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Trust in the aftermath of terror

In the days following the terrorist attack in Paris on 11 January, thousands of people took to the street in solidarity with the victims and in defense of free speech, and many declared ‘Je suis Charlie’ on social media around the world. The scene is familiar with what we have seen in several other countries in the aftermath of major terrorist attacks. Rather than driving people away from the public sphere, these events seem to bring people together and mobilize the social capital of society.

One may think that acts of terrorism would lead to increased cynicism and distrust towards fellow citizens and in the authorities that failed to protect us. However, rather than becoming misanthropes locking ourselves behind doors, we seem to rally around the core values and institutions of state and society, especially when the targets of terror are loaded with symbolic meaning as they were in the United States in 2001, in Norway in 2011, and now recently in Paris. If we look at the United States and Norway we find in both countries a significant increase in trust in other people and in government institutions in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

In both cases the boost in trust was only temporary and after a while it fell back to pre-terror levels. In Norway, public debate very quickly started to focus on how the police had handled the terror incidents. As it became increasingly clear that serious mistakes had been made, it was assumed that trust in the police would fall well below previous levels. However, despite the “harsh” conclusion of the government-appointed commission in Norway, polls taken immediately after the publication of the report showed that trust in the police was only slightly lower than prior to the attack. Further polls taken a month after the release of the report also showed no significant difference. Moreover, while a majority of the citizens appeared to be critical of the way the police handled the events on 22 July 2011 and in the aftermath, particularly at the island of Utøya, it did not translate into a significant drop in trust.

Police car in Paris, May 4, 2009 by Andre Bulber. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Police car in Paris, May 4, 2009 by Andre Bulber. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The seemingly paradoxical co-existence of strong criticism and a high level of trust in the police makes sense if viewed within the framework of procedural justice theory. This theory suggests that the perceived motives and intentions of the police matter more to people than the effectiveness and outcome of police work. Thus when the Norwegian police seriously acknowledge the criticism from the commission and signaled a will to change, this appeared to have a greater impact on trust in the police than the failures that had led to the criticism. The initial high level of trust may of course also explain why it has such a resilient position in Norwegian society, therefore it would be premature to conclude that trust is equally resilient in a setting with lower initial levels of trust as is the case in France.

While trust appears to be quite resilient even in the face of a major terrorist attack, at least in countries where there is high level of trust, it would be premature to conclude that terrorist attacks have no effect. The terrorist attacks may lead to policy responses that indirectly and in the long run influence trust in a negative manner. While both the 11 September Commission and the 22 July Commission basically concluded that the problem prior to the attacks was not so much a lack of resources and legal powers, but rather a lack of imagination and coordination, the main political response in both countries has been to increase resources and legal powers to the police. In Norway, for example, the political discourse in the last couple of years has focused mainly on centralization, surveillance, and whether to permanently arm police officers. While this may improve police preparedness, it may also increase the distance and reduce everyday interaction between police and the public. Moreover, if this is combined with more aggressive police tactics with reduced emphasis on procedural justice, trust is likely to erode.

But isn’t somewhat less trust a price worth paying if we can become better prepared to prevent terrorism? Well, the thing is that trust is also an important predictor when it comes to levels of cooperation and compliance with the police. In the context of preventing terrorism, it is vital that the general public is willing to share their concerns about persons, groups and activities with the authorities. Thus, by sacrificing trust we may in fact undermine police efficiency in the long run. Finally we also argue that if the result of terror is a police force that builds its legitimacy on fear instead of trust, then the terrorists will have won, not only the battle, but the war.

Editor’s Note: This post was written in January 2015, before the shootings in Copenhagen in February.

Headline image credit: Utøya by Paalso Paal Sørensen 2011. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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