Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Let’s get rid of terrorists once and for all

                        “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible”  
                                                                                                                                   - Aristotle

Fear of terrorism and in particular, radical Islamic terrorism, has become a part of our current day and age. Media coverage of regular occurring attacks all over the world create the image that we live in a dangerous world and that we should bear in mind the substantial threat of ourselves or someone we know being involved in such a catastrophe.
Data from third annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears (2016) showed that terrorist attacks ranked second on the list of top fears (41% being afraid or very afraid), right after being afraid of corrupt government officials. The recent uptick in home grown attacks like the Pulse nightclub massacre and San Bernardino seem to have increased some Americans mistrust of Muslims (1). Furthermore, when Americans are asked about how concerned they are about foreign or foreign inspired terrorists currently living in the US, the majority of the respondents answered they are very concerned (2). According to the 2011 Background report of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 3497 people have been killed by terrorist attacks in the US during a 40-year period ranging from 1970 to 2010 (3), which gives us a yearly average of almost 90 deaths per year due to terrorist attacks. When we compare these numbers to mortality rates due to causes such as cyclist incidents, dog involved incidents and death from being struck by lightning (2013), Americans were respectively about 767, 29 and 19 times more likely to be killed by these incidents than by terrorists. (4)

Fear is an emotion and has therefore no strings with rational statistics and demographics. If, for instance, we look at the prevalence of aviophobia (fear of flying), we see that 12,5% of U.S. adults suffers from (at least) a significant fear of flying (5). Even though it being the safest way of transport. When analysing this phobia, the main reason for the angst is the fear of crashing, which will most likely result in death (fear of hijacking or terrorist also being one of the reasons for aviophobia) (6). Another proposed reason for this fear is the incomprehension of the mechanics of an airplane, and the misinterpretation of turbulence as being on the verge of crashing. This fear of death and inability to fully grasp aviation physics is something I return to at the end of this blog.

After 9/11 (which also happened to lead to an increase in the prevalence of aviophobia) and the start of the ‘War on Terror’ the fear of Islamic terrorism rose and the media coverage concerning radical Islamic extremists changed in the Western world. However, the role of the media in branding terrorism has raised some curiosity and has set the stage for a continuous debate. For example, when the Norwegian Anders Breivik killed 69 people (primarily youngsters) during a left wing summer camp on the island of Utøya, many newspapers and news networks didn’t describe him as a terrorist, or raised questions about him being one (7). The Norwegian court did convict him of terrorism together with mass murder and causing a fatal explosion.  

In the US, the perpetrator of the Charleston church shooting in South Carolina, Dylann Roof, was charged by the US Federal court with Hate Crime and Obstruction of Exercise of Religion both resulting in death (and an attempt to kill). Roof allegedly told a few friends that he intended the murder of the parishioners, attendees of historically black Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to ‘start a race war’, while his online ‘manifesto’, verified by the FBI, confirmed his motivations to intimidate and assassinate. FBI Director James Comey told reporters at a press conference he didn’t see the murders “as a political act,” a requirement necessary for terrorism (8). Roof’s crime does seem to fit the federal description of domestic terrorism, which the FBI 
defines as:
“activities … [that] involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law … appear intended to
(i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population,
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

In England, we’ve recently witnessed the case of Thomas Mair brutally murdering MP Jo Cox, which again raised the debate concerning calling him a terrorist or not. The Oxford Dictionaries definition of a terrorist is: “A person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” He made clear that this was not solely an attack on Cox as an individual: “This is for Britain,” he said, and “Keep Britain independent”. His first court appearance, where he gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, confirmed his political motives. On the 23rd of November the man was charged with murder, a common-law offence, rather than with an offence under counter-terrorism legislation. The problem, however, isn't that we're too slow when it comes to calling men like Mair or Roof a terrorist. It's that we're often too quick to call everyone else a terrorist.

 Mental state is another domain predominantly preserved for white mass murdering non-terrorist lone wolfs. Whilst the Orlando shooter who brutally killed forty-nine people and injured another fifty-three in a LBGT affiliated nightclub, was quickly depicted as a terrorist, because he was from Middle Eastern (Afghani) descent, i
t wasn’t until the midst of the massacre that Omar Mateen dialled 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS. They had claimed him as one of their own, although there is no evidence yet of any prior connection. An FBI investigation in 2014 found no substantial link. What is becoming clear, from his ex-wife, and from past and present co-workers, is that he had a history of violence, homophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and he was accused of mental instability.
Furthermore I personally dare to hypothesize that any (mass) murder, even though being accountable, has one or more mental health issues.

Who cares how you name it?
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person”, whilst violence by Muslim (or Afro-American) people is systematic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Caucasians will be called sick and mentally ill, like when former FBI special agent Jonathan Gilliam appeared on CNN, saying that Roof probably “has some mental issues” and didn’t know he had done anything wrong. Therefore humanizing him for his “illness”, which is in sheer contrast with the rapid characterisation of their Muslim counterparts and murdering colleagues. Sure, Roof most likely has a mental illness, but that doesn’t mean he can’t also be a racist and a terrorist. The news-framing around this tragedy shows how criminals are described depending on their background, even when they commit similar atrocities as others. When Muslims commit crimes or terrorism, we tend to describe the criminals in general terms speaking of the “inherent” negative qualities of their racial or religious group. This subconsciously implies that the crime is linked to Islam. Also, if the argument of sympathy doesn’t suffice, primarily calling Muslims terrorists when committing such criminal acts strengthens the feeling of exclusion of Muslims in Western countries. For all we know, further segregation of instable individuals from their national society isn’t helping deradicalisation, to say the least.

We’re better than this
The predominant preservation of the terrorism brand for Muslims solidifies the negative evaluation of this outgroup. In my opinion, you could try to understand the rise of Islamophobia by means of the Theory of Planned Behaviour.
Theory of planned behaviour states that attitude, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control are the three main components for our intention to change our behaviour. Many white non-Muslims in Europe and the US who have no or rare interaction with Muslims tend to have a somewhat negative attitude towards Muslims (9), partly due to continuous associations with terrorism. Furthermore, as being culturally different, some Muslims tend to have somewhat different norms when it comes to, for instance, clothing and sexuality, which is sometimes associated with being ‘less free’. When politicians postulate sentences as ‘these terrorists committed an attack on our freedom’, it tends to consolidate this negative Western freedom and democracy hating association for the average benevolent Muslim.
By implicitly limiting the definition of terrorism to mean violence perpetrated by Muslims we’re creating a false impression that all terrorist are Muslim. And once people believe that all terrorists are Muslim, it’s not hard to make a leap to believe that all Muslims are terrorists. We’ve probably all witnessed US President Elect Trumps’ call for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US ‘until they know what the heck is going on’, which fits this reversed and immensely extrapolated causation.

Earlier on I discussed the fear of death and misunderstanding of aviation physics in its relation to aviophobia. I strongly believe the fear of death contributes to the exaggerated fear of being a victim of a terrorist attack. Together with the misconception of the Islamic religion and ongoing associations between Muslims and terrorism, it’s not very surprising to see a steadily growing trend of fear and aversion against Islam in the West. Richard Orange states in his column in the Telegraph that: “To call Breivik "a terrorist" is to give him exactly what he wants. The most appropriate response to this psychopathic narcissist is ridicule. Let’s incorporate this for all psychopaths”. I agree with his statement. Let’s not give these psychopaths what they want by explicating that they do terrorise us. Let’s call them ridiculous, pathetic, loners. Or better yet, let’s not give them the attention they crave for so much. Let us call for a complete shutdown of the use of the word terrorist, this off course, until we know what is going on. This evidently will not make any bullet or any bomb less fatal, but at least, we as a civilised society will signify that we will not be authorized by criminals. If the monsters strike with fear, we react with courage. For courage, is the first of human virtues.

Chaouki Touzani


Mortality in the United States, 2013 Kenneth D. Kochanek, M.A.; Sherry L. Murphy, B.S.; Jiaquan Xu, M.D.; Elizabeth Arias, Ph.D.

Kessler RC, Berglund PA, Demler O, Jin R, Walters EE. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):593-602.

"Fear of Flying Media Kit" (Press release). Captain S. L. Chance. 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-29.

Metzl, J. M., & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms. 
American Journal of Public Health, 105(2), 240–249.

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