December 5, 2017

Fighting Terrorism in a Democracy

Theo Deitz-Green '19, Nina Robins '19, Jacob Bier '19

Perhaps one of the greatest civic debates of the past few centuries has been over how a government can both preserve individual liberties and ensure the security of its citizens. In an era of expanding terrorism around the world, finding the balance between these two competing needs is both crucially important and deeply challenging.
In large part because of the rise of ISIS, the world has seen a major increase in terrorist attacks and in particular, of lone wolf attacks. Lone wolf attacks, or attacks involving one person acting alone with no support of a larger terrorist organization, present a uniquely difficult task: security forces must detect a potential threat based only on the actions of a single actor.
Therefore, in order to identify and prevent all possible lone wolf terrorist attacks, law enforcement agencies must monitor every person who poses any level of security threat, a task that is nearly impossible given the sheer number of people who fit into this category. Even if this could somehow be accomplished, there would still be the possibility that some people who have given law enforcement agencies no signs that they pose a threat might slip through the cracks.
Unsurprisingly, under such difficult circumstances, there have been failures in lone wolf attack prevention, seen in shootings and bombings across the world in devastatingly deadly and effective attacks.
In the eyes of many high level law enforcement and security specialists around the world, the biggest obstacle in the path to effectively protecting the public from these horrific attacks is the notion that democratic ideals cannot be compromised for the sake of safety.
This idea was seen in the battle to end the NSA wiretapping program, which provided the NSA with an effective means of monitoring the activity of suspected terrorists and stopping attacks before they could occur, but also seemed to strip people of the rights to privacy on phones. It is also seen in the debate over torture practices in the United States and around the world, which have the potential to acquire information crucial to the security of the public but are also deeply unethical and against the democratic ideal that there should be no “cruel and unusual punishment.”
To some, including Major-General Avshalom Peled, Commander of Israeli National Police Academy, and Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, the issue is deeper than just a basic divide between the ideals liberty and security; it is the question of whether or not a country fighting terrorism must hold itself to democratic principles while fighting terrorists that it holds itself to in running its own country. They believe that the difficult answer is no.
Kemp explained that there are currently believed to be 30,000 people suspected of being involved in Jihad living in the United Kingdom, including 3000 who are thought to pose an imminent threat. This number, Kemp argues, is so large that as the situation stands right now, it is not possible for the UK to prevent an attack indefinitely.   
Therefore, Kemp, based on the assumption that lone wolves have in common a connection to Islamic extremism fostered in the middle east, proposes that the UK stop allowing people coming from specific Middle Eastern areas into the country, deport non-citizens, and apprehend people in the UK suspected of being terrorists, even if there is no evidence to support any case against them.   
Putting aside the valid and crucially important questions about the accuracy of Kemp’s assumption about the fundamental connection between lone wolf terrorism and Islamic extremism, these proposals would clearly violate the ideals of due process and equal protection of law inherent to a democracy, not to mention that they would pose significant ethical questions. Kemp acknowledges as much.
In fact, he agrees that it is difficult to propose turning away refugees from the middle east in dire conditions and severe danger just for the protection of the people already living in the United Kingdom.
It is “hard to say that you [should] stop people who are in desperation [from entering the country].” However, Kemp believes that “the government's priority should be the security of its own people.”
Peled agrees with Kemp’s general assessment of the need to carry out certain undemocratic actions. He cites as an example of this an Israeli policy under which Israeli security officials are able to arrest and hold arabs/muslims who are considered to be lone wolf threats for up to six months in prison without providing any evidence at all.
This, an actual policy that has been enacted as opposed to Kemp’s theoretical ideas, serves as an actual example of a democracy stripping away due process and targeting specific groups of people based on generalizations about the group they belong to.
However, Peled, who also believes that Arabs/Muslims pose a more significant threat than people of other ethnicities and religions, at least right now in Israel, believes that the benefit this provides outweighs what the program sacrifices.
In fact, he believes that more such programs are needed.
“Democracy fights terrorism with one arm tied behind [its] back.”
If democracies hope to protect their citizens, they must level the playing field with extreme, but what Peled believes are necessary, measures like this one in order to be able to effectively fight terrorism.
Whether or not one agrees with these ideas, or even the beliefs that guide them, the ideas of Kemp, Peled, and other similar minded people will be extremely important in the continuation of the fight against terrorism and in the evolution of democracy. How these two seemingly irreconcilable ideals are balanced will determine much of the way life and liberty is viewed in the decades and centuries to come.


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