Domestic terror and the race for the White House

Over the past year we have seen acts of terror perpetrated by individuals in Orlando and San Bernardino inspired by ISIS. We have also seen more coordinated teams of attackers in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere. These attacks strike to the heart of communities, and have rekindled concerns among the American public about the threat of terrorism. The timing of the latest attacks is also affecting the intensifying U.S. presidential race.  Currently the candidates and pundits are addressing how the U.S should respond, such as proposing strategies to definitively defeat terror groups like ISIS, new immigration policies, building walls, allowing or disallowing access to firearms and whether the U.S. should reassert or withdraw its long-standing support of NATO, among others. These are profound issues that must be addressed thoughtfully and carefully. 

Understanding what the American public feels about the challenges we’re facing and the response of government is an important factor that is influencing how candidates position themselves on questions of terrorism.  The danger is that they may oversimplify the public perspective on terrorism, and seek to stoke irrational fear and a desire for reckless retaliation when neither sentiment is helpful in the process of determining which strategies should actually be pursued.

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In an effort to better understand this dynamic, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute developed and analyzed data from an on-line survey deployed by Survata.  The survey was completed after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, but prior to the latest attacks in Orlando. The primary question addressed in this study was: Is America’s response to terrorism driven mostly by a sense of fear and anxiety - or by feelings of anger and humiliation?

What emerged from the data, among other insights, was a telling difference between Republicans and Democrats, including Independents who lean Democratic or Republican, on the question of what should motivate policy strategies. For instance, Republicans generally expressed more anxiety/concern regarding future terrorist attacks in the US (67%) compared to Democrats (53%).

Some 85% of Republicans reported being somewhat, moderately or extremely angry about recent acts of terrorism in the United States compared to 67% of Democrats. Republicans were also more likely to agree that recent terrorist attacks made the United States seem weak and vulnerable(63%) compared to Democrats (26%). In fact most Democrats either disagreed or did not have an opinion on this statement (70%).

Republicans were more likely to agree with taking more aggressive military action to both to prevent acts of terrorism (69%) and to retaliate for acts of terrorism (65%). Democrats were less likely to agree with taking more aggressive military action to reduce the risk of terrorism (34%) or for retaliation for acts of terrorism (34%).

In general, Republican sentiment on terrorism tends to be more focused on national embarrassment and a perception that it makes the US seem weak. This appears to be driven more by anger than fear. For Democrats, both concern and anger over terrorism is less significant. This is not to say that Democrats are not concerned about terrorism, but, other than during acute crises, that the level of anger and perhaps time spent thinking about terrorism as a major political priority is less.

Among Democrats there is also a much more limited appetite for increased military action to solve problems related to terrorism. We would surmise that Democrats may be more receptive to engaging in coalitions and international institutions to address these issues, particularly if these solutions are able to provide alternative pathways to unilateral military action or similarly aggressive actions. 

The fact is that the ongoing threat of terrorism shows how extraordinarily difficult it is to completely prevent terror attacks. Our data shows that candidates can talk about “what Americans want”, with cherry-picked data that can support their own strategy, but the real picture is far more complex. Ultimately, defeating terrorism requires a global view of the issues and avoidance of drafting policy to satisfy a single electoral base. 

It is also important to remember that the more we react by disrupting our way of life or declaring a global cultural war, the more we cede psychological victories to the terrorists.  That is not meant to say that we should shirk our responsibilities to destroy those who are committed to extreme violence. It is meant to say that this fight may be long and difficult in ways that are unprecedented in modern times.

Irwin Redlener, MD, is professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University where he directs the Earth Institute’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP); Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, MPH, MBA is deputy director of NCDP. The full report discussed in this article is available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.7916/D83B6014