Terrorism as a Police Problem

Over at Balkinization, American law professor Brian Tamahana notices the differences in the way European and American policymakers are responding to the threat of terrorism:

Last week I attended a conference in Brussels with professors, government advisors, and a few judges from across Europe and the Middle East (and elsewhere). One of the subjects covered was the legal response in Europe to the challenges posed by Islam. There was tension in the room, of course, and disagreement. But the dominant attitude was a seriousness of purpose in finding ways for people of such different cultural and religious views to live together.

Each night after the proceedings I would return to my room and scan the various European news programs, and I watched several debates in the Dutch Parliament and parts of the ruling Labor Party Conference in the UK. Notably, terrorism did not appear to be a big subject (dealing with immigration and jobs were major topics). And when it was discussed, the subject was treated in a matter-of-fact manner–that is, with no hysteria–as a problem for police officials. It was not discussed in terms of a "war on terror." As far as I could tell, there was no thought of restricting the legal rights of terrorist suspects, and absolutely no consideration of applying torture to these individuals (though we still don’t know the full extent of European cooperation in the secret CIA prisons).

He attributes the response to three things:

  • Because Europe has had greater experience with indigenous Muslim communities, European officials "understand the depth and magnitude of the problems surrounding Islamic fundamentalist terrorism far better than we do."
  • Europeans also understand that the terrorists are extremists, and represent a small number of individuals. They can be combatted primarily through "the cooperation of the broader Muslim community" and by avoiding "rhetoric and actions that might exacerbate tensions."
  • "Finally, Europeans seem truly committed to human rights and to the rule of law, which they show little inclination to sacrifice in the battle of the day."

I tend to agree with him on all three points, especially the last. Aside from some backsliding (such as possibly turning a blind eye to CIA prisons and prisoner transfer flights), Europe’s commitment to human rights is absolute. When two young Lebanese males recently placed bombs on commuter trains here in Germany (the bombs didn’t explode), the response was low-key concern. Mainstream politicians warned the public that a free society cannot be rendered 100% safe, but reassured them that that authorities take the risk seriously and are doing all they can under existing laws to reduce the chance of an attack.

There is no discussion of radically changing the legal framework or removing fundamental legal protections for terrorist suspects, as the United States did just last week. Any moves in that direction would be immediately countered by at least one of the three small German political parties, the Greens, the Free Democrats, or the Left Party, and might well be countered by all three at once. After the bomb incident I mentioned above, there was some discussion of increasing video surveillance of train platforms, but the Green Party opposed even this relatively mild move. As for exploring ways to co-exist, the German government recently convened an high-profile conference (which the Zeit ironically called the "Feelgood Summit") in which top government ministers met with representatives of the Islamic community, with a view to establishing links of communication and a channel for expressing Muslim grievances.

Two quibbles with Tamahana, though. First, when you highlight Europe’s measured response to terrorism, it’s probably necessary to observe the impact of 9/11, which partially explains America’s more extreme response. It’s worth keeping this difference in mind, even if it’s impossible to nail down its impact. Further, Tamahana sees the attempts to reach out to the Islamic community, but does not fully acknowledge the reason for it: the severe level of alienation in some sub-sections of European Muslim communities. Commentators such as Bruce Bawer ("While Europe Slept") think Europe is courting disaster by failing to confront radical Islam within its borders. I haven’t read his book, but I tend to think the situation isn’t as dire as some doomsayers make it out to be. I have heard several interviews with Jytte Klausen, author of The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe. She acknowledges the dangers posed by an extremist fringe, but emphasizes that the mainstream of Islamic Europeans poses no threat to the social order.

In any event, I can say with perfect confidence that no European government is contemplating a response to terrorism as drastic and ill-advised as the Military Commissions Act of 2006. They are treating it as a complex but soluble police problem, to be addressed by surveillance, outreach, data mining, and detective work. I feel quite safe here.

2 thoughts on “Terrorism as a Police Problem

  1. The flaw with “Terrorism as a Police Problem”: Almost all of the time, the police get involved only after the crime has been committed. A lot of good that does for the victim(s).


  2. Kurt: the same applies for e.g. traffic accidents, heart attacks, strokes, etc. And trust me, a _lot_ more people die because of these. But probably fighting traffic accidents and heart attacks isn’t as popular as fighting against terrorism.


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