San Bernardino. Paris. Beirut. Tunis. Boston. London. Mumbai. Madrid. New York.
What do these cities — on four different continents — have in common? You might have guessed: Already in this century, they’ve each been attacked by terrorists.
Terrorism gets a tremendous amount of media and policy attention. But is terrorism what citizens fear most? Or is it one of the other pressing security challenges facing the globe: the storms, flooding and disasters brought by climate change; Ebola and other catastrophic infectious diseases; financial crashes and their aftermath? And does every group rank these various threats as equally challenging?
To answer such questions, we conducted research among British citizens that we recently published in the British Journal of Political Science. Here’s what we found. In brief, terrorism isn’t the only security threat that causes citizens anxiety, or even necessarily the one they rank at the top. More important, how they answer the question varies, depending on whether they’ve been primed to think about the globe, the nation, their community or themselves. Which suggests that political leaders and newsmakers might want to consider their words carefully when discussing challenges.
Which issues do people perceive as threats — globally, nationally, personally?
We conducted original survey and focus group research in Britain to understand the everyday politics of how people perceive security threats. Citizens tend to see different issues as threats to the globe, to the nation and to themselves.
Wouldn’t you expect individuals to identify more threats to themselves — because they are literally and metaphorically “closer to home” — than to the nation or the globe? It’s not so. As the figures below show, our survey respondents listed the most security threats to the globe, then on average at the national level, and only last did they see the number of threats to their community and to themselves.
The technical stuff.
The four figures below show the five main security threats for respondents identifying between 1 and 7 threats in total for each level. Respondents were shown a list of 22 issues that spanned potential economic, political, technological, health-related and group-based threats.
We expected people to identify some of these threats only as national or international, such as the increasing power of Russia and China. We expected they would see others in the list only as community or personal threats, including knife crime and burglary. Still others could have been categorized at several levels, such as terrorism, the economy, immigration, online fraud and religious extremism.
The graph above shows that regardless of the total number of global threats respondents identified, terrorism was always mentioned most often, with the economy or nuclear weapons coming second. The x-axis shows the number of global security threats identified in total, the y-axis show the proportion of respondents identifying each issue as a global threat within that number.
In the figure above, you can see that three of the issues that concern people at a national level are the same as those at the global level — terrorism, the economy and religious extremism — but immigration and border control also enter the picture.
The x-axis shows the number of national security threats identified in total, the y-axis show the proportion of respondents identifying each issue as a national threat within that number.
In the figure above, you can see that the economy and immigration are also seen as community threats, but different kinds of crimes join them as concerns — knife crime, online fraud and burglary — and terrorism is no longer a top-five threat.
The x-axis shows the number of community security threats identified in total, the y-axis show the proportion of respondents identifying each issue as a community threat within that number.
In the figure above, you can see that the top five issues people identify as personal security threats are the same as those identified as community threats, with the economy the No. 1 concern. The x-axis shows the number of personal security threats identified in total, the y-axis show the proportion of respondents identifying each issue as a personal threat within that number.
Here’s what we learned.
Citizens fear different things close to home than they do far away.
For example, the majority ranked terrorism as a top major global and national threat — but didn’t fear it in their own communities or for themselves personally. Indeed, only 3 percent of respondents identified terrorism as a threat also to the community and to themselves as an individual — i.e., as a global, national, community and personal threat.
In contrast, nearly 1 in 5 ranked economic difficulties as a threat at every level – globally, nationally, for their community and personally.
Citizens with different personality types fear different threats
Second, different kinds of people identify different threats, in ways that are consistent with their personality traits and attributes.
For example, authoritarians—individuals who highly value conformity to the prevailing norms of society and who are more willing to restrict civil liberties and even democratic processes to protect them — saw more threats than average to the nation, but not to the globe.
People who were highly educated, with a college degree or above, saw more global threats than average, but no increase in the number of threats to the nation.
How you perceive a security threat changes what you think should be done
Third, when citizens have different perceptions of what’s threatening, it changes their attitudes and policy preferences. Take people who see more global security threats — for a moment, we can call them “global citizens”— than others who see more threats to the nation, the community or themselves. The global citizens are less concerned about immigration and are less willing to spend tax money on borders and defense than the others.
How elites talk about security threats changes who reacts and how
Further, how security threats are framed by elites — nations’ leaders, candidates for office, news media and so on — changes perceptions.
When elites frame an issue as a global security threat, various citizen constituencies will respond differently to calls for unity and consensus (or for division and attack) than they would if the same issue were framed as a threat to the nation.
While the issue may be the same, this framing will influence who sees it as a threat, how they perceive others and what policies they believe government and leaders should pursue.
For instance, France’s President Françios Hollande responded to the Paris attacks by saying, “We are in a war against jihadist terrorism which is threatening the whole world” (our italics). What difference would it have made if he had limited the description of the threat to France, personalized it as threatening French citizens or reacted by promising to build a wall between France and Belgium?
Indeed, what difference does it make that Donald Trump’s focus is on terrorism or immigration as national more than international threats? Apart from the already mentioned effects on citizens’ priorities for where tax dollars should be spent, our research shows that people who see terrorism as a national issue prefer a leader who is strong above a leader who tells the truth; where it is seen as an international threat they are valued equally.
People who identify immigration as a national issue are also more certain that they would vote at the next election than people who saw immigration as an international issue. In other words, there are electoral as well as policy implications of the way security threats are framed.
Can a British study be generalized to other countries?
To be sure, this study took place in Britain. We would expect to see some differences if the same research took place in other countries. For example, British and European citizens tend to be more tolerant of higher taxes in general than Americans.
But these are country-level differences. Within those countries, given existing research on some of these issues such as the threat of terrorism or the influence on people’s willingness to trade civil liberties for security, we would still expect to see that citizens who identify threats in terms of the nation rather than the globe would prioritize spending more of the budget on border security and defense, even if they might disagree on overall levels of government spending.
And we would still expect to see similar differences in security threats seen as global and national versus those closer to home.