Skip to main content

Counter Terrorism Ethics

On some understandings, terrorism is just a special kind of transnational organised crime, to be dealt with by establishing policing techniques within and between jurisdictions. Policing operations, at least in the West, are subject to stringent ethical and legal constraints, especially when directed at citizens of the jurisdiction being policed, and especially where the operations seeks to prevent crime rather than to detain and try offenders guilty of an offence already committed. On other understandings, terrorism is a military threat, terrorists are combatants, and the penetration of military secrets by secret or underhand means is not typically considered immoral, because its target is an enemy rather than people who have the status of citizens.


So it makes a great deal of difference whether terrorism is seen as transnational organised crime that requires a policing response, or as a military threat. Even if it is seen as a policing matter, and especially as a preventive policing matter, there is a considerable controversy over the means that can be used against it. Counter-terrorism involves mass searches at airports, secret wire-tapping, bugging, camera-surveillance and internet monitoring, questionable kinds of data-sharing, questionable kinds of detention even of people there is evidence against, and, at the extreme end, torture and extra-legal killing.

Because of the way counter-terrorism affects a wide cross section of the public, some of the associated preventive policing techniques are more controversial than they would be if employed in a more targeted way against paedophiles, people traffickers, drug dealers, and weapons smugglers. Perhaps there is less scope, in policing non-terrorist, serious crime, for the use with bad consequences of ethnic and other stereotypes; and it may make a difference too that some kinds of transnational serious crime are much more prevalent, and harm many more people more frequently, than terrorism.

Some activities associated in UK legislation with terrorism, such as glorifying it, are arguably protected by human rights to free speech and association; propaganda activities by the other side during a war, on the other hand, are routinely subverted by the other side, with no moral overtones. In short, the ethical differences between counter-terrorism and measures against (other kinds of) transnational organized crime are themselves of research interest.

Identifying and explaining these differences, and suggesting how they should be reflected in public policy are important research tasks of this project.

But the programme also has a role in adding value to projects elsewhere. Science and technology projects in this field sometimes aim at detecting patterns of behaviour that indicate possible criminal conspiracy, or even a tendency to violence. They also speed up identification of suspects. All these kinds of research carry ethical risks, some of which may not be obvious to scientific researchers. The programme at Warwick facilitates interactions for the purpose of identifying such risks and helping researchers to accommodate them, and even to write about them.


Audio: Tom Sorell discusses his book Emergencies and Politics: A Sober Hobbesian Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2013), in which he argues that emergencies can justify types of action that would normally be regarded as wrong.