Do Terror Attacks Weaken Support for Constitutional Principles? Evidence from European theaters 2015-2017

Research Method

Interrupted time series analysis.


Germany, Switzerland, Austria


Anna Wilke



Research Question

Do terrorist attacks make people more willing to accept the sacrifice of some to save many, against constitutional principles?


Hijackers have taken control of a passenger plane and communicated that they will soon crash it into a stadium packed with 70,000 spectators. The government, deciding that it cannot give the order to kill the 164 civilians aboard, tells the air force pilots trailing the plane to stand down. Thinking quickly, one air force pilot decides to shoot down the plane. This prevents it from crashing into the stadium, but kills all the passengers. In a precedent-setting trial, you have been selected as one of the jurors. Should you convict or acquit the pilot? This contemporary version of the trolley problem is the dilemma thousands of theater-goers have faced over the past two years at screenings of German playwright and lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach’splay, Terror. The audience sits at the trial of the pilot in the role of jury, and is directly addressed by the defense and prosecution. During the intermission, they are asked to deliberate and re-enter the theater through one of two doors, thereby indicating a guilty or not guilty verdict. They can’t abstain. As of January 29 2017, 838 of these simulated trials have taken place in 37 theaters throughout Germany, Switzerland and Austria (with additional shows in Japan, Venezuela and Hungary). Since many shows happened directly before and after several major terrorist attacks in Europe, we can assess how such attacks affect audience members' decisions. We think this can teach us something about the broader political impact of terrorism. On the one hand, the pilot in the play probably saved thousands of lives through his actions. On the other hand, the first article of the German Constitution establishes the founding principle of human dignity, and the second grants every person the right to life and physical integrity. As the State Prosecutor puts it in the play, these protections prevent the German state from ever weighing “one life against another – not against 100, not against 1000 lives.” She argues, “if you acquit the accused, you declare human dignity and our constitution to be worthless.” The way in which audiences resolve this dilemma is thus informative. It essentially provides us with a barometer of how willing a certain highly educated subset of the population is to condone unconstitutional acts intended to protect civilians. Does terrorism increase this willingness?