Events

Threat Perceptions in Canada and the United States

November 10, 2005 // 8:00am10:30am
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The Canada Institute held a conference at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on November 10, 2005 to launch the fourth issue of the One Issue, Two Voices publication series, which addresses "Threat Perceptions in the United States and Canada."

Karlyn Bowman, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Frank L. Graves, President, EKOS Research Associates Inc.
Gavin I. Cameron, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Calgary
Lynn Jennings, Homeland Security initiative, Council for Excellence in Government

In this issue, authors Karlyn Bowman and Frank Graves explore the public's perceptions of threats and attitudes toward security in both the United States and Canada. A panel comprising the authors and guest speakers discussed the policy implications of threat perceptions, incorporating findings from polling data taken since the summer of 2005, when this publication went to press

This publication, produced jointly by The Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Canada Institute on North American Issues in Toronto, explores how Canadians and Americans appreciate and perceive threats to their respective countries, to their national security, and to their societies' psyche. The importance of threat perceptions in each country cannot be underestimated in light of the effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Both Canadians and Americans "were riveted by 9/11," according to Graves, who argued that the terrorist attacks were the "biggest media event" in both countries. 9/11 had a "dramatic effect" in reshaping the public's outlook and government priorities in both countries. And it is the perceptions of threat, rather than the true, statistical incidence of it, that drives public opinion. Gavin Cameron explained that the prominence of terrorism and the responses to it have always been "incident-driven," a trend that predates the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Yet, how the public perceive these incidents and their repercussions drives the political debate.

Bowman argued that since 9/11 the U.S. public has come to view the threat of terrorism as the "new normal." As a result, terrorism has become a "backburner issue"—though one at a "steady simmer." Americans appear quite willing to give the federal national security agencies wide latitude in the "war on terror." That said, attitudes toward the administration have evolved since the One Issue, Two Voices publication went to press: a recent Washington Post/NBC News poll shows the Democrats pulling even with the Republicans as the party best able to handle terrorism.

Canadians' Assessment of the Terrorist Threat

Canadians assess the threat of terrorism differently than Americans—according to Graves, most think of it as "anathema." Cameron concurred, "Canadians are skeptical that terrorism will affect them." They do not consider themselves the targets of terrorism—notwithstanding their government's repeated studies, warnings, and rhetoric to the contrary, notably from Deputy Prime Minister Anne McClellan as well as successive directors of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). Cameron noted that this genuine skepticism of terrorism "as a real threat" stands in stark contrast to Canada's own track record with terrorism, specifically the 1985 Air India attack—"the deadliest in North America until 9/11." Although the victims were Canadian, the incident was perceived as an "Indian" problem, and had a limited impact on Canadians' sense of vulnerability as a target of terrorism.

Canadians are also determined to keep another terrorist attack from happening again. Polls show a consistent preference for "security" over other government policy priorities. Graves argued, as he did in his paper, that a strong "security ethic" has developed among Canadians, and they generally view the government's role as one of mitigating security risks with the available financial resources. That said, Cameron argued that Canadians are largely unaware of what their government does. For all the criticism directed at the U.S. government over the detainment and treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, Canadians have "no knowledge that [their] government does likewise," (under special legislation know as the Security Certificates Act).

The apparent paradox—low threat assessment, but high premium on security—derives from a broader context: while Canadians perceive the threat of terrorism as low in Canada itself, they consider it high in the United States. Concerns over how the United States would react to another attack on its soil—ostensibly with further strictures on the free movement of goods and persons across the border—explain to a large degree Canadians' general support of strong security measures to counter terrorism. The last thing Canadians want is for terrorists to use their country to attack the United States.

Citizen and Government Preparedness

What is striking, however, is that for all the public's fear of another attack, few people have taken action to prepare themselves for such an eventuality. Panelists also noted that despite recurrent natural disasters, few Americans—even those living in disaster-prone regions—have consistently and comprehensively prepared for dealing with the consequences. Canadians have done even less, according to Graves: only in the Vancouver region, where fear of a severe earthquake is prominent, have people taken steps to prepare themselves for a catastrophic event.

There is also a problem of misperceptions: many people believe they are prepared to deal with a natural disaster, but experts contend that few have comprehensively done so. A recent ABC News poll, for instance, shows that 53% of Americans consider themselves "ready" or "very ready" to deal with a catastrophic event; Lynn Jennings argued that this figure was rather inflated. Part of the problem is correctly assessing the risk. Bowman shared the results of recent polls conducted in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, which revealed that people did not believe the hurricane would be as bad as it was

Jennings stressed the importance of government preparedness, noting that current efforts by the Department of Homeland Security are limited to the states; they do not reach local and municipal officials. The Department claims it has a risk-based approach to threat management, but the government response to hurricane Katrina suggests otherwise. Cameron cautioned against Canadians' tendency, witnessed in press reports, to claim that Canada "would have dealt better than the United States with Katrina" or a similarly severe natural disaster: "This is an untested assertion," just as Canada's Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Department, established in 2001 after 9/11, has largely remained untested in its capacity for large-scale consequence management.

Shifts in Public Attitudes toward Civil Liberties

Canadians' resolve to deal with security threats remains very high. As 9/11 has receded, however, the Canadian public's sense of threat has diminished, and many now have stronger feelings toward government intrusiveness. Indeed, if anything, Canadians appear even more "docile" than Americans with regard to restrictions on civil liberties to protect against terrorism. The panelists agreed that there has recently been a stronger pushback against restrictions on civil liberties in the United States. Paradoxically, support for the Patriot Act has remained relatively strong, but a majority of Americans believe the government "wouldn't use their private information appropriately." As one panelist explained, people seem to care about their own privacy but not about other people's privacy. Cameron suggested the public's expectations in both countries—that security measures would be directed at "them" and not "us"—explains continued support for impersonal measures alongside growing opposition to personally intrusive ones.

In Canada, support for its Anti-Terrorism Act has remained strong. Cameron argued that support for the Act has much to do with general levels of trust in government, Bowman made a similar point regarding the U.S. public's trust in government: in the United States, support for the system of government remains strong, though people question government performance. In the discussion period, panelists addressed the theme of trust in government; while trust in the U.S. federal government won't change soon—"nor should we expect it to," Bowman argued, based on polling trends over the past decades—oversight remains a key ingredient not just a the national but also at the local level, to ensure better government performance. That said, eroding public confidence in the performance notwithstanding, Bowman stressed that there is no crisis in legitimacy whatsoever.

Jennings was concerned that the government may be focusing too much on the threat of terrorism at the expense of other threats, and emphasized the need to consider how best to exercise oversight of the government's broad powers to deal with terrorism. Cameron noted that Canada is currently reviewing its Anti-Terrorist Act as well as the Security Certificates Act, both likely to be approved without major modifications. Debate over intelligence oversight is also underway in Canada, including whether to establish parliamentary review of the CSIS, or leave this role exclusively to the Security and Intelligence Review Committee, as is currently the case.

Difference in Canadian and U.S. Attitudes toward Government Institutions and Policies

There are some noteworthy differences, too. Since 9/11 attitudes toward immigration have differed considerably between the United States and Canada. Whereas Americans have become less supportive of immigration, Canadians continue to value multiculturalism, considering it a form of "inoculation" against terrorism in the long run.

There has been little change in how Americans view institutions such as the military, which enjoys strong support in the United States, notwithstanding scandals and the situation in Iraq. Bowman argued that the armed forces' narrowly focused mission and mandate explains the consistent support on the part of the public, which considers that the men and women in uniform largely succeed in carrying out this mission. Canadians, in contrast, still tend to view their military as an extension of their foreign policy, and they therefore expect their military's principal mission to be oriented toward peacekeeping operations. Canadian military officials are quick to note that the Canadian Forces' have a much broader mandate, which the current Martin government has sought to revitalize through budget increases and deployments abroad other than for peacekeeping operations, such as the ongoing Canadian mission in Kandahar.

Different attitudes toward ballistic missile defense (BMD) have played a role in recent defense policy decisions in Canada. Graves explained that Canadians were initially supportive of BMD, largely because they reckoned it was going to happen, and a Canadian voice at the table would prove beneficial. Opposition to BMD grew in lockstep with disagreement with the Bush administration over Iraq. In Bowman's view, "soft support" among Americans for BMD, which has been consistent for many years, says more about the public's general confidence in American prowess in science and technology than it does about the missile defense system itself—of which few Americans are aware, let alone its associated cost and technological complexities. Graves stressed that Canada-U.S. differences were "more tepid" when put in the context of attitudes toward North American initiatives such as a security perimeter, for which there is support across the two countries. Overall, poll results show that reciprocal outlooks of Americans and Canadians toward each other remain largely positive, but favorable views have gradually eroded.

For more information and to access the publication and live webcast, please visit the Canada Institute's website at www.wilsoncenter.org/canada.

David N. Biette
Director, Canada Institute
(202) 691-4133

Drafted by Christophe Leroy

  

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