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2011 European Intelligence and Security Informatics Conference

Terrorism, Threat and Time


The mediating effect of terrorist threat on public willingness to forego civil liberties

Dale Elvy
School of Politics and International Relations
Australian National University
Canberra, Australia
dale.elvy@anu.edu.au
Australian citizens in terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 and
2005. A majority of the Australian public believe there is a
strong probability of a future terrorist attack on Australian soil.

Abstract Public trust in government efforts to combat


terrorism is of central importance to policy makers and terrorists
alike. Undermining the publics confidence in its government is a
central aim of any strategy of terrorism, while public support is
critical to securing funding for, and acceptance of, counterterrorism measures. This article uses two national surveys of
Australians, carried out over the last four years, to study the role
of public confidence in government through the willingness of
citizens to allow the police to search, without a court order, the
homes of suspected terrorists, the impact of perceived personal
threat, and the probability of future terrorist attacks on
Australia. The results indicate that there is a strong relationship
between public fear of terrorism, and the willingness of the
public to allow the erosion of civil liberties for increased security,
leading to the conclusion that the greater the perceived personal
threat of terrorism the public has, the more likely the public is to
accept infringements of civil liberties, which could undermine the
existing arrangements of liberal democracy and potentially play
into terrorist aims, while the perceived probability of a future
terrorist attack on domestic soil acts as a significant mediating
factor, which decreases during periods with no high-visibility
terrorist attacks.

This article draws on two national surveys carried out in


Australia in 2007 and 2009 to test the impact of the level of
perceived personal threat of terrorism on public willingness to
trade civil liberties for increased security, and to establish if
there is a statistically significant relationship. As trust
translates to support for increased public spending and resource
allocation, confidence in government is critical to both the
strategy of terrorism and counter-terrorism policy [4]. The
theory that the perceived risk of a probable future terrorist
attack will act as a significant mediating variable on the
relationship between the fear of becoming a victim of terrorism
and t a respondents satisfaction with government efforts to
combat terrorism will also be tested.
Due to the absence of a spectacular mass-casualty attacks
upon Anglo-American democracies between 2007 and 2009
this article also tests the theory that a population with an
overwhelmingly positive outlook should experience a
corresponding improvement in public confidence about
government efforts to combat terrorism, influenced by a
reduced perception of the probability of a future terrorist attack
on Australia.

Keywords; public opinion, terrorism, civil liberties, public


policy, counter-terrorism

I.

INTRODUCTION

International terrorism has emerged as one of the most


challenging and important issues for governments in the
twenty-first century [1]. The effects of terrorism on society are
diverse and far reaching. Terrorism is principally about
creating an effect which transcends the immediate victims, and
impacts a broader populace [2]. Terrorists often intend to drive
up public anxiety to exert pressure on governments to take
actions which undermine their credibility [3]. This increases
the importance of public confidence in government, and makes
government communication with the public about terrorism of
critical importance.

II.

A strategy of terrorism 1 is intended to erode public


confidence in government to the extent it disrupts daily life [4].
Ultimately, the terrorist aim may be to provoke the authorities
to curtail human rights and civil liberties, and thereby
undermine the legitimate basis of the governments authority
a tactic which is particularly effective in democracies which are
in the process of consolidation [5]. Modern terrorism also
utilizes the mass media in order to spread this fear to a wider
audience than the actual victims of an attack and their
immediate family and friends [6]. To that end, a terrorist attack
must have a broader meaning than the immediate suffering and

Australia has not suffered a major mass-casualty terrorist


attack on domestic soil, which has led to a correspondingly
high degree of perceived safety when considering world
events. However, Australia has not been entirely unaffected
by the rise of modern terrorism and due to close ties with the
United States and United Kingdom, participation in the
conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the targeting of

978-0-7695-4406-9/11 $26.00 2011 IEEE


DOI 10.1109/EISIC.2011.35

BACKGROUND

Any discussion of terrorism must first bridge the problem of defining such a
contested and nebulous phenomena. For the purposes of this article, terrorism
is defined as a psychological, rather than a military activity, carried out by
those without real political power, which invokes violence, or the threat of
violence, to affect public psychology and communicate a message, and
thereby fulfill ideological or political objectives.

52

Australian public, despite the geographic and cultural distance


from the victims. These attacks fostered a strong sense of
solidarity with the United States, with which Australia has
strong cultural, economic and historical ties, and considers its
most significant ally. A 2009 Lowy Poll (an annual national
survey on foreign affairs, n=1000) found that more than 80%
of Australians considered the ANZUS alliance to be
important, with a majority (55%) rating the alliance as very
important to Australia [16]. Australian politicians wasted no
time in echoing the rhetoric of their US counterparts,
describing the attacks on New York and Washington as the
outbreak of an unprecedented struggle of national proportions
[17].

damage it causes. A terrorist attack represents a means to


create a symbolic message which will be widely broadcast
and absorbed by terrorist supporters, and others alike [7].
Thus, terrorism involves the creation of the psychological
effect of terror with the aim of achieving a political effect [8].
The effectiveness of terrorism is measured by the fear and
anxiety caused in a target population and government [9], for
without capturing the publics attention the effects of an attack
are confined to the victims, and their families and friends.
Therefore, public opinion is an essential element of terrorism.
Ultimately the terrorists hope to manipulate public opinion, and
pressure governments, through creating and exploiting a fear of
violence to achieve their objectives [10]. The role of public
opinion, collected through credible, national, opinion polling
provides a valuable insight into the public mind, and should
allow us to test several theories about the psychological impact
modern terrorism actually has on a nation, past research has
already demonstrated the importance of measuring public
opinion toward terrorism [10]; [11]; [12]; [13]; [14]; [15]; [4],
and has clear implications for policy makers.

Australian public perceptions of safety have remained


constantly high over the last five years. Australia has been an
active participant in the war on terror contributing troops to
both Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia has been actively targeted
by radical Islamic terrorists, including being targeted abroad by
Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah in the Bali
bombings of 2002 and 2005 which claimed 92 Australian lives.
However, the Australian public has consistently reported a high
level of perceived safety in regard to international events.
Generally only a very small minority of Australians report
feeling unsafe or very unsafe when thinking about world
events, and the number of Australians who feel very safe
rather than merely safe has increased over the last 5 years.

Australias experience of modern terrorism during the last


century has been both sporadic and fleeting, characterised by
acts of violence, largely devoid of terrorist message or
narrative. The bombing of the Sydney Hilton hotel in 1978
which killed 3 and injured 11 is perhaps the most prominent act
of terrorism on Australian soil, although as the motives and
agendas of the perpetrators remain obscure, there was little
chance of this single act being translated into the type of
message employed by a majority of terrorists. Other acts of
domestic terrorism, such as the Turkish Consulate bombing in
1986, and attempted bombing of the United States Consulate in
Melbourne in 1968, demonstrate that Australia has not been
entirely immune from terrorism. In these cases, however,
Australia was merely a convenient staging area for attacks that
were not directed at the Australian people or their political
leaders.

Modern terrorism has, however, remained a prescient


personal threat for the Australian public. The 2007 Australian
Election Study (n=1873) [18] included a question, intended to
assess the perceived level of personal threat: How concerned
are you personally about you yourself or a family member
being the victim of a future terrorist attack in Australia?
Responses were provided on a Likert scale ranging from Very
Concerned through to Not concerned at all Almost half of
respondents reported being concerned or very concerned
(49.8%) about the prospect of becoming a victim of terrorism.
The same question was again asked in the 2009 ANU Poll on
Foreign Affairs and Defence (n=1200) [19] and recorded much
the same finding, with the number concerned or very

It is telling that the terrorist attacks of September 11 on


New York and Washington had a strong impact on the

Source: Australian Social Science Data Archive, the Australian National University.

53

concerned having declined only slightly (44.3%) An


independent groups T-test was carried out to verify whether the
change between surveys was significant, and confirmed a
statistically significant change for this question t(2417) =-4.06,
p<.001.

confidence in government, and altering the balance between


civil liberties and security in a state, then such terrorism may
have serious ramifications for both the stability and structural
underpinnings of the state [5]. Increased levels of threat in the
U.S. have also been found to increase public support for
military action [21] and aggressive national security policy
[15], [13] which has a powerful effect on the formulation and
implementation of government policy.

A significant number of Australians perceive terrorism on


domestic soil to be a probable part of their future. In both the
2007 and 2009 surveys, respondents were also asked to
consider the likely future security environment, and the
probability of future terrorism, and offered the proposition
Acts of terrorism in Australia will be part of life in the future.
As with the previous questions, a Likert scale which included
the responses strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree,
disagree or strongly disagree. In 2007 a majority of
Australians (62%) either agreed or strongly agreed with the
proposition, while nearly a quarter of respondents neither
agreed nor disagreed (24%). By 2009 the number of
Australians who believed a terrorist attack likely or very likely
had only decreased slightly (50%), while the number who
neither agreed nor disagreed had declined substantially (4.2%),
with the balance disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the
proposition, a statistically significant difference from 2007
t(1969) =-8.67, p<.001.

This article tests the relationship between perceived


personal threat of terrorism and public satisfaction with
government efforts to combat terrorism through the analysis of
two survey data sets which draw on identical questions.
Specifically it is hypothesised that in both surveys (1) the
personal threat of terrorism will be significantly correlated with
the willingness to allow the police to search the homes of those
who might be sympathetic to terrorists without obtaining a
warrant, meaning that the greater the perceived personal threat,
the greater the willingness to allow this erosion of civil
liberties. (2) When we control for other demographic variables,
the independent variable of the personal threat of terrorism will
have a significant impact on the dependent variable of
satisfaction with the willingness to allow the police to search
the homes of those who might be sympathetic to terrorists
without obtaining a warrant. (3) The perceived risk of a
probable future terrorist attack will act as a significant
mediating variable on the relationship between the independent
variable of the fear of becoming a victim of terrorism and the
dependent variable of a respondents willingness to trade civil
liberties for increased security.

Australian public confidence in government has remained


reasonably constant over the last decade and a half. A majority
of Australians believe that their government is motivated by
self-interest to some extent, with the greatest level of trust
being recorded in 1996, when the Howard Government was
elected. After a noticeable drop in 1998, a trend of increasing
confidence was observed from 2001 to 2007, with the 2007
study recording the lowest number of people who believe the
government is usually self-interested. Both surveys in 2007
and 2009 suggested: the police should be allowed to search
the houses of people who might be sympathetic to terrorists
without a court order. Respondents had a range of possible
options on a Likert scale from strongly agree, agree, neither
agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree. In 2007 a
majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the
proposition (50.5%).
These numbers did not change
significantly between surveys t(2227)=-2.01, p=.05, and by the
time of the 2009 survey the number who agreed, or strongly
agreed, was nearly identical (51.5%).
III.

Baldwin et al [4] suggest that, following a terrorist attack,


people can be divided into two main groups; those with an
optimistic outlook, and those with a pessimistic outlook. They
predict that those with a positive outlook will experience an
increase in confidence over a period of 1-5 years and
eventually public confidence will grow beyond pre-attack
levels, while those with a more negative disposition will
decrease in confidence and never recover their full confidence.
Given that Australian public opinion regarding concern about
international events has remained consistently high, it seems
appropriate to hypothesise that the majority of the Australian
public has an optimistic outlook toward terrorism. Therefore,
as the psychological impact of major terrorist attacks
diminishes (the most recent to capture mass media attention in
Australia being the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and the
London underground bombing of 2005), there should be a
corresponding improvement in public confidence about
government efforts to combat terrorism, and less willingness to
see civil liberties eroded in the interests of security, influenced
by a reduced perception in the probability of a future terrorist
attack on Australia. It is, therefore, also hypothesised that (4)
the extent to which the perceived probability of terrorist attack
mediates relationship between the other variables, will decline
between 2007 and 2009, due to the absence of a spectacular
mass-casualty attack on Anglo-American democracies.

THEORY

There can be significant and far reaching impacts of


terrorism on the public, which must be a critical consideration
of any contemporary counter-terrorism policy. This article
examines the manifestation of terrorism in three specific,
related areas involving perception; personal threat, probability
of attack and the impact on public willingness to trade civil
liberties for increased security.
Research in cognitive
psychology has revealed that increased anxiety impairs
cognitive function and leads to a greater perception of threat
[20]. Increased levels of perceived threat can drive up negative
social attitudes in a populace; particularly xenophobia and
ethnocentrism [15] which have serious implications for the
harmoniousness and values that underpin liberal democracies.
If the terrorists have successfully disrupted political
arrangements in democratic nations by undermining public

54

IV.

CODING

TABLE I.

In order to analyse the data-sets it was necessary to recode


the variables so the responses can be correctly measured
against one another. Concern about becoming a victim of
terrorism, or having loved ones become a victim of terrorism
was coded into: 1 not at all concerned; 2 not very concerned; 3
somewhat concerned and; 4 very concerned, so the higher the
score, the more concerned the respondent. A respondents
belief that terrorism would be a part of life in Australia in the
future was coded into: 1 strongly disagree; 2 disagree; 3 neither
agree nor disagree; 4 agree and; 5 strongly agree, so the higher
the score, the more the respondent believed that terrorism was
likely to occur in Australia in the future. The scenario of
whether the police should be allowed to search suspected
terrorists homes without first obtaining a warrant was coded
into: 1 strongly disagree; 2 disagree; 3 neither agree nor
disagree; 4 agree and; 5 strongly agree, so the higher the score,
the more the respondent was willing to trade civil liberties for
increased security.

2007 AUSTRALIAN ELECTION STUDY REGRESSION


Unstandardized
Coefficients (B)

Variable
Age

0.01***

0.01

Standardized
Coefficients
(Beta)
0.08

Education

-0.07**

0.03

-0.06

Gender

0.11

0.06

0.04

Income

0.01

0.01

0.01

Personal Threat
from Terrorism

0.53***

0.03

0.36

Adjusted R-Squared: 0.14


Dependent Variable: Willingness to Trade Civil Liberties for Increased
Security
*p<0.05
**p<0.01
***p<0.001

TABLE II.

V.

Standard
Errors

2009 ANU POLL REGRESSION

ANALYSIS

In order to assess the relationship between the independent


variable of personal threat and the dependent variable of
satisfaction with government efforts to combat terrorism, a
paired Pearsons correlation was run on the dependent and
independent variables in both surveys. In the 2007 electoral
study a moderate correlation was observed (r =0 .36, p=<
.001), a result supported by correlating the same variable in the
2009 poll (r =0 .33, p=< .001). This confirms the first point of
the hypothesis, that the greater the perceived personal threat by
the Australian public, the greater the willingness to allow the
police to search the homes of those who might be sympathetic
to terrorists without obtaining a warrant.

Variable

Unstandardized
Coefficients (B)

Age

-0.08

Standard
Errors
0.18

Standardized
Coefficients
(Beta)
-0.03

Education

1.62

1.23

0.10

Gender

0.01

0.25

0.01

Income

-0.16*

0.07

-0.17

Personal Threat
from Terrorism

0.52***

0.13

0.31

Adjusted R-Squared: 0.11


Dependent Variable: Willingness to Trade Civil Liberties for Increased
Security
*p<0.05
**p<0.01
***p<0.001

The next test is to control for other demographic variables,


and to establish whether the independent variable of the
personal threat of terrorism will still have a significant impact
on the dependent variable of willingness to trade civil liberties
for increased security. Standard demographic variables drawn
from past research on public opinion are employed including
the age of respondents, education level, gender and income
level [10]; [22]. These variables are recoded to provide a
uniform standard for both surveys. In both cases the
demographic variables have no meaningful impact on the
dependant variable and the relationship between independent
and dependent variable is not substantially altered. This
confirms the second hypothesis that the independent variable of
the personal threat of terrorism has significant impact on the
dependent variable of satisfaction with government efforts to
combat terrorism even when we control for other demographic
variables.

Next we perform mediations [23] on both surveys in order


to test the third and fourth hypothesis that the perceived risk of
a probable future terrorist attack will act as a significant
mediating variable on the relationship between the independent
variable of the fear of becoming a victim of terrorism and the
dependent variable of willingness to trade civil liberties for
increased security. In each case the mediation will determine
the extent of the impact of the mediating variable on the
dependant and independent variables.
Using data from the 2007 Australian electoral study and
considering the mediation of the probability of a terrorist attack
on the relationship between the personal threat of becoming a
victim of terrorism and the satisfaction with government efforts
to combat terrorism ( = 0.36 p=.001), a significant partial
mediation is observed. The mediating variable accounts for
36.7% of the relationship between personal threat and the
willingness to trade civil liberties for increased security.

55

Mediation: Personal Threat and Willingness to Trade Civil Liberties mediated by Probability of Attack
Source: Australian Election Study 2007

Independent Variable
Personal Threat of Terrorism

0.36
(0.23)

Dependent Variable
Willingness to trade Civil liberties for
Increased Security
0.41
(0.31)

0.42
Mediating Variable
Probability of Terrorist Attack

Sobel Z-value: 11.41 p < .01

Mediation: Personal Threat and Willingness to Trade Civil Liberties mediated by Probability of Attack
Source: ANU Poll 2009

Independent Variable
Personal Threat of Terrorism

0.33
(0.3)

Dependent Variable
Willingness to trade Civil liberties for
Increased Security
0.20
(0.14)

0.21
Mediating Variable
Probability of Terrorist Attack

Sobel Z-value: 4.23 p < .01

Turning to the 2009 ANU Poll data and considering the


mediation of the probability of a terrorist attack on the
relationship between the personal threat of becoming a victim
of terrorism and the satisfaction with government efforts to
combat terrorism ( = 0.33 p=.001), a significant partial
mediation is observed. The mediating variable accounts for
just 8.8% of the relationship between personal threat and
government satisfaction.

variable from 24% in 2007 to 10% in 2009, despite very little


fluctuation in the overall responses to these questions, proves
the fourth hypothesis to be correct. The strength of probability
of terrorist attack as a mediating relationship between the other
variables has significantly declined in the period between 2007
and 2009 consistent with the predictions of Baldwin et al. [4].

The analysis of the mediating relationship of the probability


of a future terrorist attack on Australia on the dependent and
independent variables proves the third hypothesis as, in both
surveys; the mediating variable has a statistically significant
impact. The decrease of the influence of this mediating

Public trust in government is a resource upon which the


government may draw when it combats terrorism, particularly
when there is some level of infringement upon civil liberties
[13], although the ability to tap this resource is dependent upon
the strength of the argument that a government musters to

VI.

56

CONCLUSION

justify intrusive changes, and the citizens ability to visualize


the threat [14]. Governments seek to maintain their legitimacy
through broadcasting a message to deny that terrorism has any
rational agenda or purpose, for in doing so, governments can
frame terrorists as futile, irrational and not a serious challenge
to the authority of the government [8]; [24]. The Australian
government has previously described Muslim extremist
terrorists typified by Al Qaeda as backward, fanatical and
intolerant. Both the Bush Administration and Howard
Government employed the term Islamofacists to describe this
radical movement within Salafism, drawing obvious and
emotive parallels with the rhetoric employed during the Second
World War [17]; [25].

[5]

[6]
[7]

[8]
[9]
[10]

Such controversial rhetoric has since been revised - the


2010 Australian Government Counter-Terrorism White Paper
uses more measured language, suggesting that Al Qaeda
follows a distorted militant interpretation of Islam, while
President Barack Obama described Al Qaeda as a far-reaching
network of violence and hatred [26]. This seems to reflect the
growing realization that publically labeling a group by a tactic
it has adopted, rather than by its aims or membership, risks
over-simplification, and once done, cannot be easily changed
[8].

[11]
[12]

[13]

[14]
[15]

This article has demonstrated that there is a strong


relationship between the public fear of terrorism, and the
willingness of society to accept an erosion of civil liberties for
increased security. The greater the perceived personal threat of
terrorism to the public, the less satisfied the public is with
government efforts to combat terrorism. This relationship
exists largely independent of traditional demographic
distinctions which influence public opinion toward terrorism
such as the age, gender, education level or income of the
population. This article has also shown that the perceived
probability of a future terrorist attack on domestic soil plays an
important mediating role in this dynamic, although the
evidence suggests that the impact of this mediation is likely to
decrease during periods when there are no high-visibility
terrorist attacks carried out on targets with a high public
salience to the population. Such an understanding should form
a central part of future counter-terrorism policy, as public trust
in government has a major impact on support for increased
public spending and resource allocation. Furthermore, public
confidence in government is critical to undermining common
terrorist objectives, such as the radicalization of certain
segments within a population, or building popular support
within a nation.

[16]

[17]
[18]

[19]

[20]

[21]

[22]

[23]

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