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Despite the widespread assumption of terrorism's “terrifying” effect, there has been little systematic testing of the specific emotional microfoundations underlying public opinion about terrorism. While fear is one well-recognized emotional response to terror threats, in societies where terrorism is rare, anger may play a more pivotal role, with distinct consequences for citizens’ downstream political attitudes. To test the impact of these emotional mechanisms on public opinion in the wake of terrorism, I employ a multi-arm mechanism experiment (n = 5,499) in the United States that manipulates both exposure to news about different types of terror attacks and the encouraged emotional response. I supplement this experimental study with observational analyses of the emotional content of social media posts in the wake of sixteen real-world terror attacks in the United States. I find that not only is anger the dominant emotional response to terrorism across both studies, but also that punitive motivations and support for retaliation are both directly shaped by experimentally induced anger after exposure to news about terrorism. These findings illuminate strategic incentives shaping militants’ use of terror tactics, electoral constraints leaders face in formulating counterterror policy, and the emotional mechanisms fueling cycles of political violence.
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