Terrorists Lose: Polls Show U.S. Calm After Christmas Bomb Try

Not only was it a narrow failure, it was a broad one too.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

All terrorist attacks serve two purposes. The first is to kill, maim, or otherwise cause damage--in the case of the Christmas bomb attack on the Northwest Airlines flight into Detroit, for example, the immediate aim was to blow the plane out of the sky and kill its passengers. But terrorists have a broader aim: instilling fear in a much wider audience and using it to achieve their goals.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote in Monday's Washington Post:

In responding to the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day, Sen. Dianne Feinstein voiced the feelings of many when she said that to prevent such situations, "I'd rather overreact than underreact." This appears to be the consensus view in Washington, but it is quite wrong. The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers. If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work. Alas, this one worked very well

Maybe not, according to a couple of new polls.

Zakaria was referring to the systemic U.S. response to the Christmas attack: How government officials and the media reacted. But the public seems to have been more measured in its response. Gallup, for example, conducted polls before and after the attempted bombing and found "little change in U.S. public concern about being victimized by terrorism." While the number of people "somewhat concerned about terrorism ticked up from 27 percent to 33 percent, the number of people "very worried" about it actually decreased, from 12 percent to 9 percent. So the overall figure went up from a combined 39 percent who were very or somewhat worried to 42 percent. This is, according to Gallup, right around the public's average level of concern (41 percent) since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Pew also released new data this week showing that while the public has been paying attention to the terrorism story, it has not dominated their news agenda. The airplane attack was the most covered story last week (22 percent of news coverage was devoted to the story, as compared to 10 percent to the economy and 8 percent to the 2010 elections), but it was the third most closely followed story. According to Pew, 26 percent of respondents said that healthcare was the story they followed most closely, 18 percent identified the weather, and the airplane attack was with the economy at 17 percent.

Part of the Obama administration's approach to terrorism has been to avoid ratcheting up public fear. As the president has said, "The notion that we have to be fearful that these terrorists possess some special powers . . . I think that has been a fundamental mistake."

Maybe his approach is working?