Guest Post: Why it might be good to pamper terrorists

Written By Anders Herlitz

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

 One of the most heated debates in “Western” countries these days concerns how to deal with individuals who either have traveled or consider traveling to Syria or Iraq in order to join Daesh and return to a “Western” country in which they are citizens. Australia recently announced that they plan to strip Australian-born individuals who fight with Daesh of their Australian citizenship. The United Kingdom already has laws that allow them to strip citizens of their British nationality if it is “conductive to the public good.” Sweden, my home country, gained international attention in somewhat suspicious circles for what to many seemed to be the complete opposite approach to the problem: the city of Stockholm has outlined a plan for how to deal with members of extremist movements, which involves what they call inclusive measures such as assistance with finding housing as well as an occupation, but also health efforts needed to deal with trauma and PTSD that are expected to be common among participants in warfare. Needless to say perhaps, the idea that Swedish tax money could go to treat the trauma of a person who himself decided to travel to a foreign country to participate in barbarism has generated quite an emotional reaction. I’d like to take this opportunity to scratch the surface of the ethical problems of this general problem, show why Stockholm did the right thing, and underline that we are having really, really bad moral luck.

First, it is perhaps noteworthy to point out that the amount of populism that infects these debates seems unprecedented. Yet, there is a very real problem at the bottom of this. The world has grown smaller, and it is obvious that there are individuals in “Western” countries that sympathize with Daesh, plan to join them, or have fought with them, and it is probably also wise to accept that these (as well as other extremists) constitute a security risk also in “Western” countries. Yet, it seems both imprudent and myopic to suggest that there is one problem and that a single solution is appropriate for all the different kinds of situations that arise. Let’s therefor directly separate a number of issues:

  •  How should a country deal with citizens whose participation in violent extremism can be proven with evidence strong enough for a court to judge them guilty?
  • How should a country deal with citizens whose participation in violent extremism is very strongly suspected, but can’t be proven with evidence strong enough for a court to judge them guilty? (I have in mind here individuals who might actually admit to participation in violent extremism, but where there is no further evidence.)
  • How should a country deal with citizens whose future participation in violent extremism is considered likely?
  • How should a region, city or country deal with citizens whose participation in violent extremism is clear, but who can’t be prosecuted, incarcerated or stripped of their citizenship under existing laws?
  • How should a public body that is responsible for social issues but that can’t write laws deal with citizens whose future participation in violent extremism is considered likely?

I choose to not speak about any particular type of crime, or individuals of any particular religion because I think that it really is irrelevant. Yet, I suspect that a disturbingly large proportion of people with opinions concerning these things would like to single out a certain religion and violence the perpetrators of which refer to a specific religion. Such readers can read that into the above questions. It changes no aspect of the argument.

I believe that although most intuitive responses to the broader issue of what we should do with individuals who pose security risks because they sympathize with an extremist idea or have been part of an extremist movement are provoked by the idea that we speak of the first question, that question is the least interesting from an ethical perspective. Most, if not all, people agree that it is desirable to have a judicial system that allows for war criminals to be prosecuted, and if current laws don’t allow for it, it is desirable that these be changed. Some disagreement exists concerning what the punishment should be, but by and large it looks to me as if most people prefer that war criminals be prosecuted and punished.

The ethically interesting questions arise further down the list, because it appears as if we might well face an instance of really bad moral luck. What characterizes all the issues 2-5 is that within the constraints of the law, and within the constraints of the principles that constitute the foundations of our societies we can’t eliminate security risks that are highly desirable to get rid of.

Some will want to deal with also these issues by stripping individuals of their citizenship, like the United Kingdom has a history of doing. I believe that this is uncivilized, exemplifies populism that only attempts to win the support of racists who might or might not see that they are racists, and violates the fundamental principle that we are equal before the law. Yet, even those who believe that this measure is justified face a range of problems: Australia plans to expel second-generation immigrants. What should we do with third-generation immigrants? Fourth-generation immigrants? Xth-generation immigrants? Those who doubt that such cases will occur can watch this video in which a very white, at birth Christian, German Daesh fighter formerly called Christian Emde explains the benefits of the state he now fights for. The United Kingdom uses a different constraint and only strips individuals of the British nationality if they have the right to a second nationality. Again, that doesn’t deal with the potential problem of the likes of Mr. Emde. But furthermore, it is not at all clear that even first-generation immigrants have the right to a second nationality. Stateless Palestinians is one example of such immigrants. Expelling individuals from the land is immoral, but it also doesn’t solve the problems.

The issues 2-5 above reveal a situation in which we are having terribly bad moral luck. We seem to face a situation in which deeply rooted, and also justifiable, ethical principles conflict in a very disturbing way. The principles can hardly be claimed to conflict by necessity, but our world seems to be such that they conflict here and now.

I am far from an expert on the essentially empirical issue, but suppose that the experts whose research constitutes the grounds for the proposal in Stockholm are (including the Swedish secret police and experts on terrorism who are otherwise famously hawkish) correct: suppose that the most efficient way to lawfully reduce the risk that a member of an extremist movement commits a violent crime includes pampering him with social benefits. Not only do our principles of the right to due process and the idea that we should not punish individuals if we don’t have sufficient proof that they are guilty of past crimes forbid us to eliminate security risks, prudential reasoning might in fact lead us to the conclusion that we must hand out benefits to individuals that we have strong reason to believe either plan to commit horrible crimes, or actually already have committed horrible crimes. Is it justifiable to do this, even if it means that we prioritize to allocate scarce public resources to individuals who have committed war crimes over law-abiding, good-hearted people? At the extreme: Is it justifiable to give resources to a war criminal instead of to his victims if it reduces the risk of future crime that could have disastrous consequences?

This is no easy question of course. On one hand we have principles that are tremendously appealing to most of us: condemnable acts should be punished, not rewarded; and in the name of fairness we should allocate benefits to those who need social aid. On the other hand, we want to live in a safe society governed by the rule of law. These principles, it appears, are now irreconcilable.

An alternative approach would of course be to act against the principles that we like to think that our societies rest on. In particular: rule of law and equality before the law. We could place all individuals that we suspect constitute a risk in concentration camps, cleanse our own countries of certain religious or ethnic groups in which risk elements are overrepresented, or implement some other policy that would strike fiercely and be broad enough so that a large number of potential perpetrators of violent crime inevitably would be caught in the net. Without doubt, some innocent persons would be sacrificed on the way and we would no longer live in a society in which punishment is preceded by a just process, but we would probably reduce the risk of a terrorist attack. Is that worth it?

I have quite firm opinions myself, and think that rule of law and equality before the law must be given priority even if it means that we allow for an increased risk of violent crime. And I believe that whichever fairness reason there might be for not handing out benefits to individuals who qualify for benefits because they pose a security risk, this reason has less impact on the decision than the reason we have to do what we can to make citizens turn away from extremist movements. This is also why I personally support the policy that Stockholm came up with: it is not in their power to write laws, and they need to do what they can to reduce the risk of extremist violence. If that means giving social benefits to individuals who rather deserve punishment, then so be it.

Yet, regardless of how one evaluates the situation, it is tremendously important and perhaps even a moral duty of a higher order to recognize the bad moral luck that we are having, rather than to assume harmony. The supposition I made above might be false of course, but we should not assume that it is wrong because we find the possibility that it is right repulsive. We don’t create the safest society by applying liberal principles. We don’t necessarily minimize the risk of extremist violence by allocating scarce public resources according to desert. We must see these possibilities and accept that it might be the reality we live in. Judging from recent conversations I have engaged in it is clear that this is emotionally remarkably difficult. Yet, the alternative is worse: to apply policies that don’t work in order to achieve unattainable objectives. It would of course be desirable if the way in which to achieve desirable outcomes only involved just means, but that does not seem to be the fabric of the moral universe that we now live in. We must make tragic choices.

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3 Responses to Guest Post: Why it might be good to pamper terrorists

  • Sweden Report says:

    Thanks for linking to my post. Obviously, I think you’re dead wrong in your conclusion. It is a moral affront to every decent human being to grant these people preferential treatment after having willingly participated in what can only be described as utter barbary.

    Try replacing “ISIS fighter” with “SS guard from Auschwitz” and try it on for size before throwing your lot behind the coddle-approach.

    As a Swede you may also want to consider the obvious contrast to Swedish sex buyers, who get punished to the full extent of the law when returning for engaging in what is perfectly legal activities abroad. ISIS fighters can behead and rape to their hearts’ delight without anything to worry about except what kind of benefits they’ll receive upon their return.

  • Andrews says:

    I agree in substance with the above post. Scandinavians countries have been very succesful at dealing with relapse using the same kind of soft methods mentioned by the author’s original post on prisoners. But those methods seems to fall short when the criminals are as brain-washed kids used by reckless sect-like gurus to perpetrate violence beyond infamy. The money would be better spent on studies for prevention and medically assisted rehab.

  • Swedish Surveyor says:

    “We could place all individuals that we suspect constitute a risk in concentration camps, cleanse our own countries of certain religious or ethnic groups in which risk elements are overrepresented, or implement some other policy that would strike fiercely and be broad enough so that a large number of potential perpetrators of violent crime inevitably would be caught in the net. Without doubt, some innocent persons would be sacrificed on the way and we would no longer live in a society in which punishment is preceded by a just process, but we would probably reduce the risk of a terrorist attack. Is that worth it?”

    When you are losing the debate, assemble a straw man, pull the race card, and label your critics as evil with. Spice it up with Godwin’s law for good measure.

    How fresh. How new.

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