Terrorism and the power of fear

11 Jun 2014

Fear is a visceral human emotion with the power to overwhelm and subsume all other feelings and rational thoughts. Terrorism seeks to coerce political and social change by threatening extreme and indiscriminate violence against the community. But the real power of terrorism is not the capacity of zealots to threaten or undertake violence but its ability to catalyse an extreme and disproportionate reaction from the state, effectively perpetuating and magnifying the community's fear and changing the nature of society. Terrorism relies for its enduring impact on the state (over)reacting in ways that permanently transform perceptions of national security. By responding to terrorism in expedient, oppressive and inhumane ways the state can erode its own democratic principles and moral authority, ultimately weakening social cohesion.

Terrorism has a unique capacity to undermine democracy by eliciting a militaristic response that suspends or compromises a number of the important conventions and principles of civil society, including democratic accountability. This is because the secrecy that invariably surrounds national security makes it virtually impossible for the community to determine whether counter-terrorism actions are justified and proportionate to a real (rather than exaggerated) threat, and to hold elected representatives to account.

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