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A Critical Introduction to Counter Terrorism and State Crime

State crime frequently masquerades as counter terrorism. Counter terrorism encompasses laws, police, security, and military powers and measures directed at what states determine are terrorist threats. Terrorism is notoriously difficult to define and its definitions selectively applied. The difficulties of defining terrorism, combined with the ease with which states apply the label, means that what we view as terrorism is largely shaped through counter measures. Exploiting popular fears of terrorism provides states with opportunities to engage in military aggression and implement repressive laws that would normally be seen as unacceptable, particularly when done by liberal democracies. Since the September 2001 attacks on the United States, counter terrorism has taken central stage on national security agendas. During the past decade, counter terrorism in the war on terror has been linked to state crimes including crimes of aggression, (Kramer and Michalowski 2005), torture (Danner 2004), police crime (McCulloch and Sentas 2006) corruption, and state corporate crime (Whyte 2007).

States argue that in the face of the exceptional threat of terrorism it is necessary to breach fundamental human rights and sometimes to undertake preemptive military action. History, however, demonstrates that counter terrorism frequently does far more harm than the violence it purportedly addresses. States have enormous power to vilify their enemies as terrorists, regardless of the facts. The states ability to label its enemies terrorists makes counter terrorism a useful way to target opponents and politically inconvenient groups. Labeling another state as terrorist, or as a terrorist supporter, can provide a popularly credible basis for military invasion and occupation. States always assert that counter terrorism is a necessary defense against the violence of others. However, states frequently engage in (directly, or by proxy), fabricate, or provoke terrorism as a ploy to pursue hidden agendas. In the previous decade, for example, the global war on terror has been the primary means of advancing what Noam Chomsky calls Americas Imperial Grand Strategy (Keenan 2010). Apart from masking and facilitating state crime, counter terrorism can fuel the political divisions and conflict that underpin the violence that it is said to be countering. The violent expression of escalating conflict by non-state actors is then often used as justification for further state counter measures that become part of an escalating cycle of violence (McGovern 2010).

The term terrorism is widely and popularly associated with mass casualty attacks by non-state actors such as the 2001 attacks on the United States, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and the 2005 attacks on London. States commonly implement counter measures in the wake of such attacks, or invoke these attacks to justify such measures. However, these laws typically encompass activities, groups, and individuals that are non violent, or where the violence is not the outrageous bombings and the like popularly associated with terrorism. Counter terrorism laws and measures are frequently used by states against political activists, trade unionists, environmentalists, and liberation movements. Individuals may be convicted of a terrorist offence or detained under counter terrorism laws without ever having engaged in or planned any type of violence (McCulloch and Pickering 2010).

Preemption forms the basis of contemporary counter terrorism. Preemptive measures include a spectrum of coercive state practices, including surveillance, stop and search, control orders, coercive questioning, detention without charge or trial, shoot-to-kill, and military invasion. In all these cases, states act before concrete evidence of threat. Although the state coercion is real, often devastating, and sometimes fatal, the future threat prevented is often entirely speculative (McCulloch and Pickering 2009).

Intelligence, rather than evidence that is tested in open court, is the foundation of states claims to accurately predict terrorist threats and the basis of preemptive counter measures. Intelligence is a highly unaccountable aspect of state activity; it is frequently manipulated in pursuit of state interests. Intelligence is gathered and interpreted through undisclosed assumptions, ideological predispositions, racial prejudice and intersecting vested interests linked to partisan politics, corporate priorities, and foreign policy. The Chairman of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, for example, concluded in a 2008 statement about the invasion of Iraq that, In making the case for war, the administration, repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence 2008).

The contemporary counter terrorism experience reflects a long and intimate relationship between counter terrorism and state crime. After the military regime in Argentina was ousted in 1983, a commission of inquiry concluded that the terrorism of the military regime was infinitely worse than the terror they were allegedly combating (Herman 1993). Israel has long justified, and continues to justify systematic abuse of Palestinians human rights, including torture, house demolitions, beatings, use as human shields, violent incursions, and extrajudicial assassinations as counter terrorism (Nasr 2010). The British militarys counter terrorism in Ireland during the 1970s included shoot-to-kill policies, torture, internment without charge or trial, the banning of freedom of expression, and a move away from a criminal justice system based on the presumption of innocence. Paddy Hillyard, reflecting on the lessons of British counter terrorism in Ireland during that decade, maintains it is imperative that those in power do not abandon the rule of law and the prevention of terrorism becomes, as it did in Ireland, the terror of prevention (2005).

Counter terrorism is frequently synonymous with state crime. This state crime is almost always far more serious than the violence that is allegedly being countered. Counter terrorism is also frequently counter-productive in term of its stated aim of prevention because it encourages the type of violence by non-state actors that attracts the label terrorism. Complacency over state violence is not justified by the history of counter terrorism. States, through the military, police, and intelligence and security services have enormous capacity to coerce and inflict violence. It is not surprising then that state crimes disguised as counter terrorism are responsible for human suffering on a greater scale than the violence by non-state actors that is labeled terrorism.


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