The Washington Post

Like most people who write about Washington politics, I operate from a bifurcated point of view whose components are A) a set of positions I favor on a variety of issues and B) a curiosity about how the Washington animal works. One must be vigilant against allowing the former to interfere with one’s investigations into the latter. But, of course, this is not an easy thing.

In the aftermath of September 11, it struck me that the devastating attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon would buttress the case for a missile defense system. Here, after all, was an example of a determined enemy out to inflict as much damage on the territory of the United States as possible. If such an enemy had a missile capable of reaching us, there is no reason to think he wouldn’t fire it.

But on further reflection, did I mean that the attack would buttress the case for missile defense or that it should buttress the case? Long ago, after all, I had reached the conclusion that it made sense for the United States to build and deploy such a system.

Meanwhile, it quickly became apparent in the Washington salons of national security and foreign policy that people who had never been in favor of missile defense took the meaning of the September 11 attack to be just the opposite with regard to the issue. For them, here was proof of the folly of spending money on an expensive and (to their minds) unworkable defense system. If your enemies are determined to reach you, their weapons will be utility knives capable of transforming airliners into fuel bombs. Missile defense is no defense against the more plausible avenues of attack. Thus for them, September 11 would (make that “should”?) tend to undermine the case for missile defense.

Thanks to a survey conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, we now have some data to help us untangle the “would” from the competing “shoulds.” Support for missile defense has, in fact, increased significantly over levels found in an early September pre-attack survey. Sixty-four percent of Americans now say they favor a missile defense system, up from 56 percent.

But this is not so much where the question gets settled as where it gets interesting. Support among men for missile defense hasn’t changed from early September levels. All the movement in the survey is attributable to women, who have long lagged men in support for such a system but have now eliminated the gender gap in its entirety, increasing their level of support from 52 percent in early September to 64 percent now.

But it’s not just missile defense on which women’s opinion has moved. Support for increased spending for the military is also up for both men and women, but most sharply among women. In early September, 24 percent favored more spending on defense; by now, that figure is 47 percent (support among men moved up from 39 percent to 53 percent over the same period). And there is a greater sense of urgency among women now than previously. Half say they want a system now, up from 29 percent, again closing the gender gap with men.

But if you scratch a little further in the survey, you do find a gender gap. It arises in relation to perceptions of threat. Sixty-three percent of men think another terrorist attack is imminent, whereas eight in ten women do. About 34 percent of women say life has returned to normal, compared to 48 percent of men. And one in five women think life will never return to normal.

In short, women feel more threatened than they did before and than men do now. This is the point at which supporters of missile defense should take note. I think it’s probably reasonable to interpret women’s increased support for missile defense not as a sudden increase in enthusiasm for missile defense as such but as part of a sharp secular swing in favor of increased security measures in general.

This also makes sense in the context of the long-running debate over the issue. There have always been, in effect, two arguments going on. One, of course, was over the particular likelihood of a missile attack on the United States and thus the necessity of trying to develop a capability to stop it. But that particular debate also served as a proxy for an underlying argument, which was over the broader question of how threatened the United States really was.

It’s the second question on which people’s opinions have shifted decisively since September 11, especially women’s opinion (and especially among mothers, the survey shows). Smart policy-makers – and dare one say, smart politicians? – will respond to the entirety of this shift, not just the particular elements they have long favored.