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Who Is a Terrorist? Perceptions of Identity, Ethnicity Come into Focus
Using Fictional Case, Study Finds Arab-American Suspect Would Likely Get Label More Than White One
Jan. 22, 2019
In a fictional scenario given to participants of a study by a University of Texas at Dallas researcher, police arrested a man suspected of planning a mass shooting at a concert.
Is the suspect a terrorist?
When the suspect was identified as an Arab-American, participants were more likely to think so than when the suspect was white, according to the study published in the journal International Interactions.
The question of whether to label a shooter a terrorist has increasingly become a matter of debate after various mass shootings in recent years. Dr. Vito D’Orazio, assistant professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, measured public perceptions based on a perpetrator’s ethnic identity in the study titled “Who is a Terrorist? Ethnicity, Group Affiliation, and Understandings of Political Violence”.
“What we call things matters. If we call something terrorism, people are going to perceive it differently. People are going to think about the event differently, and they may feel a different level of threat.”
Using a sample of 1,198 U.S. adults, D’Orazio and co-author Dr. Idean Salehyan of the University of North Texas asked questions based on six scenarios of a thwarted attack. In each scenario, the ethnicity of the suspect was either white, Arab-American or not mentioned. Within these three conditions, the individual was either a member of an extremist group or not.
Study participants were more likely to label the act terrorism rather than a mass shooting when the suspect was Arab-American. Furthermore, more than 20 percent assigned a political motive to the attack when the suspect was Arab-American, while 6 percent did so when the suspect’s ethnicity was not provided.
Participants also were asked to characterize the attacker’s motive as religious, political or driven by mental illness. Nearly 44 percent of suspects whose ethnicity was not provided were characterized as mentally ill, compared to 26 percent of suspects identified as Arab-American.
The findings raise important questions about how people perceive the same crime based on the suspect’s ethnicity, D’Orazio said. Official definitions of terrorism vary, but they typically include an attack that has a political or social motive and an intent to spread fear and intimidate, he said.
“What we call things matters. If we call something terrorism, people are going to perceive it differently,” D’Orazio said. “People are going to think about the event differently, and they may feel a different level of threat.”
Labels we assign may affect how a criminal is prosecuted, the outcome of the case and the direction of public policy responses, he said. Study participants were more likely to support mental health treatment when the suspect was white but favored counterterrorism measures when the suspect was Arab-American.
The researchers recruited participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform, which has been widely used for this type of experimental work. Recent work has shown that the study’s results are comparable to other web-based survey platforms.
Respondents were told they were participating in a data collection exercise to minimize the bias from those who may try to avoid the perception that they were expressing prejudiced opinions.
D’Orazio said more research is needed to assess how public perceptions influence responses to terrorism. But becoming aware of the biases found in the study can help promote more objective approaches to dealing with political violence, he said.
“I think we need to be level-handed in what we call incidents and to approach them based on the facts,” D’Orazio said. “We shouldn’t let subjectivity enter into whether we call something terrorism or not.”
The study was published online Aug. 1, 2018, and in the September print edition of International Interactions.