Governments can maintain greater legitimacy among their populace and be more effective combating terrorism if they harness the collective power of their people in fighting it, rather than operating under the premise that it is their people who are the source of the problem. Political leaders often use terrorism, or the threat of terrorism, to repress civil liberties, censor media outlets, and promote their own political and military agendas. In some countries, the mere threat of a terrorist attack has become a means to manipulate nationalist sentiment, which enables political leaders to pursue their own agendas. The consequences are usually negative for citizens, and this raises the question, which is the greater threat: the prospect of a terrorist attack or a government’s response to it?
When governments use terrorism to incite nationalist sentiment and exceed previously established limits of power, citizens accept the inevitable decrease of their civil liberties in exchange for greater security. They are also hesitant to object to government-sponsored initiatives under the rubric of ‘combating terrorism’ because it is considered ‘unpatriotic’ to do otherwise. This gives governments a freer hand to exert their authority in ways that were unimaginable before a terrorist threat. This also gives governments an opportunity to polarize segments of populations deemed to be either ‘with’ the government or ‘with’ terrorists – without a common middle ground.
In the 15 years since 9/11, only a few terrorist attacks have been successful in the U.S., but the change in how governments and citizens approach and respond to one another has changed dramatically. The U.S. Patriot Act and UK Counter-Terrorism Act are useful examples of how governments increased their police powers and reduced civil liberties in counter-terrorism efforts. More importantly, they provided a model for other governments to emulate in order to implement heavy-handed repressive strategies. The Patriot Act was introduced shortly after 9/11 and is criticized today as an assault on civil liberties, but was palatable at the time. Subsequent revisions of the Act included the authorization of wiretap searches and surveillance, directed at the heart of public privacy. In the UK, extensions to its Counter-Terrorism Act granted officials the power to deprive individuals of their British citizenship if they were suspected of extremist activity.
The advent of global terrorism has raised the level of repression by governments, from Russia and China to the Middle East. In foreign countries, government and political agendas tend to coincide with repression of civil liberties, while simultaneously seeking to repress political dissonance. Apart from an environment of pervasive fear and tension, the biggest casualty is often free speech, which is under attack in a number of ways; An increasing number of state and non-state actors are censoring free speech through intimidation and assassination. There is also the notion that anyone, or anything, is fair game, meaning that ethnicity and religion have become equated with political beliefs, under the premise that it all falls under the broad spectrum of contributing to ‘terrorism’.