University of Memphis

Promoting Self-Efficacy or Fear? A Terrorism-Prevention Workshop in Memphis by Molly Winders @ University of Memphis

To educate the population on terrorism, officials sometimes hold public meetings and presentations in which they reveal certain information that can save lives.  On September 27, 2017, one such event took place at the University of Memphis.  Dale Lane, the Republican candidate for Shelby County Sheriff, spoke to a small group of students about the possibility of local-level terrorism.  To make the subject more relatable for those of us who think “that will never happen here,” Mr. Lane laid out all of the reasons that Memphis is a fantastic target for terrorists—there is an international airport with one of the largest air cargo sections in the world, multiple universities, the river port, and multiple interstates leading in and out of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. While unnerving, this tactic has two implications. The first is that it increases our awareness of the possibility of an attack in Memphis, which results in the formation of a get-away plan in each audience-member’s mind should this occur.  The second implication is that it increases our dependence on the government to prevent and/or respond to such an attack.

With the implementation of so many counterterror techniques, one would expect the government to be prepared for an attack.  Obviously, they know why Memphis would be an attractive target, so they can apply measures to prevent any such occurrence.  Since the government likely has much more access to knowledge concerning terrorists than the average citizen, it is difficult not to rely on the government for protection.  However, these protections come with the tradeoff of certain rights—privacy and research freedom are lost through government surveillance.

Mr. Lane suggested that a large-scale attack on Memphis is less likely than the lone wolf attacks that are occurring more frequently, like those in San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon, and Dallas.  The danger of lone wolf attacks is a threat to democratic stability, as Pippa Norris suggests, because these individuals have no record of violence or extremist ideologies.  Citizens become skeptical that the government can protect them from such individuals, which reduces the government’s legitimacy and effectiveness in the eyes of its population.  In order to increase its legitimacy through prevention, governments may implement surveillance tactics, as mentioned above.

Surveillance is one tool that governments use to thwart terrorism.  It allows governments to pinpoint individuals who are acting suspiciously or displaying extremist behaviors.  In apprehending these individuals before their attacks are carried out, the government protects its citizens and regains its legitimacy.  There are drawbacks, however.  While there are large benefits such as saving lives, Varol claims that surveillance minimizes individuals’ free choice and causes them to behave in a certain manner in addition to serving as tool for blackmail against a political opposition.  Citizens do not have the freedom to research certain topics without the possibility of being investigated as an extremist.  The political opposition can also be blackmailed into submission through evidence found during surveillance.  Thus, surveillance as a counterterror tactic has both positive and negative consequences for democratic stability.

Along with the governmental protocols for terrorism prevention, Mr. Lane discussed the importance of individual and community awareness, which lends support for democratic stability as opposed to its erosion.  He argued that many attacks have been thwarted because of individual tips of suspicious activity, and challenged us to keep our eyes open and be aware of potential threats.  Additionally, Mr. Lane challenged us to develop an escape plan for every room, event, or area that we enter.  In the event of an attack, it is easier to escape if the route is already thought out, according to Mr. Lane.  These suggestions allow individuals to place trust in themselves as opposed to solely relying on the government for protection against terrorism.  In doing so, the government maintains its legitimacy.  Citizens take it upon themselves to watch for terrorism, which relieves some of the blame from the government if all prevention protocols should fail.

Counterterror tactics such as public meetings and presentations have both positive and negative consequences for democratic stability.  As Mr. Lane’s presentation demonstrated, informing the public of the established counterterror protocols potentially increases the population’s trust in its government to prevent and respond correctly to a crisis such as a terrorist attack.  This notion increases government legitimacy, but also provides a pathway for governments to violate the civil and privacy rights of its citizens in the name of counterterrorism.  Last, these presentations educate the public on what to look for and how to react when suspicious activity is occurring.  This education not only helps to thwart oncoming attacks; it also saves countless lives through preparing citizens for the worst.

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