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START study examines U.S. attitudes, beliefs before and after the Boston Marathon bombings

Americans assign higher probabilities to attacks occurring in the United States, but not to their communities

Public attitudes toward terrorism and government responses to it are fairly stable, even in the face of a highly publicized terrorist event according to a new study from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). By comparing survey responses of American adults before and after the Boston Marathon Bombings, researchers evaluated how U.S. attitudes about terrorism and counterterrorism changed.

After the bombings, Americans perceived higher probabilities of a terrorist attack occurring in the United States -- 26 percent saying they viewed an attack as somewhat, very, or extremely likely after the bombings compared with about 13 percent before the bombings. However, there was no change in respondents’ views regarding the probability of a terrorist attack happening in their community.

There was also no difference in the proportion of respondents who said they had thought about the possibility of a terrorist attack during the previous week, and no difference in the proportion of people who said they had changed their behaviors due to the possibility of attack.

After the bombings, there was an increase in the proportion of respondents saying they would be very or somewhat likely to call the police if they became aware of various terrorism-related scenarios.

“A highly publicized event appears to increase the willingness of the American public to help the authorities prevent future attacks,” said Gary LaFree, START director and lead author of the study.

“The results of the study also underscore a long understood characteristic of policing in general: that to be effective, policing requires direct citizen engagement and cooperation.”

LaFree also noted that it was not surprising that after the bombings Americans were less likely to say the government was effective in preventing terrorism in the United States. The survey showed that before the bombings, 86.9 percent of respondents viewed the government as very or somewhat effective, compared with 78.5 percent after.

Both before and after, roughly 3 out of 4 people said that “terrorists will always find a way to carry out major domestic attacks,” while 1 in 4 said that “the government can eventually prevent all major attacks in the United States.”

Funded through the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate’s Resilient Systems Division, the study, “U.S. Attitudes toward Terrorism and Counterterrorism Before and After the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings,” was authored by START researchers Gary LaFree, Stanley Presser, Roger Tourangeau and Amy Adamcyzk.

The study compared responses of American adults who completed a survey immediately before the bombings with the responses of a similar group of Americans who completed the survey immediately after the bombings. This work builds on a previous study and report, “U.S. Attitudes toward Terrorism and Counterterrorism.”

Download "U.S. Attitudes toward Terrorism and Counterterrorism Before and After the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings".