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Al Qaeda Versus Big Brother: Anxiety About Government Monitoring and Support for Domestic Counterterrorism Policies


Explanatory models of attitudes toward U.S. domestic counterterrorism policy routinely incorporate individual concern over terrorism, but uniformly disregard concern about the government’s use of domestic surveillance. Indeed, one of the most prominent works of this kind explicitly argues that ordinary Americans will not perceive that government monitoring targets people like themselves and thus domestic surveillance programs will not generate anxiety. We question this assumption on theoretical and historical grounds. Our research uses a unique probability sample survey to demonstrate that significant portions of ordinary Americans feel anxious about domestic government monitoring. Moreover, the results show that anxiety about government monitoring negatively relates to attitudes toward domestic counterterrorism policies. Although never included in previous models, and even plainly dismissed as irrelevant, felt anxiety about government monitoring importantly predicts attitudes about domestic counterterrorism policies.

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  1. As Huddy et al. (2005) note, the focus on threat without also considering anxiety leads to unstable findings. Whereas studies of domestic counterterrorism routinely show a positive association between terrorism threat and support for these policies, related studies considering foreign military action find unstable results, with some studies linking threat to more supportive attitudes and others finding no relationship (e.g. Arian 1989; Brody and Shapiro 1989; Tir 2010). The approach taken by Huddy et al. (2005), which takes seriously the role of anxiety, helps resolve the micro foundation of this puzzling inconsistency. They find that when controlling for anxiety, threat has a direct positive association with support for aggressive military action that strikes out at the perceived source of the threat (Huddy et al. 2005). However, when individuals experience anxiety about terrorism their support for retaliatory military policies wanes because the aggressive retaliatory action may increase the future risk of terrorism. Even when also threatened, anxiety leads individuals to support passive foreign policies that are perceived as less risky. This framework helps explain why terrorism threat at times does and does not generate support for military action against terrorists, with the key factor being the degree of associated anxiety (Huddy et al. 2005).

  2. Though Huddy and colleagues “had, in fact, suggested that anxiety could increase support for such policies because they might reduce the risk of terrorism…the coefficients for anxiety are all positive, …but none are statistically significant at conventional levels, and none of the effects are substantively large. Perceived threat increases support for heightened surveillance policies but anxiety does not” (Huddy et al. 2005, p. 604). It appears that while the consideration of anxiety's associated tendency of risk aversion helps resolve the puzzle of the inconsistent relationship between terrorism threat and support for foreign counterterrorism policies, their approach opens a new puzzle involving terrorism anxiety and domestic counterterrorism policies that defies original theoretical expectations.

  3. Sniderman et al. (1996, p. 244) make a similar argument, exercising liberty “unavoidably collides with other values” causing a “contestability of rights” where people’s commitment to liberty clashes with other values, in this case safety and security. Of course, some of the most important political philosophers, starting with Hobbes, note that individuals can only achieve liberty in an environment where the government or leviathan protects their security.

  4. Wolfendale (2006, p. 764) concurs, “[c]urrent counterterrosim measures pose a very real threat to the lives and well being of innocent citizens…this legislation threatens security from the state itself—security from being investigated, detained, controlled, and placed under surveillance without ones knowledge.”

  5. The response rate was 36.2% (using AAPOR Response Rate 6), which yielded over one thousand respondents. Although not as high as some national surveys such as the National Election Studies or the General Social Surveys, research has shown that this response rate is now common and does not necessary yield lower quality data (Keeter et al. 2000).

  6. For their context specific anxiety dimension they use the terms nervous, scared and afraid.

  7. The statistically significant results for terrorism anxiety can be attributed to monitoring anxiety rather than the two cognitive monitoring items. In an alternate model that includes monitoring anxiety but excludes the two monitoring cognitions, the coefficient for terrorism anxiety is nearly identical to that found in the baseline model. However, terrorism anxiety is not significant when monitoring anxiety is excluded and the two cognitive measures are included.

  8. The results also suggest a reconsideration of the role of anxiety during the George W. Bush administration. In Mueller’s (2009) recent book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, he argues that during this period anxiety about terrorism was an especially effective tool for increasing public support for domestic counterterrorism programs such as the Patriot Act and NSA wiretapping. Our research implies that while the independent influence of terrorism concern does conform to this conventional storyline, it is incomplete without a consideration of the interconnected concern about the executive branch’s domestic surveillance programs.

  9. The R 2 increases from .33 in the baseline model to .42 in the model that adds the monitoring items (Table 2).


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Correspondence to Brian S. Krueger.

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Control Variables

Terrorism Threat:

How likely do you think it is that the US will suffer a serious terrorist attack, like the one on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, some time in the next 12 months—extremely likely, very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely, or not at all likely?

Terrorism Anxiety:

When you think about the possibility of another serious terrorist attack, how anxious does it make you feel—very anxious, somewhat anxious, a little anxious, or not anxious at all?

Political Knowledge:

Next we have a few questions about the current events. Many people don’t know the answers to these questions, so if there are some you don’t know just tell me and we’ll go on

What job or political office is now held by Dick Cheney? (ASK OPEN ENDED)

How much of a majority is required for the U.S. Senate and House to override a presidential veto? (ASK OPEN ENDED)

Do you happen to know which party has the most members in the House of Representatives in Washington? (ASK OPEN ENDED)

Personal Trust:

Some people say that most people can be trusted. Others say you can’t be too careful in your dealings with people. Which of these opinions comes closest to your own?

Political Interest:

Generally speaking, how much interest would you say you have in what’s going on in government and public affairs: a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or no interest at all?” [response order reversed in analyses]

External Efficacy:

People like me don’t have any say about what the government does. (PROBE: Agree/Disagree Strongly/Somewhat) [response order reversed in analyses]

Government Trust:

How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—Just about always, most of the time, only some of the time, or almost never? [response order reversed in analyses]

Bush Approval:

To begin, do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as President? (PROBE: STRONGLY/SOMEWHAT APPROVE/DISAPPROVE) [response order reversed in analyses]

Partisan Identification:

Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, or what? Followed by:

Would you consider yourself a strong Republican or a not very strong Republican?

Would you consider yourself a strong Democrat or a not very strong Democrat?

Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican Party or Democratic Party?

[Scaled to 7 points ranging from Strong Democrat to Strong Republican]


Interviewer records gender


What racial or ethnic group would you most identify yourself with? Black, White, Asian, Native American or something else?


In what year were you born?


What is the highest grade of school or year of college you have completed and gotten credit for?


For classification purposes only, is the total yearly income of all the members of your family now living at home less than $50,000 or is it $50,000 or more? (for those less than $50,000) Is it over $25,000 or under $25,000…(For those $50,000 or more) Is it $50,000 to $74,999, is it $75,000-$99,999, or is it over $100,000


How many children live in this household who are 17 years old or younger?

Church Attendance:

How often do you attend religious services, meetings, or gatherings besides weddings and funerals—more than once a week, once a week, almost every week, once or twice a month, a few times a year or never?


Next I am going to read you some characteristics often used to describe people. As I read each one I would like you to tell me how well it describes Arab Americans, Violent Extremist—not well at all, not too well, somewhat well, very well


4 point additive index based on the following three questions:

Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have.

Independence or respect for elders?

Obedience or self-reliance?

Curiosity or good manners?

See Appendix Table 3, 4.

Table 3 Results of factor analyses used to create monitoring policy factor index
Table 4 Results of factor analyses used to create monitoring anxiety factor index

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Best, S.J., Krueger, B.S. & Pearson-Merkowitz, S. Al Qaeda Versus Big Brother: Anxiety About Government Monitoring and Support for Domestic Counterterrorism Policies. Polit Behav 34, 607–625 (2012).

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  • Anxiety
  • Domestic counter-terrorism policies
  • Government monitoring
  • Attitudes about terrorism
  • Public opinion