How Should Democracies Fight Terrorism?

How Should Democracies Fight Terrorism?


One of the most important jobs that states have is to protect their citizens, from threats of all kinds, including terrorist threats.  States protect citizens from terrorism by adopting policies to prevent it and punish it.  In my book, How Should Democracies Fight Terrorism?¸ I suggest that too often such policies have the effect of constraining the fundamental rights of minority citizens, thereby making them feel that they do not belong as equal, respected, members of their state.


In most democratic states, two types of terrorism are occupying the attention of security authorities: terrorism intended or committed by violent religious extremists and terrorism intended or committed by far-right nationalists.  At least since 9/11, the popular image of the terrorist has been of a middle-eastern, young man who, motivated by a hatred of liberal principles that stems from a distorted interpretation of Islam.  Slowly, however, the image of the terrorist is growing more complex, to reflect the rising number of terrorists who target minority citizens – Muslims, Blacks, Latinx, Jews, sexual minorities – citing their dilution of white, Christian, society.

I treat these two forms of terrorism together, in my new book How Should Democracies Fight Terrorism?which examines the impact of policies adopted in the name of fighting terrorism on minority citizens in democratic states.  My starting point is the felt experience of minorities in Canada, especially Muslim minorities, that counter-terrorism policies disproportionately target them in a range of harmful ways.  In the research that motivated the writing of this book, with colleagues and in particular with Baljit Nagra, I documented the experiences of Muslim Canadians, who reported their firm belief that counter-terrorism measures singled them out for unwarranted attention by security authorities, and that the policies that were adopted to combat terrorism – though written neutrally to target any person engaged in a range of suspicious activities – disproportionately restricted their rights.  To give just a flavour of how Muslims have experienced the pursuit of counter-terrorism policy in Canada, one individual said of such policies:

They give a rise to negative stereotyping, increased marginalization and also to distrust within their own communities. So more and more people do not trust each other. Also the lack of honest conversations is that more and more people are afraid to speak their minds…because they feel speaking honestly about (political policies) will be equated with extremism and terrorism.

🎧 Listen to a podcast of our book launch 📚

The policies adopted in democratic states to combat terrorism are wide-ranging. They include physical and electronic surveillance; no-fly lists and passport cancellations; expansions on restricted speech to criminalize glorification of terrorism; enhanced sentencing for would-be and convicted terrorists, including the revocation of their citizenship; reintegration programs for returning foreign fighters and associated deradicalization programs; and so on.

All of these policies aim at protecting the security of citizens. However, they operate at least in part by restricting the rights of citizens, including the right to speak and move freely, the right to privacy and the right to citizenship status.  When considering whether these policies are merited, even if they restrict rights that many believe are important and perhaps fundamentally so, some propose that the right question is, is the security gain thereby produced worth the rights that are sacrificed as a result? According to this way of thinking about a particular counter-terrorism policy, the goal is to get the balance between security and rights right.

The image of the terrorist is growing more complex, to reflect the rising number of terrorists who target minority citizens … citing their dilution of white, Christian, society.

But, I say in my book, this attempt to get the balance right is the wrong way to think about these complex questions, for two reasons.  One reason is that it has tended to obscure two different but equally important ways to understand security.  Security is a feature of communities: a community can be more or less secure, measured for example, in terms of the likelihood of being a victim of a terrorist or other crime.  Individuals also have a right to security, meaning at least that they have a right to be free from persecution, violence and discrimination.  So, it can be the case that a community that is secure according to various measures, including the rate of crime, is at the same time home to people who are themselves insecure, in the sense that they are more likely than average to be the victim of a crime or other violence.  Personal security is often unequally distributed in a society: women are less secure than men, for being at greater risk of sexual violence for example.

My book suggests that the over-valuing of community level security ignores the insecurity of many individuals, whose personal right to security is threatened by the aggressive pursuit of counter-terrorism policies.  Security is subject to “equality.”  A democratic state must protect all citizens’ individual right to secure on an equal basis, and where it can be shown that a group of citizens – with identifiable characteristics, including sex, gender, race, and religion – are shown to be less secure than others in a democratic state, this is a violation of equality.  This inequality in the protection of the individual right to security is generated by too many counter-terrorism policies, which operate by undermining the personal right to security of minority individuals.

I illustrate how this general claim operates in several cases.  For one thing, committing to equality frames the right way to punish terrorists in democratic states.  I suggest that the equality demand reduces the options for punishing terrorism, by showing that permanent exclusion – in the form of denationalization convicted or even would-be terrorists – cannot be justified.  However, enhanced punishments for crimes that have targeted individuals for their minority status can be justified by a commitment to their equal respect and protection.  Robert Bowers deserves to be punished, not only for the murders he committed, but for the rationale for them: that those he killed deserved it for their inferior status.

States protect citizens by punishing terrorists, as I have just said.  They also aim to prevent terrorism.  No-fly lists and community level surveillance are both policies aimed at preventing terrorism.  For example, Muslim citizens are more likely to be denied the right to fly by no-fly lists across democratic countries.  In the UK, British Muslim citizens are more likely to be referred for assessment by Prevent authorities (authorities charged with evaluating whether citizens have been, or are at risk of, radicalizing) for objectively normal behaviours, including reading textbooks on terrorism for a university course, or drawing a cucumber. These policies purport to protect the security of all¸ but operate by reducing important rights for only some.

The conclusion to my book is that, if done wrong (and it often is) the pursuit of counter-terrorism unfairly targets minorities, and in so doing reduces their willingness to collaborate with the larger project of protecting national security.  This, I argue, is a security failure that must remedied in order to keep us all safe.


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