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Jennifer Merolla Ph.D. Headshot
Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, Ph.D. Headshot

Reconsidering Public Reactions to Terrorism

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The threat of international terrorism has moved from the periphery of our national radar to center stage once again. For much of last year, home foreclosures, health care costs, layoffs, and other economic issues stole the spotlight away from the malevolent machinations of terrorists.

A couple weeks ago, we learned that authorities arrested Najibullah Zazi, an immigrant from Afghanistan, on allegations of plotting an attack on the New York City subway system on Sept. 11. Two men were spotted taking extensive photos of the Philadelphia subway system, but have not yet been identified. Earlier that week, a Jordanian was charged with trying to blow up a skyscraper in Dallas, while a citizen was arrested for trying to blow up a building in Illinois.

In short, these events reminded us that the threat posed by international terrorism is far from over. Does such a shift in the media's focus on terrorist threat carry political implications? The findings of our new book reveal that this type of news coverage can profoundly affect how the public engages with politics.

For the last five years we have researched the connection between times of terrorist threats and public opinion. In a series of tightly designed experiments, we expose subsets of research participants to a news story not unlike the type that aired last week. We argue that attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors change in at least three politically-relevant ways when terror threat is more prominent in the news. Some of these transformations are in accord with conventional wisdom concerning how we might expect the public to react. Others are more surprising, and more disconcerting in their implications for the quality of democracy.

One way that public opinion shifts is toward increased expressions of distrust. In some ways this strategy has been actively promoted by our political leaders. The Bush administration repeatedly reminded the public to keep eyes and ears open to help identify dangerous persons. A strategy of vigilance has also been endorsed by the new secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.

Nonetheless, the breadth of increased distrust that the public puts into practice is striking. Individuals threatened by terrorism become less trusting of others, even their own neighbors. Other studies have shown that they become less supportive of the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans. In addition, we found that such effects extend to immigrants and, as well, to a group entirely remote from the subject of terrorism: gay Americans. The specter of terrorist threat creates ruptures in our social fabric, some of which may be justified as necessary tactics in the fight against terrorism and others that simply cannot.

Another way public opinion shifts under a terrorist threat is toward inflated evaluations of certain leaders. To look for strong leadership makes sense: crises should impel us toward leadership bold enough to confront the threat and strong enough to protect us from it. But the public does more than call for heroes in times of crisis. It projects leadership qualities onto political figures, with serious political consequences.

In studies conducted in 2004, we found that individuals threatened by terrorism perceived George W. Bush as more charismatic and stronger than did non-threatened individuals. This projection of leadership had important consequences for voting decisions. Individuals threatened by terrorism were more likely to base voting decisions on leadership qualities rather than on their own issue positions or partisanship. You did read that correctly. Threatened individuals responded with elevated evaluations of Bush's capacity for leadership and then used those inflated evaluations as the primary determinant in their voting decision.

These findings did not just occur among Republicans, but also among Independents and Democrats. All partisan groups who perceived Bush as more charismatic were also less willing to blame him for policy failures such as faulty intelligence that led to the war in Iraq.

The Bush phenomenon is not unique. We found a similar projection of enhanced leadership qualities onto Arnold Schwarzenegger, among those exposed to our terror threat news story during the 2006 California gubernatorial election. We even found the same type of effect in Mexico during their 2006 presidential election in support of Felipe Caldéron, a conservative candidate representing the incumbent party.

Why these leaders? The public's tendency to rally around the sitting executive when confronted with an external threat has been well documented by political science research, as has the Republican Party's ownership of national security issues. It is unclear whether the threat of terrorism will similarly enhance evaluations of Barack Obama. On the one hand, his incumbency status may benefit him; on the other, his party does not carry the mantle of national security policy.

A third way public opinion shifts in response to terrorism is toward greater preferences for policies that protect the homeland, even at the expense of civil liberties, and active engagement against terrorists abroad. Such a strategy was advocated and implemented by the Bush administration. Again, however, we found that preferences shifted toward these objectives regardless of one's partisan stripes and, as well, outside the U.S.

While some of these changes may differ in the post-Bush era, they still have the potential to place stress on the quality of our nation's democracy. When increased media attention on terrorism sends a chill up our collective spine, our research cautions us to take pause, and consider whether our desire to cope psychologically with the fear of international terrorism is changing our political attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors in some ways that are more detrimental than useful.

Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister are the authors of Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public (University of Chicago Press, 2009).