Shifting Risk Perception after Shocking Events: Counter-Terrorism in the United States and Energy Policy Change in Germany

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 5:30 PM
Room: Booth 52
Oral Presentation
Shigeki SATO , Hosei University, Tokyo, Japan
Werner BINDER , Sociology, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic
Risks are not objective “facts” that are directly experienced. Our risk perception not only changes in social and political contexts but is also mediated through pre-existing cultural patterns. By investigating an American and a German case, we would like to show how shocking events bring about decisive shifts in our risk perception and governance and how specific cultural patterns frame those shifts. In both cases, a minimal risk ceased to be a mere theoretical possibility and turned into a real “threat” which imposed a political “necessity” to act. After 9/11, the hypothetical “ticking bomb scenario” became a matter of national security that justified US-led wars, US detention and interrogation policies as well as extensive global surveillance. The anticipated threat of terrorists in possession of biological or nuclear weapons had to be averted ‒ whatever it took. Similarly, the shocking accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant following the big earthquake had a profound impact on the risk perception of nuclear energy in Germany and changed the government policies. A “residual risk” (Restrisiko) of nuclear energy, which had thus far been regarded as controllable by means of science and technology, became an allegedly life-threatening danger to be eliminated at all costs. But these discursive and political shifts cannot be thought of as a direct consequence of these events. It is rather the specific framing of events in particular national contexts that leads to shifts in risk perception and governance. This is particularly clear in the German case: the recent energy policy change was mediated through a discursive pattern of nuclear resistance, which is deeply rooted in the German political culture. Similarly, the American response to 9/11 was shaped by national memory and popular culture, for example “Pearl Harbor”, the “phantasm of bioterror” and the “law-defying hero”.