In a representative democracy, there is a belief that out of obligation or necessity elected representatives take into account the desires of their constituents. Elected representatives following citizens’ perceptions and understanding of public policy issues, make sustaining a consistent long-term strategy problematic. This is especially true in regard to national security and military engagements overseas. There is no better example of this phenomena than the changing counterterrorism policy for the United States over the past few years.
We explored the effect that American citizens’ risk perceptions of terrorist events have on public policy outcomes. The study was accomplished by comparing survey results from the 2016 GfK Group Lone Wolf Terrorism Risk Perception Report with the National Strategies for Counterterrorism (CTS) of the Obama and Trump administrations. An analysis of responses to the survey indicate that citizens’ perceptions of terrorist events do not always align with the policies enacted by presidential administrations.
To aid in the understanding of citizens’ risk perceptions, we examined four significant domestic attacks – two terrorist actions and two violent crimes – carried out in the United States before the survey. The terror attacks selected were the Boston Marathon bombing and the attack in San Bernardino, Calif. Both of these attacks were carried out by persons motivated by a belief in the Salafist-jihadist version of Islam. The incidents at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., (motivated by racial hate) and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., (motivation unknown) are the violent crimes reviewed.[i]
All four of these events resulted in death and injury and emotional and psychological hurt. All four were met with public outrage and large volumes of press coverage. Although both categories of attacks, terrorism and violent crime, often have similar results, from law enforcement and public policy standpoints they fall into different jurisdictional areas. Terrorist actions are motivated by social or political goals. Violent crimes are the result of hate and in some cases simply deranged behaviors.[ii] It is the motivation behind such violent acts that makes the difference. And it is necessary that the public be continually educated to understand the difference between terrorism and violent crime and the resulting legal technicalities.
A comparison of the Obama administration’s 2011 CTS plan and the Trump administration’s 2018 plan provide an overview of counterterrorism policy and how these policies have changed. In the Obama administration’s CTS, the top national security priority was “disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates.” [iii] Over time the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran’s expansion of power in Iraq and Syria, the civil war in Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would steal the administration’s attention.[iv]
To defeat the Islamic State (IS), the Obama administration launched Operation Inherent Resolve on Aug. 8, 2014.[v] Once in office, President Trump inherited ongoing conventional military operations in Iraq and Syria that weakened the Islamic State and recaptured territory held by the caliphate. The Trump administration’s actions against the Islamic State are primarily a continuation of the Obama administration’s “partnership-based approach to the conflict.” [vi]
The Trump administration’s CTS was released in October 2018, and focused on defeating global terrorist networks and their affiliates while defending against homegrown threats inspired by terrorist propaganda. The plan became the first that sought to focus on protecting critical infrastructure and educating the public on potential attacks in this area of national defense.[vii]
By comparing both administrations’ CTS and responses from the GfK survey, analysis finds that respondents’ perceptions of terrorist events matched policy outcomes in four areas:
- First, respondents’ perceptions aligned with the Trump administration policy of increasing the surveillance of foreign enemies and continuing the use of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
- Second, U.S. intervention in humanitarian conflicts, if it might decrease the threat from terrorism, lined up with public perception and the policies of both administrations.
- Third, perceptions lined up with the temporary hiatus of immigration coming to the United States from certain countries.
- Fourth, agreement was found between the halting of refugees from Iraq and Syria to increase security in the United States.
Respondents’ answers did not line up with the changes in policy between the Obama and Trump administrations in two ways:
- First, citizens believed that a US-Mexico border wall was not an effective way to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country, directly countering the Trump administration border wall.
- Second, the majority of respondents agreed that more attention should be paid to the economic causes of terrorism, which the Trump administration did not support.
The divergence between citizens’ perceptions and federal policies highlights the importance of gaining a shared understanding of what constitutes terrorism and violent crimes. If policymakers do not have accurate and shared definitions of terrorism and violent crimes, there is the potential for pursuing ineffective policies. The fact that the presidential administrations were adjusting counterterrorism policies over time is an indicator that national defense leaders and law enforcement officials have a more accurate understanding of terrorism compared to the general public. The question should further be asked if policy changes are a result of a changeover in administrations and a political party or an alteration that transcends both parties and agendas.