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This article assesses the relationship between terrorism and moral panics to expand understandings of the latter's eruption and orchestration. Answering calls for deeper considerations of folk devils' agentic properties, it interrogates how terrorist methods – the deployment of shocking and exceptional violence to incite fear and stimulate political change – challenge extant understandings of the moral panic framework. Specifically, it argues, in the case of terrorism, that the exaggerated threats and disproportionate responses that define moral panics are not driven solely by moral entrepreneurs or social control agents, but are informed by the strategic practices and rationalities of folk devils themselves. Through its approach, this research enhances social-scientific treatments of terrorism, broadens the scope of moral panic analysis, and extends understandings of how fear and anxiety are manipulated for political purposes.
Current Sociology
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DOI: 10.1177/0011392116633257
Moral panics by design:
The case of terrorism
James P Walsh
University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada
This article assesses the relationship between terrorism and moral panics to expand
understandings of the latter’s eruption and orchestration. Answering calls for deeper
considerations of folk devils’ agentic properties, it interrogates how terrorist methods –
the deployment of shocking and exceptional violence to incite fear and stimulate political
change – challenge extant understandings of the moral panic framework. Specifically, it
argues, in the case of terrorism, that the exaggerated threats and disproportionate
responses that define moral panics are not driven solely by moral entrepreneurs or
social control agents, but are informed by the strategic practices and rationalities of
folk devils themselves. Through its approach, this research enhances social-scientific
treatments of terrorism, broadens the scope of moral panic analysis, and extends
understandings of how fear and anxiety are manipulated for political purposes.
Fear, folk devils, moral panics, political violence, social problems construction, social
reaction, terrorism
Over four decades old, the moral panic framework has displayed enormous import for
scholarship concerning the construction and amplification of social problems. For its
early proponents (Cohen, 2002; Hall et al., 1978) the term was meant to capture episodes
– initiated by moral crusaders, perpetuated by media sensationalism, and reproduced
through state practice – involving hysterical reactions and hyperbolic fear towards ‘folk
Corresponding author:
James P Walsh, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2000 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa, ON
L1H 7K4, Canada.
633257CSI0010.1177/0011392116633257Current SociologyWalsh
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2 Current Sociology
devils’ conceived as threatening social order and communal values. While its signifi-
cance endures, to preserve its analytic purchase, the concept has been re-evaluated in
light of shifting cultural, institutional, and structural arrangements (Garland, 2008; Hier,
2011; McRobbie and Thornton, 1995).
This research contributes to such efforts by interrogating the critical case of terrorism.
While hardly new, 9/11 and other spectacular attacks have catapulted terrorism to the
forefront of public consciousness, producing an extreme moral panic defined by exag-
gerated threats, moralistic discourse, and disproportionate responses. Despite its rele-
vance, analyses of terrorism’s implications for moral panic theory remain tentative and
impressionistic. When assessing the terrorism–moral panic nexus scholars have done so
in conventional terms, specifying how societal reactions constitute moral panics
(Kappeler and Kappeler, 2004; Morgan and Poynting, 2012; Rothe and Muzzatti, 2004;
Shafir and Schairer, 2013; Welch, 2006). While insightful, without considering the stra-
tegic and tactical repertoire of dissident organizations, extant analysis occludes a full
appreciation of terrorists’ distinctiveness as folk devils and their consequences for
broader debates surrounding the moral panic paradigm. If terrorism were of marginal
importance, such neglect would be inconsequential. However, as detailed below, terror-
ism and the reactions it engenders display far-reaching consequences for, among others,
state sovereignty, democratic arrangements, and perceptions of risk and insecurity.
By interrogating an exceptional or ‘deviant’ case that unsettles the moral panic para-
digm’s core tenets and assumptions, this article expands the field of analysis and assists
in developing more flexible frameworks that can accommodate the concept’s vicissi-
tudes and diverse manifestations. Specifically, in existing studies moral entrepreneurs,
media outlets, and social control agents exogenously orchestrate moral panics, while folk
devils represent innocent or passive victims. For terrorism, however, panic is endoge-
nously cultivated by folk devils themselves. As an asymmetrical ‘weapon of the weak’,
terrorism has been embraced by dissidents to produce conditions resembling moral
panic, and, thereby, compensate for their military inferiority and punch well above their
weight. Put differently, those constituting the source of alarm are actively invested in
inflating their threatening status and inducing hysteria. This article aims to demonstrate
how this admittedly extreme case can deepen understandings of moral panics and the
actors, processes, and forces structuring their emergence. Additionally, in assessing ter-
rorism’s relationship with moral panics’ defining properties (disproportionality, hostility,
volatility, etc.) it enlivens ongoing debates regarding tensions and shortcomings associ-
ated with the concept.
After defining its terms of reference – moral panics and terrorism – and interrogating
their complex relationship, this article’s remaining sections detail how terrorists’ actions
are calibrated to facilitate moral panics and thereby stimulate political change.
Specifically, they highlight terrorists’ use of violence that: is affective, psychologically
traumatic, and socially disruptive; attracts extensive media coverage and sensationalism;
and provokes disproportionate overreaction. While largely informed by the War on
Terror (WOT), to sufficiently elaborate the terrorism–moral panic nexus and avoid the
presentism of scholarship on both topics, empirical examples are drawn from the four
‘waves’ of modern terrorism (Rapoport, 2002): anarchist (1880s–1920s), anti-colonial
(1920s–1960s), new left (1960s–1990s), and religious (1979–present).
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Walsh 3
Before proceeding three caveats are in order. First, characterizing reactions to terror-
ism as moral panic is not to dismiss the issue as inconsequential. Terrorism represents a
real, albeit often embellished, threat responsible for genuine fear and victimization.
Second, this research’s scope is selective. Given its interest in how terrorists engage
moral panics’ core dimensions to compensate for their limited size and resources, its
analysis is limited to dissident groups. This does not imply ‘terrorism from above’ is
insignificant, as state terrorism has been far more injurious. Instead, given differences in
scale, resources, and opponents, both actors demand distinct analytic treatment (Goodwin,
2006). Finally, given the extensive literatures on terrorism and moral panics, this article’s
findings and propositions require more rigorous scrutiny than can be provided here.
Accordingly, its spirit is exploratory, oriented towards exposing ambiguities, and pro-
voking as much as convincing. Nonetheless, by emphasizing folk devils as powerful
agents in producing societal alarm it advances conversations regarding the relation
between and forces and processes underlying terrorism and moral panics. Ultimately,
such an approach promises to enhance social-scientific treatments of terrorism, broaden
the scope of moral panic analysis, and illuminate the complex and contentious politics of
risk, fear, and insecurity within late-modern societies.
Moral panic
Moral panics refer to punctuated moments of alarm in which, more than sources of risk or
harm, specific events and behaviors are perceived as threatening society’s normative
foundations. Introduced in Cohen’s (2002) seminal study of ‘Mods and Rockers’ in 1960s
Britain, the concept has since been extended to multifarious issues, whether street crime,
pornography, undocumented migration, pedophilia, drug use, or welfare fraud. Essential
to moral panics are ‘folk devils’: those deemed responsible for the behavior in question.
As targets of enmity and enhanced social control folk devils are constructed as evil per-
sonified, ‘visible reminders of what we should not be’ and the antithesis of stability, order,
and security (Cohen, 2002: 2; cf. Hier, 2002). Folk devils are not randomly selected and
are typically constructed in moralistic and overbroad terms, with marginalized groups and
‘cultural scapegoats’ being especially susceptible, even when the vast majority of mem-
bers are law-abiding (Garland, 2008: 15). Moreover, although characterized as threaten-
ing social and moral order, reactions to folk devils are ‘out of all proportion to the actual
threat’ (Hall et al., 1978: 16). While risk perception and evaluation are often far from
objective and beset by ‘dispute and collective negotiation’ (Garland, 2008: 13; cf. Douglas,
2002; Watney, 1987), for Cohen (2002: xviii) ‘there are … many panics where …
judgment[s] of proportionality’ – whether in relation to public atavism, available empiri-
cal evidence, or comparisons with equivalent or more serious concerns – ‘can and should
be made – even when the object of evaluation is vocabulary and rhetorical style alone’.
To differentiate moral panics from legitimate societal concern, Goode and Ben-
Yehuda (2010) have enumerated five essential attributes: (1) concern (the issue is fear-
some and anxiety-inducing); (2) hostility (those deemed responsible are subjected to
intolerance and revulsion); (3) consensus (anxiety is widespread); (4) disproportional-
ity (the issue provokes overreaction); and (5) volatility (panic emerges and dissipates
with stunning alacrity).
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4 Current Sociology
Far from spontaneous, moral panics stem from the interlocking reactions of social
control agents, the media, and publics. In conventional accounts they encompass three
developmental pathways: grassroots, interest group, and elite-engineered (Goode and
Ben-Yehuda, 2010). In the first moral panics are organic and initiated by perceptions and
sentiments broadly diffused among the lay public, and eventually incorporated into
media coverage and political discourse. In the second, alarm stems from the deliberate
actions of moral entrepreneurs who work to direct attention towards a particular moral
‘evil’. The final model represents a coordinated propaganda campaign designed to
orchestrate hegemony and divert attention from and avoid solutions to deeper structural
problems that threaten elite interests.
Whether they percolate up from genuine public concern or are manufactured by state
experts and moral entrepreneurs, the media represent ‘the prime movers and … benefi-
ciaries’ of moral panics (Garland, 2008: 12; cf. Altheide, 2009). Since the vast majority
of those swept up in the collective alarm do not directly experience the issue in question,
media outlets act as informational gatekeepers that ‘visualize deviance, concentrate and
publicize outrage … offer perspectives on social control’ and bring folk devils into exist-
ence (Cohen, 2002: 89; cf. Altheide and Michalowski, 1999). Accordingly, they play an
agenda-setting role in constructing reality and determining what is ‘socially thinkable’
(Altheide, 2002; Welch et al., 1998).
Such dynamics are significant since moral panics not only identify threatening groups
and behaviors, but, through the process of ‘deviancy amplification’, actively create and
intensify the problem (Cohen, 2002). Here, society labels a group deviant, then isolates
and stigmatizes its members. The resulting alienation begets increased deviance and
more intense media alarmism, political handwringing, and public indignation, thereby
producing powerful and ongoing feedback loops. As fear and condemnation become
widespread, hardline policies and a control culture are institutionalized, creating further
polarization, intensifying real and perceived deviance, and confirming popular stereo-
types (Jewkes, 2010).
Despite their continued importance, several scholars have re-evaluated moral panics
given changes in late-modern societies. One issue distinctly relevant for this research
concerns folk devils’ under-theorization ‘as social actors’ (DeYoung, 2011: 120) with
‘structural origins, values and interests’ (Meades, 2011: 145). According to such accounts,
orthodox appraisals privilege the actions of publics, the mass media, moral crusaders,
and social control agents, while treating the targets of hysteria and indignation as ‘hap-
less victims’ (DeYoung, 2013: 142) and denying the complex web of social relations
underpinning moral panics. For McRobbie and Thornton (1995) technological advances
facilitating the diversification of media production, and the proliferation of advocacy-
based civil society organizations have ensured folk devils and their advocates are increas-
ingly empowered to mobilize resources, exercise agency, and contest the former’s
vilification. Alongside underscoring the fractious nature of social and moral regulation
(Ungar, 2001), such outcomes suggest folk devils may independently affect the dynam-
ics and consequences of societal reaction.
Despite its significance, the issue of agency has yet to be fully plumbed. For existing
works emphasis has been placed on folk devils’ capacity to contest unjust treatment,
defuse moral panics, and ‘fight back’ (McRobbie, 1994). However, as this work
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Walsh 5
demonstrates, in certain instances, folk devils, whether for political or other reasons, may
seek to actively catalyze and intensify the very conditions underpinning moral panics’
gestation and eruption.
As an ‘essentially contested’ concept, terrorism is elusive and difficult to analytically
delimit.1 Alongside its complexity and overlap with other forms of political violence
(warfare, insurgencies, etc.), terrorism’s indeterminacy stems from its situational and
pejorative nature, qualities captured in the oft-quoted statement ‘one person’s terrorist
is another’s freedom fighter’. Reflecting such dynamics, political articulations of ter-
rorism are often employed by governments to arouse public sentiment, demonize
adversaries, exonerate their own acts of terror, and accumulate power and legitimacy
(Goodwin, 2006).
While a full elaboration exceeds its ambit, following others (Hoffman, 2006;
Schmid and Jongman, 1988; Tilly, 2004; Wilkinson, 2011), this work defines terrorism
as the deployment of extra-normal violence against random or symbolic targets for the
purposes of: (1) inducing fear and anxiety; (2) affecting audiences beyond the immedi-
ate victims; and (3) stimulating political change by influencing the decision-making
and behavior of governments, societies, and communal groups. Through horrific unex-
pected acts that transgress conventions concerning the legitimate exercise of violence,
terrorism aims to inflict extreme psychic trauma, and activate anxieties concerning
safety and security. Additionally, it represents an expressive vehicle of communica-
tion. As attention-seeking violence, terrorism’s immediate targets constitute ‘message
generators’ (Schmid and Jongman, 1988) for victimizing broader audiences.
Accordingly, terrorism represents a form of signaling in which violence is intended to
communicate the target’s vulnerability, the existence of perpetrators, and their capacity
to strike again (Tilly, 2004). Finally, terrorism is oriented towards inciting particular
responses and interactional dynamics that will significantly transform the existing
sociopolitical order. Alongside capitulation, violence is often orchestrated to provoke
overreaction and repressive reprisals. Since the 19th century several organizations
have employed terrorism to initiate a dance macabre of terror against terror, with the
goal of unmasking the targeted regime’s malevolent qualities and galvanizing support
for their cause (Parker, 2007).
Together these properties unite a variegated ensemble of actors possessing distinct
motives, capacities, and strategic and ideological orientations. Ultimately, their embrace
of fear and violence as mechanisms of political and historical change renders terrorists
an exceptional class of criminals and deviants (Hoffman, 2006). Unlike conventional
folk devils associated with youth hooliganism and social and sexual deviance, terrorists
belong to formalized networks displaying collective behavior, intentionality, and explicit
political goals and aspirations. This final property also distinguishes terrorists from
organized criminal networks, which, while also embracing the utility of violence, are
non-ideological and driven by instrumental goals of profit-seeking. Only terrorists exist
as ‘violent intellectual[s]’ that wield violence in the service of coherent causes and belief
systems (Hoffman, 2006: 38).
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6 Current Sociology
Terrorists’ distinctiveness is also witnessed in the type of threat they pose, an issue
distinctly salient as globalization and ‘space-shrinking’ technologies have facilitated
paradigmatic changes in terrorism’s scale, organizational structure, and potential
impact. On the one hand, rapid transport and information and communication technolo-
gies have enhanced terrorists’ logistical capacity, expanding physical access to targets
and making it easier to dispense destruction and impact audiences on a planetary scale
(Black, 2004; Juergensmeyer, 2000). Moreover, such dynamics have assisted in creat-
ing an ‘unpredictable topography’ of phantom cell networks whose spectral maneuvers
and concealment deep within society render terrorism impossible to definitively survey
and guard against (Mythen and Walklate, 2006: 387). Finally, technological moderniza-
tion has intensified terrorism’s possible impact. Given potential access to biological
agents, radioactive ‘dirty bombs’, and other high-tech weapons, security experts have
highlighted the possibility of mass-casualty attacks, labeling terrorism a vital threat to
global security (Laqueur, 2000).
Given these features, terrorism typifies broader shifts in contemporary sources of
social anxiety and occupies a medial space between conventional moral panics and the
‘potential political catastrophes of a risk society’ (Ungar, 2001: 271). At present, experi-
ences of risk are defined by faceless, shadowy parties and stem from hazards (GMOs,
nuclear accidents, climate change, etc.) that are extra-territorial, techno-scientific, future-
oriented and cannot be easily calculated or insured against (Beck, 1992; cf. Mythen and
Walklate, 2006). Terrorism’s transnational reach, cataclysmic potential, and unpredicta-
ble and unknowable qualities reflect and entrench this ‘wider culture of insecurity, fear,
and victimization’ (Cohen, 2002: 16), making the issue a source of social anxiety that
‘do[es] not quite fit the moral panic paradigm’ (Ungar, 2001: 272). Nonetheless, while
terrorism resonates with the inchoate fears of ‘risk society’, it remains a distinctive haz-
ard as danger is understood in moral as much as technical terms.
Terrorism as moral panic
Utilizing Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s (2010) taxonomy, this section outlines the relation-
ship between official and popular reactions to terrorism and the central tendencies of
Cohen’s model. As it indicates, while leading scholars agree that contemporary responses
clearly embody moral panics (Altheide, 2006; Garland, 2008; Goode and Ben-Yehuda,
2010; Hunt, 2011), as a deviant case, terrorism accentuates important tensions and
debates concerning the framework, whether, inter alia, those associated with gauging
concern, disproportionality, or volatility.
Consensus and concern
Public concern and consensus regarding terrorism have often reached seismic propor-
tions following an attack. Underpinned by its violent and unanticipated nature, and fur-
ther stoked by the volume and intensity of media and political discourse, terrorism
produces a ‘culture of fear’ (Furedi, 2006), dynamics witnessed in public opinion sur-
veys, newscasts, official alerts, security checkpoints, warning posters, armed guards,
concrete barriers, and other signs of a siege mentality (Savitch, 2014). Further, direct
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behavioral evidence, whether increased expenditures on personal safety, refusals to fly or
travel internationally, or spikes in hate crimes and vigilantism directed towards those of
Muslim or Middle Eastern background, provides more immediate proof of heightened
anxiety (Mueller, 2006; Welch, 2006).2 Such dynamics are also evidenced in rituals of
solidarity and security. Like other external threats, terrorism may produce significant,
albeit fleeting, displays of patriotism, unity, and loyalty. Faced with a threatening enemy:
‘people draw together; symbols are rallied around; leaders exalted; control becomes
more centralized’ (Collins, 2004: 53).
Terrorism also produces intense enmity towards its perceived perpetrators. Approached
as fanatical, nihilistic, and ‘ultra-deviant’, terrorism’s practitioners are constructed as
inhuman and beyond reason and civilization, dynamics frequently displaying collateral
consequences for entire national, religious, and racial groups with no connection to polit-
ical violence (Mythen and Walklate, 2006; Welch, 2006). Typifying such dynamics,
around the start of the 20th century Anarchists and political radicals in Europe and North
America were characterized as ‘wild animals’, ‘lunatics’, and a ‘growing bacillus men-
acing the … body politic’ (Miller, 2013: 124). Additionally, the military dictatorship in
1970s Argentina framed small bands of revolutionary terrorists as threats to Christendom
and Western Civilization, claims legitimating massive acts of state terror against almost
anyone expressing sympathy for leftist ideologies (Oplinger et al., 2013). Finally, in the
early 1980s, American judge Arthur Goldberg characterized terrorism as a ‘clear and
present threat to [civilization’s] very existence’ (Townshend, 2011: 33).
Amid the WOT, virulent rhetoric has been ratcheted up considerably. Political elites
have not only channeled, but actively cultivated public resentment through hardened
distinctions between friend/enemy and good/evil, dynamics positing an in-group of
respectable citizens and an out-group of threatening others. Characterized as a ‘new kind
of evil’ (Hoffman, 2006: 30), President Bush claimed Al-Qaeda endangered collective
morality and the very order of American society, seeking ‘not merely to end lives but to
disrupt and end a way of life’ (Jackson, 2005: 194). Terrorism’s moralization was also
witnessed in official explanations. The 9/11 attacks were depicted as an assault on
America’s exceptional moral and political qualities, whether its democratic, open, or
pluralistic character.3 This depoliticized framing reduced the attacks to the evil deeds of
deranged, pathological individuals, denying the possibility that American militarism and
aggression within the Islamic world might have contributed to the violent acts the coun-
try was attempting to liquidate. Like other elite-engineered moral panics, such rhetorical
moves functioned to unite citizens in collective opprobrium, reaffirm their morality and
identity, and divert attention from more pressing and intractable issues.
As the primary indicator of moral panics’ emergence disproportionality also represents
a ‘central problematic of the moral panic literature’ (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2010: 29).
Several critics have argued it is often impossible to definitively prove the revealed
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8 Current Sociology
extent of a problem is incommensurate with societal reactions (Ungar, 2001; Waddington,
1986), dynamics uniquely applicable to ‘future-oriented’, unquantifiable, and poten-
tially catastrophic threats like terrorism. While risk assessments and forecasts indicate
societal reactions are disproportionate (Mueller, 2006), they neglect that, more than
sources of harm, terrorist acts augur deeper, more prevalent threats. While many folk
devils are conjured solely through media and political campaigns, terrorists actively
cultivate uncertainty and manufacture a deferred future haunted by the quotidian pos-
sibility of violence. Nonetheless, while terrorism produces a frightening and unpredict-
able landscape, the available evidence suggests official and popular reactions are
unwarranted when compared to more harmful issues. For example, between 1969 and
2013 5755 Americans, domestically and internationally, died in terrorist attacks, a fig-
ure dwarfed by deaths from domestic gun violence in 2013 alone (33,636 [CDC, 2014]).
Given this information, surely terrorism’s characterization as a civilizational threat and
expenditures in excess of US$1 trillion on homeland security are disproportionate and
In terms of specific manifestations, official responses to terrorism frequently entail
punitive rhetoric and policies that provoke irrational fear. To be clear, state responses
are not preordained and remain contingent upon, among others, regime type, public
sentiment, the severity of the perceived threat, and elite interests. Although many gov-
ernments have adopted hardline orientations, others have responded with measured
assessments and reactions.4 Nonetheless, the historical record reveals government
reactions frequently represent ‘extreme example[s] of … disproportion[ality]’ (Hunt,
2011: 59).
Severe responses to terrorism are often informed by precautionary logics, pre-
emptive measures, and the exploitation of anxiety regarding future devastation. Through
allusions to shadowy threats and worst-case scenarios state managers have frequently
manipulated genuine public concern for political purposes, whether boosting legiti-
macy, achieving consent, or advancing initiatives (military interventions, immigration
restriction, political repression, heightened surveillance and policing, etc.) previously
lacking the requisite support (Altheide, 2006; Walsh, 2015). Around the turn of the 20th
century governments throughout Europe and North America exaggerated the menace of
Anarchist violence, advancing claims of a global network and conspiracy in which
Anarchists were secretly ‘lurking all over the continent’ (Miller, 2013: 114). Alongside
promoting labor repression, for several countries, such assertions galvanized support
for mass round-ups and deportations of foreign radicals associated with ethnic and reli-
gious minorities. At present, ‘the … impossibility of estimating the terrorist risk has
enabled political elites to circulate decidedly fanciful claims’ regarding the threat of
radical Islam (Mythen and Walklate, 2006: 387). In justifying the WOT’s politico-legal
architecture, Vice President Cheney emphasized terrorism’s unknown and potentially
cataclysmic nature, noting ‘If we make the wrong choice, the danger is that we will get
hit again … in a way that is devastating’ (Altheide, 2006: 415). President Bush echoed
such sentiments, claiming, ‘We cannot wait for the final proof … in the form of a mush-
room cloud’ (Welch, 2006: 23).
In terms of institutional responses, terrorism, like other moral panics, typically
inspires escalations of social control and discipline, whether police repression, the
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abrogation of human rights, techniques of social defense, or the bending, suspension,
and circumvention of the law (Cohen, 2002: 66–72, 140–145). Such measures are often
exceedingly elastic and based on group-based profiles where shared social characteris-
tics (nationality, phenotype, religion, etc.) incite suspicions of malevolence and crimi-
nality. While visible in several cases, whether the Red Scare or the Battle of Algiers
(Crenshaw, 1972; Miller, 2013), these dynamics are especially conspicuous at present.
With its appeals to ‘infinite justice’ and global conflict without clear adversaries and
parameters, the WOT has provided an alibi for creating a fluctuating net of enforcement
that can be ‘cast over any form of resistance to sovereign power’ whether activists,
domestic minorities, foreigners, or other suspect populations (Gregory, 2003: 319).
Such trends are uniquely applicable to the contemporary climate of Islamophobia.
Specifically, terrorism’s interpretation through registers of racial and religious differ-
ence has incited ‘signification spirals’ (Hall et al., 1978) in which fears and threats
stemming from small-scale subversive and antagonistic groups (jihadists) result in the
construction of entire collectivities (Muslims in general) as folk devils that are inher-
ently risky, dangerous, and other.
Traditionally conceived as ‘eruptive … and quick to subside’ (Hunt, 2011: 57), it is
increasingly acknowledged that moral panics vary in ‘intensity, duration, and impact’
(Garland, 2008: 13). While many are transient and ephemeral, others, whether regarding
drugs, street crime, or terrorism, represent persistent sources of unease. When coupled
with the rise of a globalizing mass media and 24-hour news cycle these developments
have transformed moral panics from brief eruptions into enduring states of anxiety and
insecurity (Carrabine, 2008). For terrorism, while the hysteria it produces may abate, it
displays long-lasting repercussions, whether a lingering sense of vulnerability that can
quickly transmutate into full-blown panic or the entrenchment of intensified policing and
Creating crisis and orchestrating alarm: Terrorists’ role in
engineering moral panics
A central task for terrorism scholars is explaining how ‘groups with little or no … politi-
cal power … can achieve effects … out of all proportion to their numerical or [military]
power’ (Wardlaw, 1989: 3). While their weapons are often primitive, their asymmetrical
tactics – ‘the use of directed terror … [and] widespread panic’ – are quite sophisticated
(Wardlaw, 1989: 3). Specifically, terrorists believe their efforts will produce an ‘illusion-
ist’s trick’, injecting them with an authority and influence they previously lacked
(Fromkin, 1975: 685).
Informed by these issues, this section assesses terrorism’s strategic dimensions and
elaborates their role in initiating moral panics. In doing so it identifies a fourth model of
emergence – provocateur – not captured in the existing typology of grassroots, interest
group, and elite-engineered. As detailed below, while societal reactions embody moral
panics’ core dimensions, for modern terrorist organizations, such responses are desired,
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10 Current Sociology
anticipated, and central to their calculations and designs. Rather than exogenous targets
whose threatening status is constructed by publics, states, and moral entrepreneurs, ter-
rorists’ strategic logic and practices are endogenous to moral panics’ orchestration.
Specifically, when carrying out attacks terrorists utilize three tactics that facilitate moral
panics: (1) the deployment of affective violence; (2) the exploitation of the mass media;
and (3) efforts to incite disproportionate overreaction.
Affective violence
Terrorists represent specialists in affective violence or forms of aggression oriented
towards evoking particular moods and emotional states. While warfare is physical and
instrumental, terrorism constitutes a symbolic and gruesome form of political drama-
turgy (Alexander, 2004). Its first-order objectives are not to kill or destroy but, through
scenes of devastation, whether of corpses, mangled transportation, or collapsed build-
ings, to instill unremitting fear. While the extent of physical destruction is typically
miniscule, terrorism’s social and psychological effects – irrational panic, collective
alarm, and ‘intrusive, repetitive recollection’ – are often profound and long-lasting
(Schmid and Jongman, 1988: 19).
Terrorism’s unsettling character stems from its effects on citizens’ interior land-
scapes and sociopolitical order. By producing perceptions of vague, unpredictable, and
ubiquitous threats, terrorism is acutely unnerving and evokes visceral feelings of per-
sonal danger and vulnerability. Exemplifying these dimensions, the Algerian National
Liberation Front’s (FLN) official journal, El Moudjahid, claimed the organization’s
campaign of random and intermittent attacks on pied noirs sought to deliver an ‘incon-
testable psychological shock’ and foster ‘panic, insecurity … and fear in the enemy
camp’ (Crenshaw, 1972: 386). According to Feraoun, an Algerian novelist and school-
teacher, this strategy instilled ‘panicky fear without a precise object, without founda-
tion’, an imminent, but unspecified, sense of catastrophe (Crenshaw, 1972: 388).
Indistinguishable from ordinary citizens (they lack uniforms and insignia), terrorists
subvert distinctions between the battlefield and everyday life and exist as ‘predatorial
unmarked strangers’ (Valier, 2002: 321) that render security a chimerical task. Moreover,
at present, mundane and seemingly innocent objects (shoes, backpacks, underwear,
Stanley knives, the mail, etc.) are appropriated as weaponry and transmogrified into
sources of fear, uncertainty, and potentially unspeakable destruction. Consequently, ter-
rorism displays a spectral quality, establishing pervasive unease and conjuring ‘imagi-
naries of eschatological dimensions’ (Miller, 2013: 5).
Terrorists also exploit modern societies’ defining properties to unsettle political order
and sociality. Terrorism transforms the ‘open society’ from a mark of distinction into a
liability. Despite their military prowess, economic power, and political influence, highly
complex, differentiated, and densely populated societies are exceedingly difficult to
defend against unconventional attacks. Consequently, terrorism shatters myths regarding
the state’s capacities of security, sovereignty, and order enforcement, thereby reintroduc-
ing the very element of disorder – the bellum omnium contra omnes – it emerged to
domesticate. Further, the anxiety terrorism produces often stems from its targeting of the
spaces and infrastructures of daily life, including mass-transit, zones of entertainment
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and consumption (shopping districts, hotels, cafes, theaters, etc.), and sites of worship.
Beyond denuding social life of its pacific stability, attacking such areas supplants trust
and interdependence with suspicion and paranoia. According to Savitch (2014: 53),
‘Once people … interpret normal activities as “a dare”, they have converted personal
trepidation into a nub of civic distrust.’ When everyone appears potentially threatened
and threatening, and no one knows what behavior to expect from others, communal
bonds and associations collapse into a mass of anxious and atomized individuals
(Wardlaw, 1989).
Threat amplification
Alongside its role in moral panics’ promulgation, the mass media double as a crucial
component of terrorism. Terrorists seek and utilize media coverage to publicize their
struggle, maximize their audience, and facilitate deviancy amplification in which media
coverage distorts and exacerbates their threatening status. Accordingly, modern terror-
ism would never have assumed the prominence it has without the media, a situation
leading scholars to label it ‘mass-mediated violence’ (Weimann, 2008; cf. Wardlaw,
1989). According to Carlos Marighella’s Mini-Manual, a sourcebook for dissidents
across the world, ‘the war of nerves … the psychological war’ hinged on the effective
‘use of the mass-media’ (1982: 87–90). Reflecting this statement, groups ranging from
the Tamil Tigers to the Red Army Faction (RAF) have devoted entire wings of their
organizations to publicity and media relations (Hoffman, 2006).
The terrorism–media relationship is one of reciprocal exploitation and dependence
(Tuman, 2009). Terrorists routinely orchestrate attacks that evidence a sophisticated
grasp of the nature of mass communications and audience dynamics. Seemingly aware
that media representations are not mirrors that objectively reflect ‘reality’ but, by provid-
ing ‘images … much sharper than reality’ (Cohen, 2002: 43), enter directly into its con-
stitution, terrorists have often fashioned and staged their violent methods, whether in
terms of their symbolism, victimization, or spectacular nature, to meet the media’s ‘insti-
tutionalized “need” for moral panics’ (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2010: 90). Given the
drama of horrific violence and accompanying ‘images of pantomime villains, Hollywood
styled attacks, and heart-wrenching victims’, terrorism is a media spectacle of the first
order and clearly embodies the melodramatic nature of media events identified by Cohen
(Vertigans, 2013: 38). As noted by one former member of the German RAF and Italian
Red Brigades, ‘We give the media what they need: newsworthy events … [they] are very
invested in our actions … [which are often] planned for the media’ (Schmid, 2005: 147).
As the quote suggests, while the media are integral to terrorism, terrorism also facilitates
the news media’s ceaseless efforts to boost ratings amid the ‘rigors of intense … glo-
balized competition’ (Reiner, 2013: 149), and shock, captivate, entertain, and otherwise
affect the emotions of increasingly voyeuristic audiences (Altheide, 2002).
For terrorists, mass communications drastically expand the size of the ‘witnessing
public’ (Coleman and Ross, 2010). Without media, terrorism’s impact would only affect
those in the attack’s immediate vicinity. Even before the age of electronic media,
European Anarchists embraced the press’s strategic significance, believing the publicity
it generated would ‘create a myth of global revolutionary pretensions … stimulat[ing]
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12 Current Sociology
fears and suspicions disproportionate to its actual impact’ (Hoffman, 2006: 7). Facilitated
by technological advancements (portable cameras and satellite uplinks) terrorist acts
increasingly represent globally legible events with mass-psychological effects for spa-
tially dispersed publics. For Black September’s hostage-taking and murder at the 1972
Munich Olympics, approximately 800 million individuals witnessed the events on televi-
sion, leading the group to claim the incident was ‘like painting the name of Palestine on
a mountain’ visible ‘from the four corners of the earth’ (Hoffman, 2006: 70). For
September 11, the attacks – whether their nature, targets, or timing – were designed to
maximize media coverage. According to an Al-Qaeda training manual, by targeting ‘sen-
timental landmarks’ the organization sought to acquire ‘intense publicity’ and produce
pervasive fear (Nacos, 2003: 4–5).
Terrorists also exploit media outlets’ appetite for dramatized coverage and how it
distorts perceptions of risk and danger. With the drift towards ‘infotainment’ the gram-
mar and symbolic representations of media coverage are crafted in ways that offer sim-
plistic narratives and privilege formats that are ‘visual, brief, action-oriented, and
dramatic’ at the expense of in-depth analysis and ‘referentially derived information’
(Altheide, 2002: 47). As publics are increasingly sensitized to accept stylized and ste-
reotypical accounts as more arresting and factual than dispassionate journalism, sensa-
tionalist media narratives not only resonate with, but sharpen, public sentiment
(Altheide, 2006). Through editing and the inclusion of high-production sound, music,
and graphics, the news media relay scenes of spectacular violence, stunning visual
imagery, alarming threats to collective security, and moral conflicts between good and
evil. As demonstrated in New York, Madrid, and London, vivid repetitive coverage of
attacks and their aftermath reverberated throughout the televisual landscape, priming
‘the cognitive and emotional processes that help[ed] create a disproportionate sense …
of vulnerability’ (Breckenridge and Zimbardo, 2007: 123). Ultimately, by selecting and
organizing content in ways that shape audience assumptions about terrorism, the media
promulgate a ‘fear narrative’ defined by ‘the pervasive communication … awareness,
and expectation that danger and risk are … central feature[s] of the effective environ-
ment’ (Altheide, 2006: 114).
Moreover, like crime, media depictions of terrorism conform to the ‘law of opposites’
in which coverage accentuates extreme, shocking incidents at the expense of more rou-
tine offenses (Surette, 2014). While terrorist episodes are typically quantitatively small
in frequency and injury, the volume and tenor or media coverage makes otherwise
obscure organizations appear more menacing, capable, and effective than they actually
are, thereby perpetuating myths about ‘twenty foot tall’ and ‘all-knowing, all-seeing
terrorist[s]’ (Friedman, 2004: 36; cf. Tuman, 2009). Researchers have demonstrated that,
since the 1980s, Americans have routinely identified terrorism as a leading source of
concern, eclipsing other social problems that, to the extent they can be objectively ascer-
tained, are far more devastating (Breckenridge and Zimbardo, 2007).5
Provoking punitiveness
Beyond generating fear and publicity, terrorism frequently represents a strategy of prov-
ocation in which weaker actors turn their opponents’ military and coercive superiority
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Walsh 13
into liabilities (Parker, 2007). Under such arrangements terrorists exploit the symbiotic
relationship between folk devils and social control agents in which each responds to,
feeds on, and magnifies the other. Here the essential idea is that vengeful unrestrained
reprisals will erode the targeted regime’s legitimacy, exposing its true colors as a des-
potic force and sharpening the contradictions of the established order. Accordingly, to
create terror and carnage they are incapable of effectuating on their own, terrorists rely
on an inherent hazard of counter-terrorism: mimesis and imitation. For Agamben (2001:
45) a security-obsessed state ‘is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terror-
ism to become itself terroristic’.
Ultimately, strategies of provocation seek to induce conflict and polarization. Whether
operating domestically or transnationally, terrorists stand to benefit as harsh reactions
may alienate important constituents, inflame tensions, radicalize moderates, destabilize
societies, and diminish democracy, outcomes which embolden terrorists and exacerbate
the root causes of political violence (Juergensmeyer, 2000). By increasing the resonance
of terrorists’ claims regarding their struggle and adversary, overwrought responses pro-
vide ‘propaganda capital’ (Wardlaw, 1989: 70) allowing them to mobilize valuable
resources, whether ideological support, additional recruits, or weapons and financial
assets. Accordingly, through repressive responses ‘states “socially construct” more resil-
ient … terrorist organizations’ and, as such, may become ‘their own worst enemies’
(Parker, 2007: 155–156).
As a strategy, provocation is rooted in 19th-century Anarchism. Drawing on the
notion of ‘propaganda by deed’ several figures, whether Most, Kropotkin, or Nechayev,
embraced agitational violence as a necessary catalyst to seize the masses’ attention and
impel the state’s organs of coercion into indiscriminate brutality. According to the
Russian Anarchist Kropotkin, terrorist acts were designed to generate ‘savage repres-
sions’ that would succeed in uniting the masses, ‘awaken[ing] the spirit of revolt’, and
‘driving the rebels to heroism’ – a strategy which has since been embraced by numerous
thinkers and organizations, including Carlos Marighella, Regis Debray, the FLN, the
Tupamaros, and Al-Qaeda (Townshend, 2011: 57).
Gripped by shock, vulnerability, and outrage, rather than carefully calibrated responses
in proportion to the injury sustained, there is an intense desire among victimized groups
to pursue retributive and cathartic responses. Following 9/11, a New York Times poll
uncovered widespread support for military action against terrorists even if ‘many thou-
sands of innocent people’ were killed (Breckenridge and Zimbardo, 2007).6 Ultimately,
all-consuming demands for social defense exonerate drastic expansions in state sover-
eignty and a turn to ‘gloves-off crime control’ (Hudson, 2003: 45). Historically, manifes-
tations of counter-terrorism, whether expansions in policing power, preventive – and
often indefinite – detention, secret trials, warrantless searches, intrusive surveillance,
torture and ‘enhanced interrogation’, assassinations, or aggressive military strikes and
pre-emptive wars, embody forms of ‘counter-law’ (Ericson, 2008); governmental prac-
tices that operate with impunity and are institutionalized in the absence of political delib-
eration, legal oversight, and public consent.
While state repression may facilitate their liquidation, history is replete with examples
of provocation advancing terrorists’ proximate and long-term objectives. For nationalist
and anti-colonial groups, the spiral of violence produced by terrorist attacks has often
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14 Current Sociology
succeeded in estranging and alienating colonial subjects from the metropole. In 1940s
Palestine, Britain’s response to the Irgun, whether curfews, checkpoints and partitions,
executions, or martial law, created ‘an image of the army and police as oppressors rather
than protectors’, dynamics contributing, in part, to Israel’s eventual independence
(Hoffman, 2006: 52). For Algeria, provocative violence was central to the FLN’s strategy
and eventual victory. France’s response, which included torture, public assassinations,
and mass round-ups and forced relocation, backfired catastrophically, transforming FLN
members into martyrs, galvanizing opposition among native Algerians, and outraging
public opinion in France (Fromkin, 1975). Moreover, in both contexts, government
responses established sympathy beyond each organization’s theater of operation, trans-
forming local struggles into global issues commanding the international community’s
attention (Rapoport, 2002).
In Europe, IRA attacks against Britain’s security forces in the early 20th century were
conducted, in part, to elicit violent and politically useful reactions (English, 2003). Their
response came in the form of the Black and Tans, special constables whose indiscrimi-
nate attacks ‘did more than anything … to undermine the British effort to keep Ireland
within the UK’ (Townshend, 2011: 125). More recently, the IRA and ETA coordinated
attacks on police, military, and security forces in the hopes of provoking excessive
repression (Zirakzadah, 2002). For the former, the Thatcher government’s policies of
internment and coercive interrogation failed to effect its operational capacity, while rein-
forcing Republicans’ legitimacy and producing a flood of recruits, money, and weapons
(White, 1989). Similar strategies were visible for revolutionary groups, like the RAF,
whose campaign of kidnappings and bombings sought to enrage the state and ‘make fas-
cism visible’ in West Germany (Vertigans, 2013).
Finally, provocation represents a central strategy of radical Islamist groups. Although
the precise objectives of organizations like Al-Qaeda remain opaque, the available evi-
dence suggests their actions represent a calculated effort to elicit extreme responses,
thereby facilitating their broader goals of mobilizing, uniting, and radicalizing the
world’s Muslim population (Nacos, 2003). In orchestrating their attacks Al-Qaeda seems
to have appreciated that, given its hawkish militarism and aggressive unilateralism, the
Bush administration was susceptible to provocation.7 Ultimately, the organization hoped
American reprisals could be framed as an anti-Islamic crusade and cosmic war between
good and evil, believers and infidels.
While Al-Qaeda’s objectives remain unfulfilled, America’s response has proven
counter-productive. Alongside torture, prisoner abuse, and drone strikes, Operation Iraqi
Freedom in particular ‘breathed new life into the organization’, vindicating its claims of
Western imperialism and inspiring a sustained insurgency (Byman and Pollack, 2008:
56). Producing approximately 500,000 civilian causalities and 2 million refugees, the
war served as a major recruitment tool and source of radicalization in the Middle East,
Western Europe, and elsewhere (Welch, 2006). Moreover, America’s actions eroded
international support, particularly in the Muslim world, while support for Al-Qaeda,
indicated through funding and recruitment levels, rose considerably.8 Consequently, ‘far
from shrinking, the spaces of lawlessness, the training grounds for global terrorism,
expanded to unheard of dimensions’ (Bauman, 2013: 102). Further, domestic reactions,
whether enhanced surveillance, racial profiling, or revanchist nationalism evidenced in
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Walsh 15
Islamophobia, racism, and hate crimes, have bred mistrust, discrimination, and harass-
ment, thereby facilitating the radicalization of pockets of domestic minorities, and vali-
dating claims regarding Western opposition to Islam.9 Although it remains unclear if
such outcomes are intended or desired, their effects – treating entire populations as
threats and folk devils – have amplified and entrenched the very tensions and divisions
on which terrorists depend and feed (Morgan and Poynting, 2012).
In an effort to contribute to debates concerning the construction and amplification of
social problems this article has documented terrorists’ role in producing moral panics.
The preceding indicates that, for many dissident groups, terrorist acts present invaluable
tools for accumulating ‘power made possible by fear’ (Savitch, 2014: 50). While rarely
discussed as such, terrorism aims to produce and benefit from the very conditions – ele-
vated anxiety, intense indignation, and punitive overreaction – that define moral panics.
By deploying violence that is horrific, unanticipated, and directed towards quotidian
spaces and infrastructures, terrorists seek to invoke affective states of extreme fear and
intense psychic and social disruption. Moreover, in doing so, terrorists exploit the ten-
dencies of the two most important institutions implicated in moral panics’ eruption: the
media and state institutions of social control. To obtain notoriety and multiply percep-
tions of vulnerability and imminent danger well beyond their concrete capacities and
material impact, terrorists depend on the anticipated publicity afforded by spectacle-
hungry media outlets. Additionally, the disproportionate reactions of security-obsessed
states represent an important resource for terrorist organizations. By eroding legitimacy
and breeding support for their cause, the collateral consequences of indiscriminate and
clumsy reprisals are a central means by which terrorists amplify their impact, mobilize
resources, and acquire and sustain their strength.
In interrogating these dynamics this research not only clarifies the terrorism–moral
panic relationship, but suggests fruitful ways of extending the moral panic paradigm
beyond its initial conceptual moorings. As an outlier or deviant case terrorism displays
attributes that resonate with, but are not entirely captured by, received definitions. While
other sources of social anxiety more closely reflect the expectations of the moral panic
paradigm, the case of terrorism, whether in regard to its political underpinnings, associa-
tion with sweeping collectivities, relationship to the inchoate hazards of risk society, or,
most importantly, orientation to actively promulgating hysteria, deviates from estab-
lished generalizations regarding the character of folk devils and activation of social anxi-
ety. In particular, by highlighting instances in which folk devils are, not external to, but
directly and intentionally implicated in inflating public fear, cultivating uncertainty, and
triggering exaggerated reactions from state authorities, security experts, and media out-
lets, terrorism is particularly useful in identifying new facilitating conditions and causal
pathways. If, as is argued, terrorism represents a potent source of contemporary fear and
alarm, then such findings cannot be easily dismissed. While these features suggest extant
modes of analysis are found wanting in their explanatory mettle, this does not imply the
moral panic concept should be overhauled or jettisoned, but sharpened and refined to
better account for the diverse agents and mechanisms involved in the production and
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16 Current Sociology
exploitation of collective alarm. Put differently, by weakening ‘the original proposition’
and suggesting a ‘modified proposition that will be stronger’, critical or deviant case
studies like terrorism display ‘great theoretical value’ and can assist in opening new
avenues of investigation concerning the shifting sources and consequences of contempo-
rary unease (Lijphart, 1971: 692).
Alongside deepening understandings of the potential actors, practices, and conditions
guiding and initiating moral panics’ eruption, this article has implications for the policy
alternatives open for the future. The preceding suggests that fearful, retributive, and venge-
ful reactions to terrorism undermine the very conditions – security and democracy – they
are purported to protect and preserve. Whether in relation to intrusive surveillance, pre-
emptive policing, group-based profiling, or unchecked sovereign power, hardline responses
attenuate constitutional protections and democracy’s consensual character, creating an
environment of suspicion, hostility, and atomization that corrodes communal bonds and
solidarity. Second, while they may succeed in disrupting terrorist organizations, efforts to
fight terror with terror are equally likely to produce greater opposition, strengthen support
for the terrorists’ cause, and foment ongoing spirals of violence. Additionally, indiscrimi-
nate responses create conditions – collateral damage, precarity, and social exclusion – that
contribute to terrorism’s ‘root causes’. Such outcomes suggest an intrinsic risk of counter-
terrorism is the inclination towards imitation. Accordingly, when responding to terrorist
acts, whether executed by states or dissidents, Nietzsche’s aphorism should be heeded:
‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that … he does not become a monster. …
[W]hen you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you’ (Nietzsche, 2010: 89).
This article has benefited greatly from the thoughtful comments and suggestions of three anony-
mous reviewers. I am also grateful to the students in my course on terrorism at the University of
Ontario Institute of Technology. Their insightful comments and probing questions in our weekly
meetings played an important and generative role in this research.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
1. Underscoring these dynamics Schmid and Jongman (1988) have identified 123 academic and
official definitions.
2. While conventional proxies of concern (media coverage, political discourse, public opinion)
only offer ‘low resolution’ images, behavioral indicators provide prima facie evidence of
anxiety (Ungar, 2001: 280).
3. As President Bush stated ‘America was targeted … because we’re the brightest beacon for
freedom and opportunity’ (Croft, 2006: 72).
4. The latter include conciliatory efforts that address terrorism’s ‘root causes’ whether negotia-
tions, social and political reforms, or peace accords (Maras, 2013).
5. Formal risk assessments reveal Americans are more likely to drown in a bathtub or be struck
by lightning than die from terrorism (Mueller, 2006).
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Walsh 17
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Europe (Savitch, 2014: 60; cf. Nussbaum, 2012).
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Author biography
James P Walsh is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the
University of Ontario Institute of Technology. In addition to terrorism, his research focuses on
crime and media, immigration law and policy, globalization, neoliberalism, and border surveil-
lance and policing.
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20 Current Sociology
Cet article examine la relation entre le terrorisme et la panique morale (moral panic)
afin de mieux saisir les conditions de l’apparition et la construction de cette réaction
disproportionnée. Afin de permettre une meilleure compréhension des propriétés
agentielles des démons populaires (folk devils), ce travail s’interroge sur les conséquences
des actes terroristes - qui font appel à des formes extrêmes et choquantes de violence
pour semer la peur et inciter au changement - sur notre entendement du cadre de valeurs
de la panique morale. Cet article suggère que, dans le cas du terrorisme, la perception
exagérée des risques et la réponse disproportionnée qui caractérisent les paniques
morales ne sont pas seulement initiées par les chefs moraux (moral entrepreneurs) ou
par les agents du contrôle social, mais alimentées par les rationalités et les pratiques
stratégiques des démons populaires eux-mêmes. En adoptant cette démarche, ce travail
vise à améliorer le traitement social et scientifique du terrorisme, à élargir le champ
d’analyse de la panique morale et à mieux comprendre l’instrumentalisation politique
des peurs et des angoisses.
Démons populaires (folks devils), terrorisme, violence politique, peur, paniques
morales, réaction sociale, construction des problèmes sociaux
En este artículo se analiza la relación entre el terrorismo y pánico moral para ampliar la
comprensión de la erupción y la orquestación de este último. Responder a las llamadas
de las consideraciones más profundas de propiedades de agente de los demonios
folclóricos, se cuestiona cómo los métodos terroristas -el despliegue de la violencia
impactante y excepcional para incitar el miedo y estimular el cambio político- desafía
el entendimiento existente del marco teórico sobre pánico moral. En concreto,
se argumenta que en el caso del terrorismo, las amenazas exageradas y respuestas
desproporcionadas que definen el pánico moral no son impulsados únicamente por
los emprendedores morales o agentes de control social, pero son informados por las
prácticas estratégicas y racionalidades de los propios demonios folclóricos. A través de
su enfoque, esta investigación mejora el tratamiento científico-social del terrorismo;
amplía el alcance del análisis sobre pánico moral; y se extiende la comprensión de cómo
el miedo y la ansiedad son manipulados con fines políticos.
Palabras clave
Demonios folclóricos, Terrorismo, Violencia Política, Miedo, Pánico Moral, reacción
social, construcción de problemas sociales
at UOIT Campus Libraries on March 10, 2016csi.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... The dominant discourse in my dataset appears to accept, sometimes reluctantly, that cats are invariably a threat to wildlife populations. Moral panic theory has been used to understand the 'war on drugs' (Hawdon 2001;Lord 2022) and the 'war on terrorism' (Walsh 2017) and the rhetoric of the 'war on cats' bears some similarity. In all these examples there exists a real threat and potential problem, but a moral panic generates generalised fear that is disproportionate and used to fuel prejudice and support ill-conceived or controversial policies (Walsh 2017). ...
... Moral panic theory has been used to understand the 'war on drugs' (Hawdon 2001;Lord 2022) and the 'war on terrorism' (Walsh 2017) and the rhetoric of the 'war on cats' bears some similarity. In all these examples there exists a real threat and potential problem, but a moral panic generates generalised fear that is disproportionate and used to fuel prejudice and support ill-conceived or controversial policies (Walsh 2017). Proposed solutions to reduce cat predation are polarising, and this is evident within the comments analysed here. ...
... The comments received in response to the 2013 article published in The New York Times (Angier 2013) were as polarising as the ones examined in this study, with some in favour of leash laws for companion cats, others calling for the killing of free-living cats, and yet others defending cats' rights to roam (Marra and Santella 2016, 69-71). Another key feature of moral panics is hastily enacted measures to combat a perceived threat and ameliorate public concerns (Garland 2008;Walsh 2017). In the case of freeroaming cats, the threat to wildlife can be weaponised by those who dislike cats trespassing on their properties or wandering around the neighbourhood, even in areas where wildlife populations are not under threat. ...
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Lynn et al., (2019) accused fellow scientists of misrepresenting free-roaming cats (Felis catus) by framing them as a global threat to biodiversity, rather than a localised threat to specific ecosystems. These authors asserted that the narrative created a ‘moral panic’ over free-roaming cats, which is escalated by emotive journalistic pieces read by audiences around the world. To test this empirically, I performed a thematic discourse analysis of user comments responding to five news articles, a magazine, and a YouTube video related to the topic of freeroaming cats. The discourses examined flow between conservationists, the media, and the public, and reflect the confused and convoluted ways in which people think about cats. Here I discuss how well the data fits the moral panic theory. I analyse how labels such as ‘feral’ serve to ‘other’ cats, rendering them objects of distain and creating ‘folk devils’ that are deemed more killable than beloved companion animals of the same species.
... Abbott, A., Butler, D., Castelvecchi, D., Cressey, D., Gibney, E., Ledford, H., Lee, J., Morello, L., Reardon, S., Tollefson, J. O presente capítulo segue a linha de argumentação que atende ao modo como as fronteiras são variáveis e permeáveis, funcionando como espaços e significações onde os movimentos dos que atravessam fronteiras operam como canais de desigualdade (ver Salter, 2007;Walsh, 2017;Wonders, 2006;Wonders & Jones, 2018). Adoto o conceito de «performatividade da fronteira» que permite pensar sobre como, nas palavras de Wonders, «as fronteiras não são apenas constituídas geograficamente, mas são construídas socialmente (...) e delineadas por forças de foco global maiores» (Wonders, 2006, p. 65). ...
... Acredito que o enfoque especial e sensacionalista com que alguns média trabalham questões de identidade e de pertença traduzem-se em algo mais complexo: o destaque na (in)segurança gerida pelo fluxo migratório envolve diferentes perceções do risco, vulnerabilidade, classe social, localização e nacionalidade que são influenciáveis pelas emergências sensacionalistas e estereotipadas sob o efeito de novos(velhos) incidentes sociais (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994, p. 33;Greer et al., 2008;Walsh, 2017). Nesta linha de reflexão compreensiva, os «suspeitos transnacionais» invocam uma narrativa do ofensor em série que permanece à solta, o que estimula a que se levantem outras questões e se instaurem outro tipos de debates relacionados com o regime Schengen e a abertura de fronteiras (Greer et al., 2008;Walsh, 2017). ...
... Acredito que o enfoque especial e sensacionalista com que alguns média trabalham questões de identidade e de pertença traduzem-se em algo mais complexo: o destaque na (in)segurança gerida pelo fluxo migratório envolve diferentes perceções do risco, vulnerabilidade, classe social, localização e nacionalidade que são influenciáveis pelas emergências sensacionalistas e estereotipadas sob o efeito de novos(velhos) incidentes sociais (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994, p. 33;Greer et al., 2008;Walsh, 2017). Nesta linha de reflexão compreensiva, os «suspeitos transnacionais» invocam uma narrativa do ofensor em série que permanece à solta, o que estimula a que se levantem outras questões e se instaurem outro tipos de debates relacionados com o regime Schengen e a abertura de fronteiras (Greer et al., 2008;Walsh, 2017). Com uma abordagem especial e sensacionalista mediado pela retórica da liberdade e movimento, os média discursam e direcionam-se pela sinalização não de um potencial «suspeito», mas de uma comunidade ou grupos suspeitos (Pantazis & Pemberton, 2009, p. 649) ...
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Este livro aborda as relações entre ciência, cultura e política a partir do olhar sociológico sobre as implicações societais e éticas da presença da genética forense na prevenção da criminalidade e terrorismo na União Europeia. As contingências, controvérsias e expectativas dirigidas à genética forense num contexto híbrido, em que se cruzam agendas securitárias dos Estados-Nação e práticas de cientistas, de agentes policiais e mensagens dos meios de comunicação social, são retratadas neste livro coletivo em jeito de diagnóstico das turbulências com que se confronta a ciência quando é convocada para fora do seu habitat tradicional. O ponto nevrálgico desta obra é a análise da dimensão pública da genética forense quando este domínio de saber científico, sob a égide da neutralidade, é convocado para produzir conhecimento que possa ser prático e útil na identificação criminal. No contexto de uma sociedade rendida à aura simbólica da genética e à vertente benéfica da ciência no contributo para a proteção e segurança da sociedade, esta obra assume a função de desconstruir a dimensão distópica da ciência associada a processos de vigilância estatal e policial, que ameaçam liberdades civis e sujeitam populações vulneráveis a processos insidiosos de racismo, discriminação e estigmatização.
... (Comment C and E, Daily Mail, 28 November 2015). Similar to other studies related to moral panic in an enlarging EU (see Nellis, 2003;Mawby and Gisby, 2009;Walsh, 2017), the members of the public argue that only the reinstatement of borders can prevent these criminals from finding new victims. According to these comments, this type of criminal can 'escape' without punishment, as explained in the following comment: ...
... According to Berkeley (2006, p. 30), "a multiplicity of media panics about new immigrants holds a public perception of perpetual crisis about immigration policies and social problems". With the increase in crime at the transnational level, the tension between 'open borders' and the limitation of' mobile threats' (Walsh, 2017;Hilder and Kemshall, 2016, p. 132) (re)produces criminal associations that co-articulate the 'Other European' (Strath, 2002;Kuus, 2004;Said, 2004) and the "feared predator" (Fattah, 1982, p. 113). Many of these discussions led to the context of the Brexit referendum, which "would allow more control over the flow of immigrants to the UK from the rest of EU" (Wadsworth et al., 2015, p. 2). ...
... The 'Euro-Ripper' story enacts different perceptions of risk, vulnerability and nationality under the effect of new (old) social emergencies (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994, p. 33;Walsh, 2017). Through the media spotlight, this case observes, together with the advent of the internet, the reinforcement of an inevitable 'moral panic' (Cohen, 2002;Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994;Mawby and Gisby, 2009). ...
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A higher level of mobility of people has marked the European Union (EU), with immigrants moving from one place to another, every year, looking for a better quality of life, often fleeing from war and poverty. In the wake of enlargement of the European Union, the United Kingdom (UK) experienced high inward migration. One of the main focuses of UK media coverage was immigration from Eastern European countries. The UK referendum on Brexit on 23 June 2016, was followed by an increase in hate crimes linked to migration issues and, subsequently, a media apparatus of toxic discourse and fear of the criminal ‘Other’. This paper aims to reveal how newspaper articles and personal comments written in response to these articles, represented creative and media-driven anxieties about ‘opening’ borders in the EU. The empirical sample builds on news media coverage of the ‘Euro-Ripper’ case, published in two UK newspapers—the Daily Mail and The Independent . Based on critical surveillance studies and cultural media studies, I elaborate on the notion of moral panic, dramatised by the media, which mobilises specific compositions of ‘otherness’ by constructing suspicion and criminalising inequality by particular social and ethnic groups and nationalities. I argue that the media portrays the dramatisation of transnational narratives of risk and (in)security, which redraws territorial borders and (re)define Britain’s global identity. The analysis shows how the news media in the Brexit vote continually raised and legitimised awareness related to the migration as a vehicle that enables the ‘folk-devil’ to cross borders. This context postulates an ideology that converges on a relationship of intransigence and criminal convictions, in the context of a politics of inclusion and exclusion. I conclude by emphasising how the media intersects different social and geographical spaces in which migration takes place. Media-constructed categories of suspicion targets have been previously created and ‘suspect communities’ have already been socially accepted, thereby confirming and reshaping understandings of their identities and communities.
... Classic moral panic theory has been critiqued for underplaying the agency of folk devils and for conceiving of the societal reaction to them in overly unified, consensual terms (deYoung 2013). Rather, moral panics are contested phenomena in which folk devils frequently 'fight back' (Ajzenstadt 2009;McRobbie and Thornton 1995) and sometimes even act as 'provocateurs' who intentionally initiate social reactions (Walsh 2017(Walsh , 2019. Relatedly, Mary deYoung (2013) critiques what she argues is a one-sided focus on marginalized folk devils in moral panic research. ...
... One can also mention the provocateur, recently introduced by Walsh (2019) as a subtype of the folk devil. The provocateur seeks to create moral panics by inciting public reactions of moral indignation through activities such as terrorism (Walsh 2017(Walsh , 2019. Another moral public position that can be interpreted as a social type is the victim-hero discussed by Sarah Wright (2016). ...
The devilish has long been integral to myths, legends, and folklore, firmly located in the relationships between good and evil, and selves and others. But how are ideas of evil constructed in current times and framed by contemporary social discourses? Modern Folk Devils builds on and works with Stanley Cohen’s theory on folk devils and moral panics to discuss the constructions of evil. The authors present an array of case-studies that illustrate how the notion of folk devils nowadays comes into play and animates ideas of otherness and evil throughout the world.Examining current fears and perceived threats, this volume investigates and analyzes how and why these devils are constructed. The chapters discuss how the devilish may take on many different forms: sometimes they exist only as a potential threat, other times they are a single individual or phenomenon or a visible group, such as refugees, technocrats, Roma, hipsters, LGBT groups, and rightwing politicians. Folk devils themselves are also given a voice to offer an essential complementary perspective on how panics become exaggerated, facts distorted, and problems acutely angled. Bringing together researchers from anthropology, sociology, political studies, ethnology, and criminology, the contributions examine cases from across the world spanning from Europe to Asia and Oceania.
... Finally, critical criminologists have also studied terrorism and extremist crime and stressed structural, cultural, and institutional contexts (Anthony & Cunneen 2008). Studies contextualize the social and political responses to terrorist attacks (Walsh 2017) or review and critique existing counterterrorism policy (Aguerri & Jiménez-Franco 2021). Moreover, critical studies employing labeling theory describe the consequences of labeling populations, often marginalized, as terrorists or extremists, or reducing their identity to a single ethnic or religious characteristic (Appleby 2010). ...
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This review focuses on terrorism and extremist crimes, including ideologically motivated hate crimes. Research on these topics has become more rigorous in recent decades, and more scholars have engaged in original data collection. Our assessment found a burgeoning literature that increasingly includes the application of integrated theories, but gaps remain as few studies examine life-course and critical approaches. Our review of the policing of terrorism found a limited evidence base for counterterrorism initiatives. We also found that court/sentencing issues are understudied. We suggest improving data quality in these areas by creating a national data collection protocol on these crimes, enhancing the rigor of offender and victim self-report studies, and requiring more transparency from open-source research efforts. We propose that government agencies fund rigorous evaluations of policing strategies in the terrorism context. Finally, it is hoped that increased access to federal court documents will lead to more scholarly attention on sentencing issues. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Criminology, Volume 7 is January 2024. Please see for revised estimates.
... An unfortunate outcome of moral panics is hastily enacted measures to combat a perceived threat and to ameliorate public concerns (Garland, 2008;Walsh, 2017). In the case of roaming cats, the threat to wildlife can be weaponised by those who dislike cats trespassing on their properties or wandering around the neighbourhood. ...
Full-text available
This thesis employs thematic discourse analysis to elucidate prominent themes and points of contention associated with roaming cats (Felis catus). The data comprised 2476 online user comments responding to content related to roaming cats, 75 qualitative survey responses, 771 Facebook responses, and biographies reconstructed from eight case studies of cat-human relationships. These reflect broader social discourses surrounding more-than-human animals and human governance over other animals. Notions of guardian (owner) responsibilities are underpinned by different perceptions of companion cats (pets), ranging from childlike dependents who need to be protected and ‘parented’ to wild-like animals whose confinement would be morally wrong. Comments reveal how discourses from scientists, cat and wildlife advocacy groups, and the media are filtered through a local lens and often applied out of context. The data supports the notion that media reporting is instigating a moral panic over roaming cats by evoking emotive responses to predation by cats. These invariably become entangled within discourses related to cat safety, welfare, and complaints of ‘nuisance’ behaviours. Discourses surrounding cats in the community are further examined within a morethan- human biopolitical framework that describes how cohesive social mechanisms exert control over feline bodies through normalisation of practices such as desexing and confinement. Language was found to play a key role in biopolitical control by dominating the narrative of ‘responsible’ cat guardianship. Language is also central to moral panic theory, and the term ‘feral’ was shown to reinforce a ‘folk devil’ trope of free-living cats as transgressive and inherently different from companion cats. ‘Feral’ also invoked pity among those adamant cats need human love and care. However, cats are not without agency and can co-create meaning within a multispecies home or community. Case studies demonstrated cat-human intersubjectivity (joint meaning-making) and the various relationships formed between cats and non-feline animals (including human), both inside and outside of their homes.
... Ever since COVID-19 became a major issue in South Asia, mainstream mass media in Nepal frequently reported on the risk of COVID-19 being brought to Nepal by thousands of migrant workers returning from India, Muslims from India travelling to Nepal for religious activities, and Nepalese Muslims attending religious gathering in India [21]. Muslims have a history of being discriminated against on the pretext of their involved in terrorism [22,23]. It was further propagated by social media enforcing moral panic and promoting negative public perception against these two marginalised communities as possible virus carriers and spreaders. ...
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The paper explores how COVID-19-related moral panics have led to fear and othering practices among returnee Nepalese migrants from India and Muslims living in Nepal. This qualitative study included in-depth interviews with 15 returnee migrants, 15 Muslims from Kapilvastu and Banke districts of Nepal, and eight interviews with media and health professionals, and representatives from migration organisations. Four themes emerged from our data analysis: (1) rumours and mis/disinformation; (2) impact of rumours on marginalised groups (with three sub-themes: (i) perceived fear; (ii) othering practices; (iii) health and social impact); (3) resistance; and (4) institutional response against rumours. Findings suggest that rumours and misinformation were fuelled by various media platforms, especially social media (e.g., Facebook, YouTube) during the initial months of the lockdown. This created a moral panic which led to returnee migrants and Muslim populations experiencing fear and social isolation. Resistance and effective institutional responses to dispel rumours were limited. A key contribution of the paper is to highlight the lived experiences of COVID-19 related rumours on marginalised groups. The paper argues that there is a need for clear government action using health promotion messages to tackle rumours (health-related or otherwise), mis/disinformation and mitigating the consequences (hatred and tensions) at the community level.
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The relationship between defence spending and economic growth is a reoccurring topic within the economic community. With the end of the Cold War, terrorism became the common threat faced by NATO which promptly triggered various changes in the defence budget. Previous research around the topic of peace dividends has not taken into account the role played by national security threats such as terrorism on defence spending and economic growth. This research will use terrorism and political violence as a control variable to assess how it affects the nexus between defence spending and economic growth. It will be carried out using linear regression and structural equation modelling with moderation and mediation. This research concludes that at low levels of terrorism and political violence leads to cuts in defence spending which in turn slightly slows economic growth. Defence spending can act as a stabiliser in times of crisis due to its budget being more integrated in the civilian sector however it is not an effective economic policy to boost economic growth.
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Background: This article reverses the conventional logic of moral panics. COVID-19 pre-crisis risk communication is conceptualized as a form of implicatory denial that underreacted to COVID-19 in the three months leading up to the acute phase of the crisis. Analysis: Connections are established among denial theory; infectious disease crisis communication; and the social, economic, and political implications of underreacting to real-world threats over three phases of pre-crisis risk communication. Conclusions and implications: Linking the analysis to the broader literature on the social organization of denial highlights the dialectical relationship between the rhetoric of panic and conditions of implicatory denial.
This work outlines the important considerations of policy that confront a democratic state in trying to combat terrorism and at the same time remain democratic. Part I of this book, provides the reader with a comprehensive introduction to the definition, history, theory, operation and effects of terrorism as an essential background to policy analysis. Part II analyses counter-terrorist policies. It begins by outlining basic policy choices and then looks at specific policy areas such as the role of intelligence agencies, the use of the armed forces, the development of anti-terrorist legislation and international treaties, and the issue of regulation of media reporting of terrorist incidents. Developments in the strategic dimension of terrorism are discussed in chapters on the importance of hostage takings to international terrorism and issues surrounding state involvement in international terrorism. In the preparation of this second edition, Grant Wardlaw has considerably expanded the second part of the book, focusing firmly upon the international policy consequences of prevalent developments within international terrorism.
What has prompted the new terrorism? Why have these acts often been associated with religious causes, and why are they occurring with such frequency at this moment in history?
Since the infamous events of 9/11, the fear of terrorism and the determination to strike back against it has become a topic of enormous public debate. The 'war on terror' discourse has developed not only through American politics but via other channels including the media, the church, music, novels, films and television, and therefore permeates many aspects of American life. Stuart Croft suggests that the process of this production of knowledge has created a very particular form of common sense which shapes relationships, jokes and even forms of tattoos. Understanding how a social process of crisis can be mapped out and how that process creates assumptions allows policy-making in America's war on terror to be examined from new perspectives. Using IR approaches together with insights from cultural studies, this 2006book develops a dynamic model of crisis which seeks to understand the war on terror as a cultural phenomenon.
Introduction After introducing a perspective on terrorism as post-political and after establishing the criteria for success that are immanent in this form of anti-political action, this essay interprets September 11, 2001 and its aftermath inside a cultural-sociological perspective. After introducing a macro-model of social performance that combines structural and semiotic with pragmatic and power oriented dimensions, I show how the terrorist attack on New York City and the counterattacks that immediately occurred in response can be viewed as an iteration of the performance/counter performance dialectic that began decades, indeed centuries, ago in terms of the relation of Western expansion and Arab-Muslim reaction. I pay careful attention to the manner in which the counter performance of New Yorkers and Americans develops an idealized, liminal alternative that inspired self-defense and outrage, leading to exactly the opposite performance results from those the al-Qaeda terrorists had intended. To understand the sociological processes that created “September 11” (hereafter also referred to as “9/11”) and what transpired politically, morally, and humanly during that tragic time and its aftermath, and also to understand how to prevent a tragic eternal return, we must reflect on the theoretical presuppositions that underlie our empirical perceptions. We need to theorize terrorism differently, thinking of its violence less in physical and instrumental terms than as a particularly gruesome kind of symbolic action in a complex performative field.