Democracy and fear of terrorism

En av statens kjernefunksjoner er å beskytte sine borgere. En viktig del av beskyttelsesfunksjonen er å unngå eller redusere spredningen av frykt blant borgerne. En ny studie undersøker hvorvidt demokratisk styre reduserer eller øker frykten for terrorisme.

Av Dag Arne Christensen og Jacob Aars*

One of the state’s core functions is to protect its citizens. Protection from various threats, like terrorist attacks, diseases or natural disasters, is in the interest of the citizens. But it is also in the interest of the state itself. However, the preservation of stable and predictable social conditions does not depend solely on the prevention of actual threats. An important aspect of the safekeeping function is to avoid or reduce the spread of fear among its citizens. One of the prime goals of terrorist activities is to spread fear among target populations and thereby forcing governments into action, possibly overreaction. Fighting fear can thus be a crucial part of counterterrorist policies.

Much of the previous work on terrorism and fear has put the accent on individual-level explanations. A number of studies have investigated the links between democracy and the occurrence of terrorist attacks. Previous research also suggests a number of individual-level influences on citizens` fear of terrorism like gender, education, and age. Yet, terrorism is one hazard that cannot be resolved by individuals; it necessarily takes some form of collective effort. Citizens will look to the state for relief when terrorism threatens.

To our knowledge no studies have been undertaken to explore how different contexts such as democracy relate to fear of terrorism at the individual level. Thus, it is crucial to ask whether fear among citizens varies across types of government. In other words, we need studies that link citizens’ fear to features of the state. Our study aims to fill part of this research gap by asking whether democratic government reduces or increases fear of terrorism.

To answer this question, our study employ a cross-national comparative approach using data from the 2014 World Value Survey (WVS) on a sample of 57,294 individuals across 49 countries. The dependent variable in the analysis, fear of terrorism, is based on the following question in the WVS: “To what degree are you worried about the following situations?” Our key variable of interest at the country-level, democracy, is measured with a simple indicator separating between “Free”, “Partly free” and “Not free” countries. Around 45 percent of the respondents in the 2014 World Value Survey live in “Free” countries, 29 percent in “Partly free” countries, and 26 percent in “Not free” countries. The dataset allows us to study both individual- and contextual-level determinants of citizens’ fear of terrorism in a diverse set of countries.

The literature provides arguments pointing in opposite directions. Some claim that the open and competitive nature of democratic polities provides leeway for terrorists as well as incentives for messengers who spread fear. Others argue that the same transparent and competitive features of the system represent a potential resilience against persons or groups who play with fear of terrorist attacks. We are thus entering the empirical analysis with two opposing but plausible hypotheses about the effects of democracy:

H1: Citizens’ fear of terrorism tends to be greater in democratically governed countries.

H2: Citizens’ fear of terrorism tends to be lesser in democratically governed countries.

After testing for a range of variables at the citizen level and controlling for exposure to terrorism in the 49 countries Figure 1 depicts our main result. The Figure shows that the propensity to fear terrorism decreases as the degree of democracy increases. However, the propensity to fear terrorism is identical in not free and partly free countries (0.74 or 74 percent). In countries categorized as free the comparable figure is 0.57 (57 percent). The gap between respondents living in free countries and those living in either partly free countries or not free countries is around 15 percentage points. Even if fear of terrorism is less widespread in free countries, the level of fear is considerable also in the most democratic countries.

Figure 1 Fear of terrorism by democracy

(Predicted probabilities with 95% confidence intervals – N citizens=57,294, N Countries=49)

Christensen fig

We find that worries about terrorist incidents vary considerably cross-nationally. This result alone testifies to the necessity of studying contextual-level determinants when trying to disentangle fear of terrorism. Apparently, states vary greatly in their capacity to counteract citizens’ fear of terrorism. We also find (before including democracy) that citizens worry more about terrorism in countries exposed to it. Still, the probability of fearing terrorism is considerable also in countries not often exposed to it.

Introducing democracy in the analysis shows that people worry significantly less about terrorism in democratic countries compared to citizens in non-democratic countries controlled for exposure to terrorist attacks and living conditions in the respective countries.

The common message from existing research on terrorism is that a country’s best defense against terrorism is to enhance its legitimacy, not only through democratic practices but also through liberal practices both at home and abroad. Our analysis indicates that this holds true even if fear is widespread also in democracies. The results point to a resilience characteristic of democratic government.

Democratic regimes allow for a wider scope of political actors to take part in public discussion, also those who tend to play with fear or aim to stir up anxiety as a means of advancing their office ambitions. In the longer run, however, it seems like democratic government produces counterweights to those who trade in scaremongering. Frightful messages are neutralized through counter-arguments. Future research should explore this relationship further by combining cross sectional surveys with panel data at the country level. Our study points towards further research on contextual-level explanations for fear.

An important question concerns the variation in policy responses to the terrorist threat. Fear of terrorist attacks has moved political leaders in many countries to curtail civil rights. What has been accomplished by policy tools like these? Have those legal restrictions been successful in lessening fear among citizens? The study also indicates the need for further inquiries about other institutional determinants as well as the effects of counterterrorist policies.

Kilde: Christensen, D. A., & Aars, J. (2017). Does Democracy Decrease Fear of Terrorism?. Terrorism and Political Violence, 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2017.1287700

*Dag Arne Christensen er forskningsleder ved Uni Reasearch Rokkansenteret

Jacob Aars er professor og instituttleder ved Institutt for administrasjons- og organisasjonsvitenskap ved Universitetet i Bergen

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