Policing of Terrorism

The policing of terrorism must evolve, as it is a growing threat; increasing use of surveillance is a politically sensitive issue.

American government surveillance of the population has been increasing since the Second World War, to detect security threats.  A Quaker paper in 1955, Speak Truth to Power, expressed concern about civil liberties and the threat to America’s democratic values:

“Since 1945 there has been a steady erosion of the values that were formerly considered the very foundation stones of American democracy.  Proceeding from the false assumption that whatever is anti-communist is therefore democratic, many Americans have supported or acquiesced in measures that have generally been considered central characteristics of totalitarianism: spying on fellow citizens; anonymous denunciations; restrictions on freedom of movement, speech, and press; prosecution for beliefs rather than acts; the reversal of the traditional presumption of innocence until proof of guilt…”.

This paper was remarkably prescient.  New intelligence techniques, including electronic surveillance, have been deployed to give early warning of terrorist activity – especially since the Al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001.  A Watson Institute report on Post-9/11 U.S. Mass Surveillance noted that “The events of 9/11 have been used to dramatically expand the government’s mass surveillance authorities and weaken Constitutional protections.”  Many people feel that safety is more important than privacy, though, and “Americans are divided about the merits of surveillance” according to an Economist article: Secrets, lies and America’s spies.

The policing of terrorism needs to evolve as terrorists become more sophisticated.  Global terrorism networks, as described later (7.3.3), use the Internet to radicalise disaffected people and train them in the latest techniques.  The police must also be trained to keep up with the evolving threat and they need to share intelligence across national boundaries, as described later in this chapter (5.3.4).

Although terrorists, by definition, use unpleasant techniques, this does not mean that the police have a right to be equally unpleasant.  The role of police is to protect society, not to be a threat, so it is appropriate that the police are subject to the rule of law and that they respect people’s rights.

Sometimes a terrorist threat exceeds the capacity of the police, so a State needs to use its armed forces to prevent a collapse of law and order (7.2.6).

Police breaches of the law, including torture, are treated in this book as violent abuses of institutional power that leave people with no alternative but to protect themselves by any means available to them.  If the population feels that it must protect itself against its own government, the outcome is unpredictable (7.2.4).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/5251b.htm.