The impact of terrorism and crisis communication
A cautious response to a crisis or terrorist act avoids the creation of a culture of fear. This is another way to reduce our vulnerability to terrorism.
Why are we so vulnerable to terrorism if the likelihood of it happening is so small? “The fear of an act of terrorism can be a very powerful weapon,” says Edwin Bakker. “Society and governments have to ensure that the spread of panic is kept to a minimum.”
In countries that live in constant fear of an attack, terrorists are in effect already successful without having to take any action. There are therefore two important aspects of counterterrorism: doing everything possible to reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack, and managing unease and fear in the population. In recent years, more attention has been focused on the second of these two aspects. The reason for this is the growing realisation that fear and unease promote discrimination and polarisation, and can even lead to radicalisation and thus to more terrorism. The government has an important role in limiting the culture of fear.
This culture of fear can easily arise today, says Bakker. “We live in a changing society that is no longer very good at dealing with risks, what is known as a risk society. This makes us more vulnerable to terrorism. In the Netherlands at times we definitely go way over the top in our approach to risk limitation. If there’s an incident, the response from politicians is often: 'This must never happen again’. But a hundred percent safety and security is an illusion, because it’s just not possible for us to prevent everything. Perhaps governments and politicians should emphasise this more often, and display more resilience.”
“Politicians have an important role in increasing or reducing fear. We in the Netherlands responded very badly once in the past, after the attack on Theo van Gogh. Although this was a matter of one single man who had killed another, the deputy Prime Minister, in answer to a question from a journalist, called it ‘war’. He therefore gave the impression that one person could start a war in a country. You then give the perpetrator an enormous amount of power, and you make it attractive for others to come up with something similar.”
“We also responded very well once, on Queen’s Day in Apeldoorn in 2009. It was a terrible event: a planned attack on the head of state. If you watch the footage, you feel the terror all over again. But who still remembers the perpetrator’s last words? Hardly anyone. The whole day ran very smoothly after the attack. The word terrorist was hardly mentioned at all. In short, it was dealt with very well.”
Basis for policy and protocols
“For governments, we collected examples of good and bad responses to acts of terrorism. We also included the best examples of crisis communication. We provided them with a basis upon which they can formulate policy and protocols.” The future focus of Bakker’s research will be on specific strategies for governments to make societies more resilient to terrorism. In addition, he and his colleagues at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs also look at crisis communication more broadly. For instance, Ruth Prins has conducted research on the role of mayors with regard to security and crisis situations, and how they communicate about them. As politicians who are very close to the country’s citizens, they are tremendously important when it comes to creating a stronger sense of safety.