How should the public act when a nation is on high alert?

5:18 min

Behavioral psychologist Misse Wester says Swedish authorities are not being overly cautious by raising the terror threat level, and that suspending public gatherings in the short-term does not impinge on democracy.

Wester studies risk and crisis management at the Swedish Research Defense Agency and at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. She asserts that the heightened terrorist threat level is not likely to cause alarm amongst the public and suggests it is a necessary precaution that is in our best interest.

"Situations of mass panic or mass hysteria are extremely rare, contrary to the image often conveyed by the media. From my experience, doing research in this field, people are quite rational and calm in situations like this," Wester tells Radio Sweden.

“Generally, people go about their lives as normal. We go to school, we go to work and so on. However, we might avoid crowds or gathering in public places - and that is also encouraged by the authorities.”

So are the authorities sending mixed messages by, on the one hand, saying the nation is on high alert and, on the other, urging us to go about our business as normal? Wester does not think so.

“No, the heightened threat level is most relevant to the authorities that are working to contain or to eliminate the threat. This is not a threat against a particular target or against members of the public,” says Wester.

At the same time, there was a larger police presence at Parliament, media institutions, religious buildings and on public transport on Thursday and Wester says we are likely to notice and get affected by that. But, she adds, that is also the point.

“There are more police around, partly because they want to protect these places, but they are also there in order to show us that they're present, to act as a symbol of the heightened alert, and it's supposed to make us feel safe, too."

But is a “better safe than sorry” attitude always a good thing? If demonstrations, community activities and public gatherings are discouraged and cancelled, what consequence could that have for democracy, for freedom of speech and the freedom of association?

“We need to have a time perspective on the events that are unfolding,” says Wester. “If we ask people to restrict their movement in the short-term, we're not impeding on free speech.”

At the same time, post-9/11, there has been criticism that, in the name of the war on terror, civil liberties have been suspended in the long-term. Wester does not see that happening now, saying “we’ve learnt a lot from 9/11”.

“I don’t think anyone in Europe wants to see the same development here as we’ve seen in the United States. I’ve heard a lot of people say we need to think carefully before we change laws and regulations because we can’t impede on civil liberties.”