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In poll, terror fears subsiding in Mass.

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 7, 2011

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We are less afraid. We think about the attacks less frequently. We believe our government is doing a better job of keeping us safe.

And yet we think Logan International Airport, the launching pad for two hijacked planes, remains no more secure than any other airport in the country. We worry the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased, not reduced, the risk of a terrorist attack; we believe it likely they will strike again within a few years.

When terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed the nation would feel under siege forever, that every plane swooping low on the horizon signaled danger, every tall building a potential target. But according to a Globe poll 10 years after the attacks, Massachusetts residents have regained a guarded equanimity, making a kind of peace with the prospect that something terrible could happen.

Just 11 percent of the residents who responded to the poll said they think about the attacks daily, down from 23 percent five years ago, and 21 percent say they think about them weekly, down from 34 percent in 2006, the last time the Globe surveyed residents on the subject. As a result, respondents say, they are much less likely to take risk-avoiding steps - avoiding large public gatherings or mass transit, for example - than 10 years ago.

Just under a quarter said they avoided air travel immediately after the attacks; 10 percent said they still do, down from 18 percent in 2006.

“It doesn’t affect me because if I have to go on a plane, I have to go on a plane,’’ said respondent Kathleen Leddie, 42, a psychiatric nurse from Duxbury, who estimates that she thinks about the attacks “when I hear someone mention it.’’

“Whatever is going to happen is going to happen,’’ she said.

Overall, the poll suggests that many who were once uneasy about another attack are no longer consumed by such a threat.

“I think most of the general public has a short memory,’’ said Gary Ricci, 55, a retired court officer from West Peabody who responded to the poll. “Unless it’s directed at them or their families, we all tend to forget. . . . It’s like the death of a parent. You never forget about them, but as time goes by, you remember less.’’

The telephone poll of 500 randomly selected Massachusetts adults was conducted Aug. 20 to Aug. 31 by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Although the poll conducted in 2006 surveyed only Eastern Massachusetts residents, the addition of Western Massachusetts in the new poll did not substantially change the results, said Andrew E. Smith, director of the survey center.

“Overall, there is a softening’’ of anxiety about terror, Smith said. “The emotion has left most people’s lives when they’re thinking about 9/11.’’

Yet there is still an undercurrent of concern: A plurality of residents, 45 percent, said they feel less safe than they did before Sept. 11, a figure that has not changed since 2006. Thirty-nine percent said they feel as safe as they did before the attacks.

The government’s response to terrorism gets mixed reviews. Nearly half, 49 percent, said the federal government is doing a good job defending the country from future attacks, up from 34 percent in 2006, when George W. Bush was president. Eleven percent said the government’s defense is poor, down from 23 percent five years ago.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan inspire less confidence. Nearly half of respondents, 45 percent, said the wars increased the risk of another attack, while only 22 percent believe they have reduced it. Nearly half of residents, 49 percent, said the killing of Osama bin Laden did not have any effect on the level of threat. Only 26 percent said it had reduced that threat.

Most residents, 65 percent, believe the Boston area is just as vulnerable to terrorism as it was after the attacks, a figure virtually unchanged since 2006.

“Do I think we live in a safer country? For the most part,’’ Leddie, the Duxbury nurse, said. “But something could happen at any time.’’

Just over half of residents said Logan is no safer than other airports, even though it has been the focus of cutting-edge security. Despite lukewarm feelings about airport security, most residents, 66 percent, said race and ethnicity should be disregarded when doing security checks at airports, up from 52 percent in 2006.

Thomas Grossi, 67, a retired police officer and Vietnam veteran from Dighton, is among the dwindling number who still feel a powerful connection to Sept. 11. He sounds outraged when talking about the attacks and what he calls the government’s “politically correct’’ approach toward prosecuting the war on terror.

He said he knew the father of Peter A. Gay of Tewksbury, a passenger killed on American Airlines Flight 11. After the attacks, Grossi said, some of his children’s friends fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When they come on our soil and they devastate our people and property,’’ he said, “I think of it every day.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson