Comparing British and Australian Fear of Terrorism Pre and Post the Iraqi War

By Todd, Anna; Wilson, J. Clare et al. | Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Comparing British and Australian Fear of Terrorism Pre and Post the Iraqi War


Todd, Anna, Wilson, J. Clare, Casey, Sharon N., Psychiatry, Psychology and Law


Public attitudes to terrorism influence government positions in opinion polls and highlight the effectiveness of terrorism as a political strategy. British (N = 47) and Australian (N = 42) participants' fear of terrorism at the onset of, and after, the Iraqi war were measured. Self-efficacy, locus of control, media consumption, belief in a just world and war opinions were also measured. Initially, the British were more fearful of terrorism than Australians. However, British fear declined after the war. It is postulated that fear of terrorism is influenced by war opinions with a pro-war attitude protecting against fear.

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The Iraqi war commenced on the March 20, 2003, and on May 1, 2003, President Bush declared combat operations over. However, that did not end public concern. The UK Government's recent war on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction provoked public anxiety over the threat of war and terrorist attack. Indeed, the public's questioning the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction had resulted in the government falling in the opinion polls (The Times, 2003). The public reaction to terrorism highlighted the effectiveness of terrorism as a political strategy (Schubert, Stewart, & Curran, 2002).

Terrorism is defined by the United States Department of Defence as the 'calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies as to the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological' (cited in Whittaker, 2002, p. 22).

At present, terrorist attacks, rather than war per se, have captured public attention. Prior to the September 11, 2001 (9/11), attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the majority of American citizens did not feel personally threatened by terrorist activity (Kuzma, 2000). The terrorist threat was viewed as an 'abstract' one that evoked a 'collective sense of fear' (Kuzma, 2000, p. 92). After 9/11, Americans who perceived terrorism as a personal threat were more likely to suffer from anxiety, fear, depression and insomnia (Huddy, Khatib, & Capelos, 2002). However, America is not alone in suffering terrorist attacks. Britain has experienced terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army. For example, two bombings occurred in 1996, one exploded in London and the second bombing, which was the largest bomb ever detonated in mainland Britain, exploded in Manchester city centre. During July 2000 there was a security alert in a West London tube station and in September of the same year an anti-tank rocket was fired at MI6 headquarters in London. Furthermore, in 2001 there were four explosions in the suburbs of London (Guardian Unlimited, 2003). Australia had not been so affected by terrorism; however, the Bali bombing on October 12, 2002, killed and injured over 100 Australians, although it was on Indonesian soil. Thus, the present study compared British and Australian's fear of terrorism.

Fear may be mediated by locus of control and self-efficacy. If individuals believe they can exert control over the occurrence of events (internal locus of control), or have the capabilities to cope with threats (high self-efficacy), they cease to fear them. Indeed, terrorists achieve their goal of mass fear through the indiscriminate and random targeting of their attacks which increases the public's sense of unpredictability and lack of personal control (Merai & Freidland, 1985; Friedland & Merari, 1985).

Predictability and control over one's personal environment are closely related as predictability reduces stress and increases preparedness in coping with potential threats (Rotter, 1966; Bandura, 1982). Individuals who believe that they can determine their rewards via their own actions are said to have an internal locus of control; and individuals who believe they are at the mercy of fate or powerful others are said to have an external locus of control (Rotter, 1966).

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