Criminology, Crime and Politics before and after 9/11

Article excerpt

Criminologists have mostly followed the criminal law in adopting an apolitical concept of crime. They paid limited attention to both political crime and the political power to criminalise. The article traces efforts to redress this since the 1960s. It nevertheless remained a minority concern, mostly of critical criminology. Yet crime has been politicised in various ways by other developments, also examined in the article. The events of 9/11 have crowned the emergence of crime as a strategic security issue posing a challenge to criminology to engage with politically inspired crime and its control.


The phenomenon of political crime has been neglected in western criminology, attracting the attention of only a relative handful of scholars. From the 1960s a small number of critical researchers sought to broaden the horizons of criminology, exploring the manner in which much deviant behaviour embodied, however inchoately, elements of protest against the prevailing social, moral and political order. Yet other critical scholars switched the focus altogether by concentrating on state crime. The impact of this work on mainstream criminology, however, remained limited and probably diminished as the optimistic climate of radical protest in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the neo-conservative chill of the Thatcher/Reagan years, the implosion of Soviet communism and the apparent global triumph of western capitalism. Many pioneers of critical criminology came in from the cold, renounced any lingering romanticism concerning the protopolitical character of crime and embraced a new realism. Other scholars in this period worked away in areas like terrorism studies, but usually as a subfield of strategic studies, international relations or political science with few if any links to criminology.

With the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, political violence was suddenly, unsurprisingly, thrust into the public, political and policy limelight. The general academic community in Australia has been criticised, rightly or wrongly, for failing to rise to the intellectual challenges posed by global terrorism (see for example the exchange conducted in the pages of The Australian's Higher Education supplement in September 2006). In a provocative article, Bendle (2006) commented on the paucity of academic research and analysis in Australia and the poverty of the work that had been done. His chief complaint was that those who had bothered to enter the debate at all had done so only to further rehearse tired, politically inspired research agendas on race, class and sex. Responding to the criticism several academics suggested that by limiting his survey to general social science and humanities journals Bendle had simply looked in the wrong place for current work on terrorism. They pointed to a burgeoning field of terrorism studies with its own research institutes, journals, conferences, academic programs, and no doubt an assured flow of research funds (see The Australian Higher Education, September 13, 2006, pp. 28-29).

One group of scholars has been far from silent. Legal academics and many of their practitioner colleagues are deeply, and understandably, concerned about the fate of the rule of law and liberal democratic institutions in the 'war on terror'. Legal scrutiny of new counter-terrorist measures, while absolutely necessary, is largely defensive. It is commonly derided by politicians and media commentators as simply out of touch with the reality of terrorist threats and everyday fears. Its essentially normative character is prey to empirical claims that terrorist threats are novel and exceptional.

What of criminology though? It too has had its academic exchanges and disagreements over the scale and quality of criminological scholarship devoted to terrorism before and since 9/11 (see e.g., Deflem, 2005; Harem, 2005). I will consider some of the implications for criminology of the advent of global terrorism and the 'war on terror' in the final part of this article. …