AJPS Author Summary: How Do We Know Terrorism When We See It?

By Connor Huff and Joshua Kertzer

Charleston, South Carolina, USA - January 6, 2016: Memorial flowers placed at Emanuel AME Church.

On June 17th, 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine African American churchgoers at an Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with the intent of starting a race war throughout the United States. Following the shooting, FBI Director James Comey stated that the shooting in Charleston was not terrorism, asserting that “Terrorism is [an] act of violence…to try to influence a public body or citizenry, so it’s more of a political act. And again based on what I know so far I don’t see it as a political act.” His assessment was condemned from across the political spectrum, from critics on both the left (including then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and former Attorney General Eric Holder) and right (including then GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum). Similar public debates have erupted followed other violent incidents, including the bombing at the Boston Marathon and shooting in Orlando, Florida. These debates not only highlight the contentiousness of classifying terrorism, but also the stakes involved in doing so, for policymakers, academics, and members of the public alike.

In our forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science, we turn to experimental methods to explain the tenor of these public debates. We investigate terrorism in a public opinion context not because we believe that the mass public’s intuitions can necessarily resolve normative debates about what should or should not be considered terrorism, but rather because of the central role that public opinion plays in our understanding of how terrorism works. In a vast array of prior research, terrorism is understood as a form of violence that functions by attracting public attention. It is because terrorism hinges on public reaction that Margaret Thatcher suggested terrorists depend on “the oxygen of publicity,” that Carlo Pisacane declared terrorism to be “propaganda by deed,” and that Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested that for al-Qaeda, media coverage is “more than half” the battle.  If the responses of ordinary citizens thus constitute a central means through which terrorism operates, it logically follows that understanding what ordinary citizens think terrorism is is a crucial prerequisite to understanding how they react to it.


AJPS Early View - How the Public Defines TerrorismOur approach is a simple one. First, we field a conjoint experiment on 1400 American adults, the results of which show how ordinary citizens classify terrorism based not only on relatively objective facts on the ground, but also on fairly subjective considerations about the perpetrator. On the one hand, considerations about the type and severity of violence matter—though interestingly, not the distinction between civilian and military targets that plays a central role in contemporary legal definitions.  On the other hand, our respondents are also heavily influenced by relatively subjective descriptions about the perpetrator’s identity and motivations, considerations about which the media has considerable latitude in the language it uses to cover incidents. In this sense, because actions do not always speak louder than words, the media has considerable power based on how it chooses to frame incidents.

We then demonstrate the implications of our typology using machine learning techniques, allowing us to (i) code a range of prior incidents that have occurred in the real world to predict the likelihood that individuals will classify each event as terrorism, and (ii) exploit the subjectivity of many of these coding decisions to show how we can construct a number of different, equally plausible narratives about the same event, leading to sizable differences in the likelihood individuals will understand the event as terrorism or not.

For example, using predictive models derived from our experimental results, we show how the estimated likelihood Americans will classify incidents with the characteristics of the attacks in San Bernardino, California, for example, can vary from around 30% to 82%, depending on the narrative constructed about the perpetrators’ identity and motivations (were they acting alone, or does pledging allegiance to ISIS in a Facebook post constitute foreign ties? Were they motivated by political goals, or was the motivation behind the shooting unclear? Is a family history of mental illness sufficient to conclude that mental illness played a role in this attack as well? How relevant is the attackers’ religion?) In doing so we empirically demonstrate the ways in which terrorism can be socially constructed.

About the Authors: Connor Huff is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University and Joshua D. Kertzer is Assistant Professor of Government at Harvard University. Their article, “How the Public Defines Terrorism” in now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: