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Civil Liberties vs. Security: Public Opinion in the Context of the Terrorist Attacks on America


  • For their financial support of the “Attack on America, Civil Liberties Trade-offs, and Ethnic Tolerance” survey, we are grateful to the National Science Foundation (SES-0140541) and the College of Social Science at Michigan State University. For their professional work in administering the survey, we thank Karen Clark and Larry Hembroff of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. We appreciate the continuing advice of Jim Gibson and Paul Sniderman on the project, as well as helpful comments on an earlier draft of the article by Saundra Schneider.

Darren W. Davis is Associate Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University, 303 S. Kedzie Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824-1032 ( Brian D. Silver is Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University, 303 S. Kedzie Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824-1032 (


In the tradition of research on political tolerance and democratic rights in context, this study uses a national survey of Americans conducted shortly after the September 11, 2001 attack on America to investigate people's willingness to trade off civil liberties for greater personal safety and security. We find that the greater people's sense of threat, the lower their support for civil liberties. This effect interacts, however, with trust in government. The lower people's trust in government, the less willing they are to trade off civil liberties for security, regardless of their level of threat. African Americans are much less willing to trade civil liberties for security than whites or Latinos, even with other factors taken into account. This may reflect their long-standing commitment to the struggle for rights. Liberals are less willing to trade off civil liberties than moderates or conservatives, but liberals converge toward the position taken by conservatives when their sense of the threat of terrorism is high. While not a forecast of the future, the results indicate that Americans' commitment to democratic values is highly contingent on other concerns and that the context of a large-scale threat to national or personal security can induce a substantial willingness to give up rights.