Historical Perspectives

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At the time, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may have felt like more than we could bear. But comparatively, the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy had a greater negative impact on the country's psychological outlook than the more recent tragedy, according to a comprehensive study released in October 2001.

The report, entitled “America Rebounds: A National Study of Public Response to the September 11 Terrorist Attacks,� was produced by researchers at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC). To gain better historical perspective about the country's reaction to September's events, researchers replicated many of the questions posed in a 1963 study that took the nation's emotional pulse one week after President Kennedy was killed. This new study is based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,013 adults conducted Sept. 13 to 27, 2001. An additional 1,114 people were interviewed by telephone in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Researchers also compared findings from the 2001 survey with those from the center's General Social Surveys (GSS), which have tracked American values, attitudes and behavior on a variety of subjects for the past 30 years.

Initial public response to the two tragedies was similar. After learning of the assassination in 1963, most Americans (54 percent) did not continue their normal activities, while 25 percent carried on as usual, but found it difficult to do so. Similarly, in 2001, 49 percent stopped their normal activities and 27 percent carried on with difficulty. The major differences, however, are emotional ones. Americans were much more likely to feel angry the week after the terrorist attacks than after JFK's death (65 percent versus 44 percent). Not surprisingly, that anger was more intensely felt by New York residents (73 percent). In 1963, however, the stronger emotion was shame that such an event could occur in the U.S., with 50 percent of Americans saying they felt that way.

Overall, however, Americans have shown a greater resilience to the attacks than they did to Kennedy's death. Positive feelings about life in general have remained high since Sept. 11. For instance, after the attacks, a record high of 89 percent felt pleased about having accomplished something in their lives, compared with a record low of 68 percent who felt the same in 1963. In 2001, a high of 80 percent felt proud because someone complimented them on something they had done, compared with a low of 54 percent in 1963.

With the exception of New Yorkers, Americans also appear to have had weaker physical reactions to the more recent tragedy (see chart, left). Twenty-nine percent of adults reported smoking much more than usual after JFK's death, compared with 21 percent who turned to cigarettes in 2001. In 1963, 4 in 10 Americans (43 percent) said they didn't feel like eating after the incident, compared with only 29 percent in 2001. And 3 in 10 (34 percent) said they kept forgetting things in the days and weeks following the 1963 tragedy, while only 2 in 10 (19 percent) had the same problem in 2001.

Americans also showed fewer symptoms of anxiety and stress in 2001 than in 1963, perhaps because they were better able to channel their anger in constructive ways, says Tom Smith, director of the GSS. In 1963, with Kennedy's assassination, all the country could do was grieve. In 2001, people focused on helping those in need or eliminating the external threat, and that may have diffused some of the immediate psychological impact, says Smith.

The finding researchers say is most surprising is the increased faith in fellow Americans after the September assaults. Despite the malicious intent that turned commercial airplanes into guided missiles, judgments about people in general were not undermined by the treachery of 19 terrorists. Two-thirds of Americans in the weeks after Sept. 11 said they believe most people are helpful, an increase of 21 percentage points over NORC's 2000 GSS. Sixty-three percent said that people in general are fair, up 12 percentage points; and 41 percent felt that most people are trustworthy, up 6 percentage points. The increases suggest that faith in human nature was buoyed by rescuers' post-attack responses to the terrorist strikes.

For more information on the 2001 National Tragedy Study, contact William Harms at (703) 292-8070.

The Resilient

American adults were less likely to feel nervous and tense after the Sept. 11 attacks (51 percent) than after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 (68 percent).

Felt very nervous and tense 68% 51% 63%
Felt sort of dazed and numb 57% 46% 43%
Cried 53% 60% 72%
Had trouble getting to sleep 48% 50% 62%
Didn't feel like eating 43% 29% 43%
Felt more tired than usual 42% 36% 48%
Kept forgetting things 34% 19% 24%
Smoked much more than usual 29% 21% 20%
Had rapid heartbeats 26% 16% 24%
Had headaches 25% 20% 25%
Had an upset stomach 22% 35% 35%
Lost temper more than usual 19% 20% 26%
Hands sweat, felt clammy 17% 9% 13%
Dizzy at times 12% 8% 16%
Felt like getting drunk 4% 7% 12%
Felt none of these 11% 11% 4%
Source: National Opinion Research Center


How will the events of Sept. 11 affect Americans' willingness to give to charities in the future? If history is any indication, people may be opening their wallets wider in 2002. A look at Americans' total contributions before, during and after 13 national crises revealed that three times out of four, more money was collected the year after a crisis, than the year of or the year preceding the incident, according to researchers at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, and the American Association of Fundraising Counsel (AAFRC) Trust for Philanthropy.

Overall, monetary donations to charities in the U.S. are expected to continue to increase, as they have every year but one (1987) for the past 40 years. But it still remains to be seen whether the tremendous outpouring to Sept. 11 charities will ultimately decrease the amount given to other philanthropic organizations this year, says Melissa S. Brown, managing editor of Giving USA, a publication of the AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy. The Center on Philanthropy bases its predictions of total giving on personal income data, stock market performance and tax law changes that affect charitable giving. “Fundamentally, giving is tied to the economy,� says Brown. “But that model cannot account for what happened on Sept. 11.�

— Sandra Yin

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