In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, it’s easy to see how people react. There’s fear and uncertainty. People wonder if they’ll be next, and if so, where will the attack happen? Whether it’s from a spontaneous outburst of anger or confusion or whether some subset of the population is secretly rejoicing at the news.
These are understandable reactions in light of recent events. The global threat posed by terrorism has been rapidly increasing over the past decade, with many countries experiencing multiple attacks on a single day for the first time ever. The numbers are staggering: In 2017 alone there were nearly 20,000 victims killed by terrorism worldwide and more than 25,000 wounded. That makes terrorism one of the top two causes of death and injury worldwide among adults aged 15-49 years old, according to research from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Most people recognize that there are consequences to these actions beyond what happens at the moment following an attack; however, others may be less aware of this as a result of recent events or different life circumstances. The effects that terrorist attacks have on public attitudes can be complex and vary widely from individual to individual depending on a variety of factors including age, political orientation, education level, religious beliefs, race, gender identity, & socioeconomic status.
Public attitudes toward terrorism are complex and often contradictory. In general, people tend to support specific counterterrorism measures, such as the arrest of a terrorist or the closing of a radical religious school but oppose measures that are indiscriminate or more comprehensive, such as creating a new government agency dedicated to combating terrorism. Attitudes toward terrorism also vary across different countries and regions based on factors such as the frequency of attacks in the region or its susceptibility to terrorist attacks and security threats; this is known as country risk or threat perception. In some countries, political sensitivities around fighting terrorism could lead to hesitation when it comes to taking robust action against potential perpetrators; this is known as political risk. In order to understand public attitudes toward terrorism and reduce the effectiveness of terrorists’ propaganda, it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of how these attitudes change over time.
Fear and Uncertainty
Terrorism can cause people to feel nervous, frightened, and worried. Beyond the immediate shock of an attack, this is because people assume the worst when they hear about it, and they feel the responsibility to take action not only to protect themselves but also to prevent future attacks. Many people experience these kinds of emotions after a natural disaster occurs, for instance, if a hurricane or flood hits their community. And yet, the level of fear and uncertainty that is caused by terrorism is much amplified and can last for weeks or months after an attack. One study found a significant increase in both general anxiety and specific anxiety among study participants one month after a terrorist attack. The researchers note that anxiety is a normal response to an unfamiliar situation and that people experiencing it are not necessarily symptomatic of a mental disorder. Still, medical professionals keep an eye out for anxiety disorders that may be triggered by heightened levels of fear and worry in a population.
Dehumanization and Disrespect for Civilians
Terrorist attacks are frequently characterized by mass killings of civilians who are often described as “innocent” or “uninvolved.” These terms suggest that civilians are not responsible for what happens to them, and they may even be praised by the attackers. By dehumanizing civilians, terrorist attacks may also contribute to feelings of prejudice and intolerance toward them. People who dehumanize their fellow citizens may also be more likely to discriminate against or even harm them. This can take the form of physical violence, such as assault, or more subtle forms of social exclusion, such as being excluded from opportunities for higher education or employment. If people dehumanize their fellow citizens, they are also more likely to be involved in illegal activities, such as illegal discrimination (e.g., against people on the basis of race, gender, or other minority status). They are also more likely to support extremist ideologies or support extremist groups.
Belief in Extremism
Terrorist attacks can have a significant impact on public attitudes toward extremist ideologies. These attitudes can include sympathy for a particular group or belief system, or active readiness to engage in violence in its name. It is unclear exactly how terrorist attacks affect public support for extremist ideologies. One possible explanation is that people who are fearful after a terrorist attack may turn to simplistic solutions or feel as though they need to protect themselves from future harm. This could lead them to be more receptive to extremist messages that promise security through strength, certainty, and strength of arms.
Effect on Political Orientation
Terrorist attacks may also affect public attitudes toward political parties and politicians. People may resent the fact that they were unable to protect themselves or their loved ones, and they may be especially frustrated by the inability to influence the actions of the government in response. A significant percentage of the Pakistani population has expressed dissatisfaction with the current political system in recent years, as well as dissatisfaction with the major political parties. These attitudes could be affected by terrorist attacks, as people might feel frustrated by the same circumstances and frustrated with the major political parties for not preventing the attacks.
Negative Consequences of Terrorism for Women and Minority Groups
A significant portion of the public has expressed concern about how terrorism affects women and girls, particularly how it affects their physical and mental health. After a terrorist attack, people may feel especially vulnerable due to feelings of helplessness and stress, and they may be less likely to seek help. Terrorist attacks may also increase the risk of domestic violence and sexual assault. Women are already at a higher risk of experiencing physical and sexual violence, and terrorist attacks can heighten their risk even further by leaving them feeling vulnerable and weak. People who have exhibited anti-minority attitudes in the past may also be more likely to express these views after a terrorist attack, as they may feel that minorities are responsible for bringing the attack upon themselves.
Terrorism is a serious threat to people around the world, and it can have important consequences for public attitudes. These include increased fear, dehumanization, belief in extremism, and frustration with political systems that fail to protect the public. Public attitudes toward these issues can be affected by the timing of an attack and the type of attack. For example, a large-scale attack that affects many people, such as a bombing or a shooting at a crowded place, will have a bigger impact on people’s attitudes. The important thing to remember is that terrorist attacks do not define a person or culture. Public attitudes towards extremist ideologies, dehumanization of civilians, and frustration with political systems that fail to protect citizens will continue to fluctuate no matter how many people die at the hands of extremists.