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Americans Less Positive About Civil Liberties

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FILE - This April 28, 2021, file photo shows the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans were reasonably positive about the state of their rights and liberties. Today, after 20 years, not as much. That’s according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that builds on work conducted in 2011, one decade after the pivotal moment in U.S. history. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans were reasonably positive about the state of their rights and liberties. Today, after 20 years, not as much.

That’s according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that builds on work conducted in 2011, one decade after the pivotal moment in U.S. history. Some questions were also asked on polls conducted in 2013 and 2015.

Americans were relatively united around the idea that the government did a good job protecting many basic rights a decade after the terrorist attacks, which produced a massive overhaul of the country’s intelligence services and the creation of agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. Along with those changes came a creeping concern about government overreach, although Americans as a whole remained fairly positive.

That attitude has eroded in the years since, with far fewer people now saying the government is doing a good job protecting rights including the freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to bear arms and others.

For example, the poll finds that 45% of Americans now say they think the U.S. government is doing a good job defending freedom of speech, compared with 32% who say it’s doing a poor job and 23% who say neither. The share saying the government is doing a good job is down from 71% in 2011 and from 59% in 2015.

Dee Geddes, 73, a retiree in Chamberlain, South Dakota, said she was frustrated at the government’s apparent lack of ability to safeguard the amount of private information available, especially online.

“It bothers me when I can go on the internet and find pretty much anything about anybody. It makes me feel sort of naked,” said Geddes, who identifies as a Republican. “It does bother me how much the government knows about us, but that goes back to the fact that there’s so much out there period. It’s discouraging.”

About half now say the government is doing a good job protecting freedom of religion, compared with three-quarters who said the same in 2011.

More Americans now think the government is doing a poor job than a good one at protecting the right to equal protection under the law, 49% to 27%. In 2011, opinions were reversed, with more people saying the government was doing a good job than a poor one, 48% to 37%.

The poll also finds that 54% of Americans say it’s “sometimes necessary for the government to sacrifice some rights and freedoms to fight terrorism,” compared with 64% a decade ago. Now, 44% say that’s never necessary at all.

A majority of Democrats say it’s sometimes necessary, which is largely consistent with previous AP-NORC polls. But Republicans are now closely divided, with 46% saying it’s sometimes necessary and 53% saying it’s never necessary. In 2011, 69% of Republicans said it was sometimes necessary, and 62% said the same in 2015.

Brandon Wilson, 23, a business and animation student at College of DePage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois who described himself as a conservative, said he understood that steps taken after Sept. 11 may have initially seemed to constrain Americans’ rights, but that he ultimately felt the actions had been for the greater good.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Wilson said of measures such as increased airline passenger screening. “The government is helping the general public and, overall, trying to make people’s lives better.”

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