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Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3834 words Published: 11th May 2017

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There is a general and growing concern about Terrorism and the fear it is spreading all over the world. Fighting it is one of nowadays’ main priorities and the most effective ways of doing it are being discussed by scholars, governments and people in general.

The concept of terrorism has evolved throughout the years and no consensual definition has been reached. There are however certain features that clearly characterizes these unexpected and, many times, devastating events. Yet also the way terrorists are operating and the tools they’re using has been changing, which makes even more difficult to find the better way to stop them.

When the huge and powerful democratic country USA became the target of one of the major attacks from all times, then many things were questioned and the sense that no one and no country were safe got easily spread among public opinion. Are Democracies more vulnerable to Terrorism? Is this type of regime the best one to stop the violence? Is Terrorism, or the measures to annihilate it, limiting the rights and liberties that democracy is meant to provide? These are intriguing questions.

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In this Essay, I will firstly explain what I mean by terrorism and democracy, before analysing the existence of a link between both. Then I will present arguments for and against the idea that democratizing the countries where terrorism comes from might be the solution to this fear spreading phenomenon. I will then show that probably it is not the case and that ending terrorism might involve much deeper measures than a “simple” change of political system. Finally, and to understand whether or not Terrorism is weakening democracies and its main guarantees, I will show recent examples that might allow us to understand it better.

Throughout the paper I will also find in theories and great authors, like Hobbes and Schmitter, the necessary help to better understand these two complex yet challenging and current concepts.

Defining democracy and terrorism

Democracy can be defined as the political system where political authority belongs to people. The word comes from the Greek, where demos means people and kratos means authority. There are however different types of democracy and in this essay whenever I refer to democracy, I mean liberal democracy. This later concept adds to the general concept of representative democracy (in which people through elections decide their representatives) the fact (among others, but this is probably the most distinguishable) that there is the protection of liberties and rights through a constitution. Among those rights and freedoms there are the freedom of speech and religion, equality before law and others. Confusion between democracy and liberal democracy happens quite often because democracy is “the word that resonates in people’s minds and springs from their lips as they struggle for freedom and a better way of life” [1] . However what they look for in fact is “a political system that combines democracy on one hand with freedom, the rule of law, and good governance on the other hand – in other words, liberal democracy.” [2] 

Although terrorism is a difficult concept to define there are some common features among terrorist attacks that can be stressed: they involve an ideological component, use violence or at least a threat of violence, are generally conducted by an organized group (or at least by a group constituted by a strong leader and faithful followers), and aim, usually, civilians rather than belligerent groups. The main idea is to spread the fear in a generalized way and that’s why their targets are common citizens that usually don’t even know their purposes but sense fear and the unexpectedness of their acts more profoundly. According to Willem Schinkel [3] terrorism works “bottom up”, that means, that civilians are used as a mean to achieve their real audience (usually states, as symbols of a certain ideology or states themselves in cases of independence fights, like ETA in Spain).

Depending on the nationality of those (people and institutions) involved in the attacks, we can differentiate two types of terrorism: transnational terrorism and domestic terrorism. In the former the incident takes place in “one country [and] involves perpetrators, victims, institutions, governments, or citizens of another country”, in the latter it “involves perpetrators, victims, and an audience of the country in which the incident occurs” [4] . For the purpose of my research I will mainly focus on transnational terrorism. Since within transnational terrorism there are different types, I will mainly focus my analysis on the one played by radical Islamist movements, like Al-Qaeda, for example.

As it has already been said, the concept of terrorism has evolved through times. Namely the way fear and terror are being perpetrated is getting more sophisticated. The most common attacks are characterized by bombings, kidnapping and hijacking but the fear of weapons of mass destruction being used turns the finding of solutions even more urgent. Yet, what is frighteningly challenging in this new wave of terrorism is that fear is in the majority of cases unilateral (considering, like it was said before, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda). We can say that in this case fear won’t probably be enough to end war, as Hobbes would say. According to this author, the society is composed by selfish beings and so the normal state is a state of war, but the war itself can be prevented because what also characterizes human beings is that they fear things, they fear death for example. However, in the case of terrorism (or in the case of one of the most common forms of it), its actors are not driven by fear, they are trained to face death if necessary and for the sake of what they believe to be a higher purpose. [5] 

Will Democracy be able to stop Terrorism?

Mostly after 9/11 attacks in USA, that killed around three thousand people in both New York’s World Trade Center and Pentagon, the majority of President Bush’s speeches regarding the fight against terrorism involved the idea that only through the democratization of the countries generators of terrorism would that fight be successful. In February 2003, for example, in the American Enterprise Institute, Bush stated that “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.”

There is then a great discussion regarding the capability of liberal democracies to end the grievances that feed terrorist’s actions. Assuming that the majority of terrorist attacks’ perpetrators come from the Middle East, where there’s an undeniable lack of democratic principles, can then a link be made between these two phenomena? Would the democratization of these countries result in less terrorist events?

Natan Sharansky in his book The Case of Democracy: The Power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror defends that it would. He considers that the lack of democracy in these countries favours the flourishment of angry and frustrated minds and urges violence in order to achieve one’s goals. He believes that democracy would bring peace to those nations and goes even further by saying that it is West’s responsibility to help the democratization process. According to Sharansky, and supporting Bush’s intentions, the west and democratic world should make efforts towards the implementation of a democratic political system where it was never experienced and this would be the most effective way of ending this terrorism era. [6] 

Like Sharansky also Quan Li [7] defends that democracy would diminish frustrations and conflict by expanding political opportunities through elections and according to Rudolph Rummel living in a liberal democratic country would per se reduce conflict between people, because the interaction between people in a context of freedom is favourable to everyone. So, would a higher political participation contribute to the reduction of terrorist incidents?

According to Michael Freeman [8] the mechanisms that drive transnational terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are four: military, cultural, economic and political. The organized terrorist attacks are then the result of a sense of threat towards Islamic lands (military), a sense of threat towards Islamic culture and identity (cultural), a sense of frustration towards modernization and globalization, which the western world represent and that in the Middle East failed to improve the economy (economic) and a sense of inability to make themselves heard and to reach their demands (political).

Considering these four mechanisms, democracy apparently seems to be able to have positive results but most likely wouldn’t be enough to stop terrorism. I agree with Gregory Gause [9] when he argues that this political system would provide the possibility of a political participation from these groups but there is no guarantee that they would have enough support for their political agenda. And in that case, the question is whether they would accept people’s choice or would that situation make them even more frustrated and incite them to return to their previous modus operandi and attack their democracy and other nations too in order to get the accomplishment of their goals. Besides this uncertainty regarding terrorists’ reaction before unsuccessful elections, there is also the ideological component of their aims. And that is something that cannot be ignored. It is not just a question of being heard and achieving political representation, I would even risk saying that it is their minor priority. There is a rooted hatred towards what the western culture represents. Religious issues and fundamentalism are definitely on the basis of part of that hatred and that is something that should be smoothen namely by education. Islamism is far from the extremist ideas that these organizations stand for and children and young people should learn within an understanding and tolerant environment. Living in a free country, where rights and liberties are assured might not be enough if the mentality remains attached to the idea that Islamism is being threatened by countries like the USA and that that justifies the so called jihad.

A crucial step to be taken is also the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Osama Bin Laden assumed that this conflict was one of the main reasons for attacking the USA in 2001. This is a very sensitive question which generates great part of the sense of threat towards Islamic lands. It is then important to establish a peaceful relationship between Israel and Palestine so that a calmer Middle East can be achieved.

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Besides everything said before, the theories that see democracy as the solution for terrorism do not consider an undeniable reality: there are democracies that still have terrorist groups – IRA in Ireland and ETA in Spain are two of the most resounding examples. Even though these are domestic terrorism organizations, they are examples of how it is possible that terrorist groups (with different purposes but with similar ways of terrorizing people) can emerge within a democratic system.

Are Democracies becoming more fragile as a result of Terrorism?

There is a strong discussion regarding the vulnerability of democracies before terrorism. The arguments in favour of a higher vulnerability of democracies when compared to other political systems are mainly two. First, some authors for example Paul Wilkinson [10] defend that the particular features of a liberal democratic nation such as free press, freedom of political organization and of movement facilitate the organization of terrorist attacks. Also Bianchi and Keller stated that “the irony is that their [democracies’] distinguishing traits and foundational tenets in many ways constitute fertile ground for international terrorism.” [11] Namely the free speech right might be able to raise some violent reactions from the outside, when for example, like in Denmark, cartoons with Mohammed wearing a turban with a shape of a bomb (among other cartoons with the prophet) were drawn. This happened in 2005 and for several weeks not only the cartoonist responsible for the drawings was target of direct death threats and attempts but also Danish embassies throughout the world (namely the Muslim world) were burned. What started to be the result of a man’s creativity and freedom of drawing whatever he wanted to (or the result of any other motivations, which I’m not discussing here) turned out to be one of the biggest international crisis for Denmark after II World War, as Danish’s Prime Minister at the time stated. The second argument regarding the higher vulnerability of democracies is defended by some authors who consider that it is not the result of democracies’ particular features (because in that case they would be as vulnerable to domestic terrorism as to transnational terrorism and they defend it is not the case) but the result of how they position themselves in the world, i.e., the result of their foreign policies. Democracies tend to engage themselves in foreign issues and get involved in conflicts, to which they believe they can give a positive contribute. This involvement might create certain resentments [12] . As B. Savun and B. Phillips stated

The more frequently a state engages in conflict with other states, the more likely that it will create resentment and hostility abroad. Although this resentment may be most pronounced among the people who are directly affected by such hostile actions, it is likely that such hostile actions result in a broader resentment and negativity toward the participants of such crises. [13] 

Whether it is because of one type of argument or the other the fact is that many democracies have been throughout the years target of terrorist attacks. And this brings me to another question: At what extent are these attacks and the counterterrorism measures that they induce to be taken, making democracies weaker and making them lose some of their most important features, by “obliging” governments to restrict certain civil and political rights? This makes us rethink about governments’ priorities: security versus liberty. Should the state provide security, as being the most important good, like Hobbes would suggest, or should it be more worried with guaranteeing liberty for its citizens, above anything else, like Locke defended? My intention is not to prioritize between these two values but understand if there really is a trade off between both, i.e., if fighting against terrorism is in fact limiting some liberties.

Some authors have tested that and reached some conclusions (like for example Weinberg and Eubank [14] ). First I would like to say that in this particular study of Eubank and Weinberg, democracy was measured by using Polity IV scales, civil liberties and political rights were measured according to Freedom House and Terrorism (please note that I’m always referring to International Terrorism) was measured using the number of attacks occurred per year between 1968 and 2005. They included 24 countries in this test from West European countries to Latin America and South Asia. The results indicated a poor relationship between terrorism and civil liberties and political rights, indicating that probably there is no trade-off after all. These results were then against the authors’ first perception (that political rights and civil liberties have been suffering a reduction as a result of the spread of terrorism). In my opinion, however, (and even though the regressions might not be statistically significant in proving that there is an inverted relationship between terrorism and political and civil rights) a more empirical analysis would suggest that it can really exist and might even embody a trend to getting worse in next years.

Statistics may not cover certain modifications and policies, which after a more careful analysis might be considered as reducing certain liberties, for example, in terms of privacy rights. For the sake of a safer country for example in the United States and since 9/11 attacks, several measures have been taken with controversial effects in one’s privacy: wiretaps in private telephones, databases of phone calls made in American soil, inspections with warrant in suspicious packages received by Post. More recently, a failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines’ airplane in its flight from Amsterdam to Detroit stressed the major preoccupation regarding the possibility of terrorists hiding explosive engines in their bodies and being able to carry them to the airplane. This incident brought to the discussion a new technology that is being developed, consisting in a full-body scanner. This scanner is able to see through clothes and do the same thing to a human body like the x-ray engine does to the luggage. Some say this is a clear invasion of privacy but there’s a quite majority (among public opinion and states’ responsibles) believing that this is a “necessary evil”, regarding how terrorism is evolving and how, besides all the level of protection, a terrorist was still able to bring explosives to the airplane. Counterterrorism policies will evolve accordingly to terrorism threats. And this is the main reason why I said that not only terrorism is jeopardizing certain liberties and rights but also it will keep doing it even more, as terrorist methodologies keep improving and surprising police authorities.

Besides privacy rights issues, terrorism is also contributing to the rise of prejudice demonstrations around the world. One may often understand this everyday, mainly against people coming from Middle East. Since some of the more recent and major terrorist attacks (USA in September 2001, Madrid in March 2004 and London in July 2005) were perpetrated by Muslims or Muslims’ descendents, a climate of anti-muslim and anti-arab feelings was installed. These feelings are reflected in some common citizens’ reactions and attitudes towards Muslims but also in a wider attention from authorities in relation to them. This is a clear restriction to one’s right of being equally treated.


Coincidently or not both terrorism and democracy have become more frequent in the last decades. Terrorism has been assuming new shapes, hitting apparently stronger targets and spreading fear throughout the world, at a growing rhythm. In a similar rhythm have been countries all over the world turning their political systems into democratic ones.

My goal in this Essay was to analyse the link between democracy and terrorism from two different perspectives.

First, I tried to understand whether the implementation of a democratic regime in the countries where terrorism is mainly generated would stop terrorism. I concluded that it could help but it surely wouldn’t be enough. I exposed the four mechanisms that stimulate terrorism and they’re not only related to political reasons of lack of participation and week democratic principles, they have also a deep ideological, cultural and religious component that turn it even more difficult to understand and, as consequence, to contain terrorism. I suggested that higher efforts could be put on education in what concerns to religious and cultural tolerance. Moreover, I consider, as well as different heads of state, that in fact it is important that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is solved, since this conflict is, most probably, the highest responsible for the instability in the Middle East.

Second, I analysed if democracies are getting weaker as a result of terrorism or more specifically as a result of counterterrorism policies. Said by other words, what I wanted to understand was whether certain rights and liberties were being limited or not by the terrorism environment that characterizes modern times. I presented one study, whose results do not prove the existence of a trade off between rights and liberties and terrorism. However, even though statistics do not corroborate my argument, and this I believe is a consequence of the fact that indicators do not catch every single law modification, I substantiated it through practical examples, where the reduction of privacy rights, for example, are quite visible.

At the end of this essay I realized how difficult it is to define a concept so broad and always in constant evolution like terrorism. Making a link between this difficult concept and the political system that in last decades has been “conquering” more and more countries throughout the world is very challenging. I am sure that the current era of insecurity that we’re living nowadays together with the technological development speed will certainly add many chapters to this discussion in a near future.


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