The Situational Prevention of Terrorism: Some Ethical Considerations

Article excerpt

The dominant ethical premise of situational crime prevention (that is, the science of reducing opportunities for crime) is respect for the individual. This ethic flows logically from its key assumption about human nature--that individuals are rational, thinking human beings, able to make choices about things that concern them. A number of important positions follow from this. It means that SCP shies away from any interventions that try to change the personality or character of individuals. It means that individuals take notice of the environment around them and change their behavior in order to adapt to changing conditions. The dark side of this view of human nature is that smart thinking individuals (obviously with considerable variation) will try to gain advantage over others. Thus, offenders will take advantage of opportunities such as new technologies, but they will also constrain their behavior if the environment is not hospitable to them. In a way, this view of offenders is rather old fashioned. It is something like "respecting the enemy," and it certainly pits "us" against "them" to see who can outsmart the other.

In our book Outsmarting the Terrorists we applied this approach to terrorism. We quickly found that what we wanted to say deviated considerably from the plethora of literature available, mainly from political scientists who analyzed the ideologies of terrorists, psychologists who traced terrorists' unhappy relations with their parents and feelings of helplessness, or sociologists who predictably found that oppression and poverty were causes of terrorism. However, we decided to stay away from making political statements about terrorism because we were concerned that these would muddy the waters of making a clear and objective analysis of how terrorists carried out their missions and what interventions might work against them. So, for example, we dismissed the definition of terrorism as mostly irrelevant to our work and regarded it simply as crime with a political motive. We wanted to be objective in our analysis so that our approach would not be dismissed as partisan ideology, that our recommendations should be judged on their practical or operational merits, and not on whose side we were.

This was probably naive. In subsequent presentations we have given based on our book we have met with sometimes vitriolic criticism from those who objected that we treated the IRA, for example, as terrorists just as any other, or that we failed to take into account the terrible things that governments did to terrorists (and non-terrorists) in the name of protecting society from terrorism. There is not much we can do about the former criticism except to say that our approach does not, in essence, take sides. Many of our analyses and recommendations for intervention could just as well be adopted by terrorists against governments as by governments against terrorists. More importantly, we do admit that our book was directed at government officials and policymakers in western democracies who we hoped would see the common sense of our approach rather than react to terrorism in irrational ways. We saw this as an ethically responsible approach which, while placing us squarely on the sides of democratic governments against terrorists of whatever stripe, nevertheless would help curb the ever present tendencies of governments to react to terrorism with excess. This leads to our answer to the second criticism, that we failed to take into account the terrible things that governments do.

This is a familiar criticism of SCP within the ordinary confines of respectable criminology. David Garland, among others, has raised the specter of SCP's close affinity to a big brother kind of society in which everyone is stopped from breaking the law before they can even think about it. This is a shift, so the argument goes, from the open policing and punishment of those who have broken the law, to a kind of hidden, sneaky control of individuals through innovations such as environmental design (gated communities are the popular example, even though they have existed for centuries) or more recently especially in response to terrorism, tightened control over the authentication of individuals' identities (for example the call for universal ID cards). …