Terrorism and violent protests: where do these disruptive events meet?

Published March 2022 by Professor Paula Jarzabkowski, Dr Corinne Unger & Dr Katie Meissner

This work was sponsored by Australian Reinsurance Pool Corporation (ARPC) as part of their thought leadership program

Executive Summary

This paper examines the evolving nature of terrorism and violent protests to better understand the different legitimacy society grants to each type of event. This paper is timely as the face of terrorism has shifted significantly since September 11, 2001, an event that triggered a strong legislative response globally, including in Australia. More recently, social fragmentation and alienation, much of it linked to Covid-19 restrictions, have seen increasing participation rates in protests, many of which have been violent. Similarities in behaviours and outcomes across both types of events call into question the social legitimacy for protesting in a democratic society when these protests involve significant economic disruption and violence.

Traditionally, terrorist acts were undertaken by individuals or groups of individuals with clear links to recognised terrorism organisations and those acts were largely bombings, hijackings, and kidnapping. However, more recent terrorism looks different in that individuals or small groups may work alone to carry out clandestine acts that do not carry these hallmarks of traditional terrorism.

Recent social changes relating to Covid19, including unemployment, misinformation, vaccination, wearing masks, and lockdowns, are contributing to increased participation in protests. Currently, governments are making decisions for all Australians that are affecting some in deeply personal ways, resulting in feelings of loss of control, inability to plan ahead, and potential disenfranchisement. These changes in personal circumstances have contributed to increases, and higher participation, in protests.

This paper finds that the lines between violent democratic protests and terrorist acts are becoming blurred when each causes significant disruption and harm. The democratic right to protest is largely well-accepted and supported by the Australian public. Despite this, protests can, and do, become violent and cause harm to people, property, and the environment.

As a result, questions are building around where the line is drawn between the right to protest and a protest that is intended to generate violence, significant disruption, and societal fragmentation, with some likening such activities to terrorism. This paper concludes that the social legitimacy accorded to protesting may be shifting where such protests demonstrate intent to be violent, disruptive, or go against dominant societal norms.

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Contact Professor Paula Jarzabkowski or Dr Corinne Unger to learn more about the research.

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