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Democracy & Terrorism

What is the link between democracy and terrorism?
{War Studies Department, King’s College London}

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‘(Our) response to violence is more democracy…greater political participation'[1]

‘Tolerating the intolerant, democracies allow terrorists to….strike'[2]

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his essay critically examines the relationship between democracy[3] and terrorism[4], concluding that exclusively analysing this ‘link’ is deeply flawed. Scholars often conflate variables such as media influence or regime instability with democracy, subsequently and misleadingly suggesting that frequency of terrorism correlates with democratic regimes. The contradictory quotes above demonstrate the dichotomised debate. In Western democracies, one argument states, terrorist incidents should be fewer; a tactic of a few marginalised men, lacking popular legitimacy[5]. By contrast, others argue that, unlike dictatorships, democracies are contractually obliged to protect their citizens, creating an abundance of potential victims[6]. This essay studies the effect of media freedom on terrorism, demonstrating variables other than democracy and terrorism must be analysed for empirically-based conclusions to be formed.

Objective deductions in the democracy-terrorism debate could reveal weaknesses inherent in democratic norms, also undermining doctrines of foreign policy that see democracy-promotion as a panacea to transnational terrorism. However, I argue that scant evidence exists of a clear-cut positive or negative relationship. Firstly, I analyse the role of a free media in facilitating terrorism, demonstrating that media influence is often confused with ‘democracy’ itself. Subsequently, I critique empirical data from prior studies, emphasising that conflicting data is demonstrative of a need to consider multiple variables.

The Media and Terrorism

Often, scholars include liberal institutions, such as a free media, within the umbrella term of ‘democracy’, without scrutinising them independently. Democracy and the media are separate variables; that press freedom affects frequency of terrorism does not underpin flaws in democratic processes. Whilst a media-terrorism relationship exists, this is sometimes misleadingly used to demonstrate a democracy-terrorism link. Shurkin, in stating that ‘without the media, there would likely be no modern terrorism[7]’, rightly denotes media effects as the key facilitator of terrorism, rather than the ballot box.

Terrorism does not operate solely on a ‘body count’ basis, instead relying on operations that influence public opinion by coercion[8]. The September 11th attacks were not designed to annihilate the United States, but to create reverberating traumatic-psychological effects, facilitated by intensive media coverage[9]. Terrorism is emotive, boosting ratings, yet simultaneously providing terrorists with the necessary ‘oxygen’ to propagate both their objectives and a state of fear[10]. The ‘violence-obsessed’ Western media devotes excessive coverage to terrorism[11]. An irresponsible, free press both facilitates and exaggerates terrorism, making it disproportionately palatable.

Therefore, a free media places itself in a ‘dysfunctional position relative to terrorism[12]’. Publicity is essential for terrorists; they are most likely to attack states with a free press, because incidents there will probably be reported[13]. This ‘symbiotic’ relationship between terrorists and independent media[14] generates ‘a real positive effect on…terrorist incidents[15]’. Freedom of the press also restricts government suppression of terrorist attacks. That a free media publicises terrorist attacks, regardless of their traumatic ramifications, compared to their state-controlled counterparts in other regimes who repress the data, artificially inflates the positive correlation between democracy and terrorism[16].

Hence, media freedom guarantees maximum returns for terrorists, simultaneously over-exaggerating the democracy-terrorism link. Scholars should examine not only the link between terrorism and democracy, but also the correlation between terrorism and press freedom. Simply studying the association between ‘terrorism and democracy’ oversimplifies a complex relationship involving multiple variables. Subsequently, I shall critically analyse previous research, in order to demonstrate that contradictory evidence garnered from studying the democracy-terrorism link provides evidence of other factors at work, such as the media.

Analysing Important Statistics

Because assessing all findings from this debate is beyond the scope of this study, I focus on the most important empirical data. For instance, Weinberg and Eubank suggest terrorist groups are three-and-a-half times more likely to form in democracies[17]. Additionally, Weinberg and Eubank claim that both terrorists and victims are more likely to be citizens of democratic regimes[18]. Indeed, Forster analysed US State Department Statistics from 2000-2003, proving that, during these years, the majority of terrorist attacks took place in liberal democracies[19].

When analysing State Department figures from 2008-2010, the opposite appears true. During 2008, forty percent of terrorist attacks occurred in the Middle-East[20], the most repressive region in the world[21]. That similar results exist for 2009[22] and 2010[23] shows a pattern far from an oasis of democracy under constant terrorist siege. Forster’s study is not necessarily invalid, but the inconsistency of results suggests that variables beyond the terrorism-democracy prism must be considered. Frequently, authors conflate terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq following US occupation as proof that democracy encourages terrorism[24]. However, whilst the US’ intention may have been to facilitate democratic reforms, Iraq is still classed as a ‘hybrid regime[25]‘, whereas Afghanistan is an ‘authoritarian regime[26]’. Hence, utilising these nations as case studies as to why democracy promotes terrorism is false and misleading.

Though sixty percent of terrorist attacks in 2009 occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan[27], Pape suggests that, whilst not undertaken in full democracies, the message of these attacks were directed towards Western consumers of news[28]. This frames terrorist occurrences in non-democracies towards the preeminent role of a distant free media, rather than the existence of electoral representation. Additionally, Pape claims that whilst democracies are ‘probably’ not inherently susceptible to terrorism, terrorists perceive them as ‘soft’ targets[29]. Hence, it is necessary to look beyond a statistical comparison of democracy and terrorism and focus on other variables, including the link between terrorist perceptions and a free media, and the inherent instability wrought by regime change.

Finally, this debate must be contextualised within the limited, peripheral nature of terrorism against American targets. Excluding events such as 9/11, which are extremely rare, 2009 saw nine US civilian deaths from terrorism[30], and five in 2010[31]. Since one-half of the world’s population now lives in a democracy[32], and terrorism statistically seems sometimes as predominant in non-democracies as in ‘free’ regimes, terrorism poses no more than a peripheral threat to liberal regimes. Despite the continuing US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, reciprocal terrorist action is mainly localised in these non-democracies. That, despite its’ low ‘body count’, terrorism maintains a high psychological and media presence in the West, conforms to my hypothesis regarding the sensationalised role of a free media, rather than electoral systems, in entrenching perceptions of terrorist threats.

Conclusions

‘Some features of democracy make it vulnerable to terrorism. Other features make democracies strong and resilient'[33]

This quote underpins the ambiguous data garnered from studying the terrorism-democracy relationship. Both sides make crucial points, but unsubstantiated conclusions. Terrorism is not wholly facilitated by one factor[34]; one of terrorism studies greatest strengths it its’ use of multi-disciplinary methods and analyses. Examining the ‘link between terrorism and democracy’ is inherently flawed; a plethora of other variables require consideration in their own right. Unlike other studies, I do not seek to prove that democracy is a cause of or cure for terrorism, only noting the flaws in existing studies. The peripheral nature of terrorism and contradictory evidence does not discredit liberal democracy as a basis for government. Nevertheless, there remains scant empirical data that democracy inherently reduces terrorism.

Hence, scholars must stop analysing this debate through a ‘terrorism-democracy’ lens; other influences must be scrutinised, such as political involvement, state instability and terrorist perceptions. Whilst a free media is more likely to exist in a democracy, these variables must be studied separately in future research. This essay, in a very limited analysis of the media, demonstrates the lack of depth available when studying the phenomenon as part of the wider democracy-terrorism debate. Future studies should utilise past empirical data, whilst eschewing some of the conclusions, in order to use these figures as a foundation for a more precise, less controversy-seeking conclusion.

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[1] Stoltenberg (2011).
[2] Schmid (1993) p14.
[3] By ‘democracy’, I am referring specifically to a system of government whereby ruling representatives are elected by full adult suffrage; not confounding the term with associated concepts, such as press freedom.
[4] I utilise the terrorism definition extrapolated by Hoffman (2006), p2-5.
[5] Townshend (2002) p73.
[6] Schmid (1993), p19.
[7] Shurkin (1970), p82.
[8] Townshend (2002) p58.
[9] Townshend (2002) p2.
[10] Ranstorp (2007) p1.
[11] Schmid (1993), p22.
[12] Shurkin (1970), p81.
[13] Li (2005), p281.
[14] Shurkin (1970), p82.
[15] Li (2005), p282.
[16] This artificial inflation only partially mitigates data suggesting that terrorists preference democracies over non-democracies when planning attacks. See Gause (2005), p67.
[17] Eubank, Weinberg (1994), p426.
[18] Gause (2005), p65.
[19] Forster (2006), p2.
[20] US State Department (2009), p9.
[21] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p26.
[22] US State Department (2010), p10.
[23] US State Department (2011), p252.
[24] Gause (2005), p66 is guilty of this, see also Pape (2006), p15.
[25] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p6.
[26] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p7.
[27] US State Department (2009), p295.
[28] Pape (2005), p7.
[29] Pape (2005), p9.
[30] US State Department (2010), p298.
[31] US State Department (2011), p252.
[32] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p1.
[33] Schmid (1993), p16.
[34] Sinai (2007), p36.

 

Economist Intelligence Unit (2010), ‘Democracy Index 2010: Democracy in Retreat’, The Economist, Stable URL: http://graphics.eiu.com/PDF/Democracy_Index_2010_web.pdf (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Eubank, William L., Weinberg, Leonard (1994), ‘Does Democracy Encourage Terrorism?’, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 417-435.

Forster, Chris (16th February 2006), ‘Democracy, Terrorism and the Middle-East’, The Foreign Police Centre, Stable URL: http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/711.pdf (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Gause III (2005), Gregory F., ‘Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 5, pp. 62-76.

Hoffman, Bruce (2006), Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press).

Li, Quan (April, 2005), ‘Does Democracy Promote or Reduce Transnational Incidents?’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 278-297.

Pape, Robert A. (2006), ‘Suicide Terrorism and Democracy: What We’ve Learned Since 9/11’, Policy Analysis, No. 582, Stable URL: http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa582.pdf (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Pape, Robert A. (2003), ‘The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, pp. 343-36.

Randstorp, Magnus (2007), ‘Introduction’, in Randstorp, Magnus (ed.), Mapping Terrorism Research (London: Routledge), pp. 1-28.

Schmid, Alex (1993), ‘Terrorism and Democracy’, in Crelinsten, Ronald D., Schmid, Alex (eds.), Western Responses to Terrorism (London: Routledge), pp. 14-25.
Shurkin, Joel N. (2007), ‘Terrorism and the Media’, in Bongar, Bruce (ed.), Psychology of Terrorism (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 81-86.

Sinai, Joshua (2007), ‘New Trends in Terrorism Studies: Strengths and Weaknesses’, in Randstorp, Magnus (ed.), Mapping Terrorism Research (London: Routledge), pp. 31-50.

Stoltenberg, Jens (17th August 2011), ‘We Choose Democracy’, The Huffington Post, Stable URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jens-stoltenberg/norway-prime-minister-_b_929333.html (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Townshend, Charles (2002), Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press).

United States Department of State Publication: Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism (2009), ‘Country Reports on Terrorism: 2008’, U.S. Department of State, Stable URL: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/122599.pdf (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

United States Department of State Publication: Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism (2010), ‘Country Reports on Terrorism: 2009’, U.S. Department of State, Stable URL: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/141114.pdf (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

United States Department of State Publication: Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism (2011), ‘Country Reports on Terrorism: 2010’, U.S. Department of State, Stable URL: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/170479.pdf (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).
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One thought on “Democracy & Terrorism”

  1. Agreed. Your main points really stem from the problem of defining true democracy. As you rightly point out democracy is a scalable phenomenon and if you look at the top of the Economist 'Democracy Index' those countries have very few problems with terrorism. (Although Norway has suffered recently, historically it has had virtually no terrorism problems).

    Foreign and domestic policy, diaspora populations and the media environment are the key factors, all of which are not necessarily linked to the type of regime.

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