This study investigates how people interpret the war on terrorism that commenced as a result of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The utilitarian and retributive philosophies of punishment and the international relations approach to deterrence provide a framework for understanding the ways in which the war on terrorism may be construed. The participants were 178 British university students. The literature suggests that messages of deterrence and revenge have potentially opposite outcomes in terms of the behaviour of the targeted audience. This study identified five different messages that could be conveyed by the range of possible reprisals that could be taken in response to terrorist attacks: negotiation with terrorists; military action against terrorists; diplomacy with countries supporting terrorists; economic sanctions; and military action or use of weapons of mass destruction against countries supporting terrorists. All types of reprisal were understood as demonstrating that terrorism would not be tolerated, and none was interpreted as communicating that terrorism would be eliminated. Non-military responses of diplomacy and negotiation were interpreted as deterrence, whereas the more severe military sanctions were interpreted as revenge. It is suggested that there may be a discrepancy between intended and conveyed messages of government responses to terrorist action. Further research is required, but the findings of this study suggest that the nature of government responses to terrorism could have implications for public support for the war on terrorism and future counter-terrorism policies.
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