Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Democratic Regimes, Internal Security Policy and the Threat of Terrorism

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Democratic Regimes, Internal Security Policy and the Threat of Terrorism

Article excerpt

Since terrorism poses a serious threat to the processes of liberal democracy governments should act decisively to curb terrorist groups. This article examines the range of political, judicial and enforcement measures available, assesses the problems associated with them and the conditions for their success. Political measures include reforms in response to popular unrest, negotiations with terrorist groups and amnesties to encourage an end to violence. Since terrorists seek to influence domestic and international public opinion, the authorities need to counter that propaganda and in particular to explain and justify the political, judicial and enforcement measures they adopt. Governments have to choose between treating terrorism like other forms of criminal behaviour or setting up special courts and passing emergency legislation, with the attendant dangers to civil liberties. Enforcement of anti-terrorist measures has quite often been inept. Coordination is required to prevent police anti-terrorist units and other security agencies from engaging in institutional rivalry. But if these agencies are efficient in their intelligence gathering, and politically supervised to ensure that they act within the law, they can be decisive in the reduction of terrorism, as in Western Europe at the end of the 1970s.

Although relatively limited in scope when compared with other manifestations of collective violence, terrorism can nonetheless exert a significant impact on the fundamental political processes which characterise democratic forms of government. Indeed, the avowed aim of small-scale, clandestine organisations that engage in terrorist practices is precisely to alter the structure and distribution of power. When terrorism becomes a systematic, long-term activity, the individual's entitlement of public liberties may be curtailed, the human rights of citizens are recurrently violated, institutions may be disrupted in their functioning, elected representatives prevented from carrying out their duties and civil society otherwise diverted from the course along which it had been developing. Taken in combination with other factors that seriously disrupt the existing political arrangements, terrorism represents a threat not only to the stability of democratic regimes -- especially those in the process of consolidation -- but also to the structural underpinnings of the state. It follows, therefore that any legitimately constituted government should take immediate steps to deal with an emerging terrorist threat to a tolerant political order and to the state's monopoly on the use of physical coercion. Special efforts are required to ensure that terrorist groups do not persist beyond their initial emergence, an eventuality always possible and extremely difficult to anticipate.

The emergence and consolidation of these types of armed groups is often preceded by progressively radicalised stages of collective mobilisation. In theory, by exercising a minimum of prudence, it would seem feasible for authorities to monitor a potential terrorist threat while it is in the process of formation and take measures to bring it under control. In actual fact, however, it usually proves quite difficult for democratic governments to anticipate the course of events, and often they have no choice but to take reactive measures after the groups have made their invariably violent and attention-grabbing public debut.(2) The secrecy, small size and unpredictability which have characterised terrorist activities in industrialised societies from the 1960s onwards poses serious dilemmas for authorities given their responsibility for devising consistent, long-range policies aimed at neutralising the phenomenon. Cross-currents of public opinion, legal guarantees enjoyed by the citizens, and the interplay of articulated interests present in the internal security field, are critical factors in the formulation and implementation of anti-terrorist policies. In the case of democratic regimes, as they exist in industrialised societies, such state responses have included a certain number of essentially political measures, along with others of a judicial or law-enforcement character, many of which have been applied in a framework of active cross-border cooperation. …

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