A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Discussion Point: Thinking Beyond Deterrence


The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

 In the aftermath of the devastating bombings during the Boston Marathon on April 15th, we heard strong proclamations from the president, other politicians, pundits, and even regular people on the streets that justice will be served. Indeed, it should be. Our spirit of justice is based on the principle that the burdens of punishment should outweigh any pleasure derived from perpetrating the crime -- a premise that has guided our nation since before it was formed (Beccaria [1764] 1983).

When the remaining suspect and any potential co-conspirators are tried, prosecuted and sentenced, most of us will feel that justice has indeed been served. However, we also want punishment to serve a much bigger purpose. Harsh punishment should send a strong message to other potential "evildoers" that they too will be punished if they attempt to hurt the American people. In other words, we expect punishment to deter future terrorists.

Indeed, evidence suggests that punishment can deter some things (e.g., drunk driving (Ross 1982), sexual assault (Bachman, Paternoster, and Ward 1992)). Yet, it takes only a brief scanning of prior terrorist attacks to realize that terrorists might not be easily deterred. They are often willing to lose their lives for their cause, making any threat of punishment seem inconsequential. In fact, those who die?and even those who are only imprisoned?are often celebrated as heroes by those they love and admire. In contrast, very few (if any) non-terrorist prisoners are considered honorable by those left at home.

Scholarly research supports the idea that we cannot rely on the threat of punishment to stop terrorism. Empirical studies have suggested that terrorists are immune to efforts to deter; and that repressive interventions could even lead to increases in violence (LaFree, et al. 2009; Dugan and Chenoweth 2012a). This leaves us with an important question. If the costs of punishment to terrorists are offset by rewards of honor, and if the efforts to punish terrorists can sometimes lead to more attacks, how else can potential terrorists be deterred?

The United States does engage in other deterrence strategies besides punishing terrorists. Security has improved around attractive targets, such as government buildings and airports after the Oklahoma City and September 11th attacks. Since, April 15th, discussions have been underway on how to improve security for marathons and other sporting events. Yet, as Americans, we value our freedom and have little tolerance for too much security.

Rarely do we stand in airport lines without hearing somebody grumbling about having to remove their shoes. The United States will never be a police state, which means that we will always have crowds of people who gather freely with minimal security creating an unlimited opportunity for terrorists to produce high casualties. One only has to visit a local mall for evidence of this. Without ubiquitous security and the threat of punishment as reliable tools for preventing terrorism, we are left to wonder about other options.

My colleague, Erica Chenoweth, and I have been researching this question by looking at what other governments have done and assessing what has worked for them to reduce terrorism. We collect data on the wide range of actions taken by different governments that could also influence the risk of terrorist attacks in their country.

Our large data collection effort entitled, Government Actions in Terror Environments (GATE), relies on Reuters news stories to detect any actions that are directed toward terrorist organizations or their constituencies (Dugan and Chenoweth 2012b). We operate under the assumption that any action can play a role in encouraging or discouraging terrorism even if its purpose is not directly related to the conflict.

For example, GATE-Israel includes the action, "Israel said on Wednesday it would allow another 4,000 Palestinian labourers to enter the Jewish state to work," because by reducing the economic stress of Palestinian civilians, they might find less value in supporting a terrorist movement.

Similarly, the action in Sri Lanka "Indian ships carrying relief supplies to Tamils in strife-torn Sri Lanka arrived today under escort from the island's navy, navy officials said here," was included because it shows that the Sri Lankan government allowed Tamil civilians to receive aid?again relieving civilian stress.

Martha Crenshaw (2001) has long argued that terrorist organizations rely heavily on the support of a constituency for survival, suggesting that a reduction of civilian support could maim the terrorist movement. In fact, colleagues and I found that the Armenian terrorist organization, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), likely fell apart once the Armenian diaspora withdrew its support (Dugan et al. 2008).

Taking this to its logical conclusion, we expect that when governments provide incentives for civilians to avoid terrorist behavior, the movement will weaken. Indeed, our findings in Israel show that in the month following a period when the Israeli government enacted a high number of conciliatory actions toward Palestinian civilians, Palestinian terrorism was lower?suggesting that offering rewards for nonterrorist behavior might be a worthwhile strategy (Dugan and Chenoweth 2012a).

The bottom line is that while people should always be punished for breaking the law, we cannot rely on deterrence alone to scare others out of committing acts of terror. Instead, we could dissuade others from participating in terrorism by incorporating conciliatory strategies into the reserve of policy options. I am by no means suggesting that we should reward terrorists for their bad behavior. Instead, I urge officials to understand the nature of the grievances of those who could join the terrorist movement and try to undermine terrorist's influence on these vulnerable constituencies.

One may ask how lessons learned from countries with a high concentration of domestic terrorism, such as Israel and Sri Lanka, could be generalized to countries like the United States, which only has sporadic low-level attacks and infrequent high casualty attacks. I propose that U.S. counterterrorism specialists can follow three -steps to begin to implement more conciliatory strategies: 1) identify the ideologies that may have a sect extreme enough to perpetrate attacks; 2) determine whether organizations that form around those ideologies rely upon the support of a constituency for survival; and 3) identify the grievances of those who are vulnerable to being recruited by the organization or movement.

This could provide a baseline of information necessary to identify simple policy adjustments that could provide some relief to vulnerable populations, leaving extremists short of the resources needed to implement attacks.

For example, some diaspora communities from Muslim countries may experience systematic discrimination in the implementation of local government services. Equity adjustments could help quell anger that might otherwise translate into violence. In the 1990s, right-wing extremists recruited Gulf War veterans because of their tactical expertise. The deadly Oklahoma City bombing is one result. Given the high numbers of soldiers returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts could ease the processing of veterans benefits and provide incentives for businesses to employ them.

Perhaps this approach can also serve justice. People should always be punished for breaking the law, but we cannot rely on strict punishment alone to deter terrorism.

References Bachman, Ronet, Raymond Paternoster, and Sally Ward. 1992. The rationality of sexual offending: Testing deterrence/rational choice conception of sexual assault. Law and Society Review 26: 343-372.
Beccaria, Cesare [1764] 1983. On Crimes and Punishment. Boston: Branden Books. Crenshaw, Martha. 2001. Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches, in D.C. Rapoport (ed.) Inside Terrorism Organizations (pp. 13-29), London: Frank Cass.
Dugan, Laura and Erica Chenoweth. 2012a. "Moving Beyond Deterrence: The Effectiveness of Raising the Expected Utility of Abstaining from Terrorism in Israel," American Sociological Review, 77 (4), 597-624.
Dugan, Laura and Erica Chenoweth. 2012b "Government Actions in Terror Environments (GATE): A Methodology that Reveals how Governments Behave toward Terrorists and their Constituencies." In V.S. Subrahmanian (Ed.) Handbook of Computational Approaches to Counterterrorism (pp467-488), New York: Springer.
Dugan, Laura, Julie Huang, Gary LaFree, and Clark McCauley. 2008. The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia and the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide. Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict 1: 231-249.
LaFree, Gary, Laura Dugan and Raven Korte. 2009. The impact of British counterterrorist strategies on political violence in Northern Ireland: comparing deterrence and backlash models. Criminology 47, no. 1:501-530.
Ross, H. Laurence. 1982. Deterring the Drinking Driver: Legal Policy and Social Control. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

Laura Dugan is an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a principal investigator for GATE and Help-Seeking Around the World and a co-investigator for the GTD.