going to another country, even my home country."

By a 2 to 1 margin, those who said their lives had been altered said it mainly affected the way they thought about things, and not how they lived.

"I just think how it makes you realize that you do have to appreciate the things you have in the right now, because you don't know how long you will have them and when it will be changed," said Anne Imhoff, 54, a bookkeeper from Fort Thomas, Ky.

A total of 1,003 randomly selected adults were interviewed Sept. 3 to 6 for this survey. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey was designed to see how Sept. 11 continues to affect Americans' thinking about their country and its institutions. It included many questions first asked in Post polls conducted immediately after Sept. 11, as well as selected questions from other major surveys.

Immediately after the attacks, America seemed to change its mind. Bush - elected with fewer than half the votes cast 10 months earlier - became instantly and almost universally popular. His job approval rating soared from 55 percent in early September to 92 percent one month later as Americans rallied behind their president.

The proportion of Americans who said they trusted the federal government doubled from 30 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in late September - a level of confidence not seen since the early days of the Vietnam War. Confidence in the military and the presidency bumped up. Surveys showed that Americans were feeling more patriotic, more charitable, more religious and more committed to their families and one another.

The size and breadth of these changes "put Sept. 11 in a class by itself" in terms of its effect on public thinking, said Tom Smith, dean of American trend-watchers and director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC).

The attacks on New York and Washington paled in comparison to such "transforming eras" as the Depression and World War II as an agent of social change, but "if we put it up against a single incident, one domestic disturbance or single foreign policy crisis, it has no equal," Smith said.

Today, one year after America changed its mind about so many things, the country appears to have changed its mind back on some matters - but not all.

Bush's job approval rating has declined every month since October. Currently, 69 percent of the public approves of the job Bush is doing - 23 points below its October high of 92 percent and 14 points higher than in a Post-ABC News survey conducted a week before the terrorist attacks.

The majority of Americans continue to say that the government is doing enough to protect the rights of average citizens, American Muslims and even terrorist suspects. But the poll suggests that concern about civil liberties is slowly growing.

One in three say the government is not doing enough to protect the rights of those under investigation for terrorist involvement, up 12 points from November. Four in 10 said they would oppose giving security agencies broader authority if it meant reducing personal privacy, up 18 points from last September.

Trust in the federal government, defined broadly, also has eroded. Forty percent of Americans say they trust the federal government - down from 64 percent last September. Confidence in the government's ability to handle economic and social problems also has dropped somewhat from its post-attack highs.

"These spikes in a feeling of connection and patriotism are very common after catastrophes - this spike has lasted longer than the spike during the Gulf War," said Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist.

But Putnam also believes there is a possibility of renewal. "If we remember this in lugubrious terms, that won't help to keep a sense of obligation and community. But if we commemorate the event as having given us a glimpse of our better selves ... it doesn't have to go away, and it could be renewed," he said, though conceding "it won't be an easy task."

Some government institutions have retained much, if not all, of the resurgent public confidence that immediately followed the attacks.

Confidence and pride in the military increased after Sept. 11 and remains strong. Today, more than 3 in 4 Americans - 78 percent - said they had confidence in the military, up from 66 percent before the terrorist attacks. Other recent surveys have shown that support for police and firefighters grew and has not wavered.

Smith said he expects confidence in the military and other government agencies with defense and security-related responsibilities to remain strong, at least for the foreseeable future. "As long as the military is actively engaged and shows some success, you'll have this heightened confidence and pride," he said.

Patriotism and pride in this country's accomplishments continue to flourish, too, particularly in those areas most directly related to defense and national security. Eight in 10 - 81 percent - said they were "very proud" of the armed forces. That's up from 47 percent in a survey conducted in 1996 by NORC.

Similarly, 7 in 10 said they were "very proud" of America's scientific and technological accomplishments, up from half six years ago. Pride in America's democratic traditions, history and economy also experienced sharp increases and remain much higher than in 1996, though each has dropped in the past year.

Some aspects of American life seemingly far removed from defense or security continued to benefit from the wave of patriotic feelings.

Although Bush's popularity has waned, Huckleberry Finn and other pillars of American literature and art seem to enjoy continued broad public support: Nearly half of all Americans - 46 percent - said they were "very proud" of American literature and art, up from 28 percent in 1996 but a decline from 56 percent in late September.