Poll: Americans’ Terror Concerns Trump Civil Liberties

President Obama
President Obama during his speech on Sept. 10, 2011 outlining his strategy to combat ISIS.

Half of Americans today say the government’s anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country, while about one-third of people say those same policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties—a precipitous change from one year ago.

Americans’ rising angst regarding terrorism was revealed by the Pew Research Center on the same day that President Barack Obama outlined his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS militants in a nationally televised speech Wednesday.

“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama declared. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

The Obama administration plans to “eradicate a cancer like ISIL,” another name used for the Sunni militant group ISIS, by sending 475 additional service members to Iraq to support and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as assist with intelligence. Obama, who was elected to office largely because of his opposition to the Iraq war instigated by President George W. Bush, insisted those troops won’t have a combat mission. “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he claimed.

The president also requested that Congress give his administration the authorization to train and equip moderate opposition forces in Syria battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“We must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all,” Obama said.

The Pew poll released Wednesday found that 62 percent of Americans are “very concerned” about the rise of Islamic extremism in the world, and 53 percent are worried about such extremism rising in the US.

In a previous survey conducted in August, 67 percent of people identified ISIS as a “major threat to the US.”

But Obama said that authorities have not uncovered any ISIS plots at home, though he did note that the intelligence community believes “some” Americans have joined the militant group in Syria and Iraq.

It’s still unclear what kind of threat, if at all, ISIS poses to the homeland, according to a New York Times report on Thursday.

“It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic, with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems—all on the basis of no corroborated information,” Daniel Benjamin, a former Obama State Department counterterrorism adviser, told the Times.

From the report:

“[Benjamin] said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a “farce,” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”

One year after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed mass government surveillance at home and abroad, most Americans are becoming more concerned with how the government is combating terrorism than how it impacts civil liberties.

Only 35 percent of those polled say current anti-terrorism policies have gone “too far” in restricting civil liberties. That is a stark difference from July 2013 when Pew found that 47 percent said those policies go too far in impeding civil liberties.

“That marked the first time in nearly a decade of Pew Research Center polling that more expressed concern over civil liberties than protection against terrorism,” Pew said.

The recent slayings of hundreds of people in Iraq and Syria by ISIS, including the beheadings of two American journalists by the group, could also be impacting how Americans view Muslims.

According to the poll, half of Americans now say that Islam encourages violence more than other religions, up 7 percent since July and 12 percent since February.

Obama touched on the extremists’ warped ideology of the religion early in his speech:

“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents,” Obama said. “And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

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