End of Chapter Question Pointers
Chapter 25 – Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, and Technology
- Is technology the long-thought silver-bullet that will help defeat the terrorist threat?
- Mills and Huber argue that ‘our silicon will win.’ Do you agree?
- What impact could sophisticated surveillance, observation, and identification technology have on the concept of ‘citizen’?
- How far can (or should) liberal democracies go when it comes to protecting their citizens from terrorism?
This question invites you to think critically about the limitations of available (and soon available) counter-terrorism technologies, and about the consequences of their use for civil liberties. Think for example of ‘Smart CCTV’ solutions: are there any weaknesses you can identify? Or how about ‘false positives’ in the case of facial recognition?
It is worth reflecting on the dual use nature of at least some of the technology suggested to combat terrorism – Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as ‘drones’, are just one example: Hezbollah adopted them soon after they became available, while the Yemeni Houthis developed remote-controlled Uncrewed Surface Vehicles (USVs) or ‘drone boats’ to attack ships in the Red Sea. Furthermore, UAVs were used for assassination-style attacks against leading politicians, that is President Maduro of Venezuela (Caracas, 4 August 2018) and the Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi (Baghdad, 7 November 2021).
Note that terrorism and technology have a long and intertwined history: you may wish to look back at Chapter 8 that traces this relationship (pages 142-3). There seems little reason why such evolutions should end.
To answer this question, David Lyon’s scepticism regarding Mills and Huber’s enthusiasm provides the necessary critical counter-point. Think about these two positions by way of a ‘pros and cons’ debate and then offer your own conclusion – which may well be situated between the two positions. What does ‘winning’ mean in this context? Will ‘our silicon’ help us to defeat terrorism once and for all?
Currently, there is not much information sharing between technological innovators on the one hand, and the general public (including decision makers) on the other. Could this result in a serious mismatch between (technical) capabilities and (public) expectations?
To answer this question, you could first consider the impact such technology could have on us as the citizens regarding civil liberties and human rights. Think for example of the potentially very intrusive nature of real-time data mining, or of sophisticated ‘Smart CCTV’s systems. You could also reflect on George Orwell’s idea of a ‘Big Brother’: given that many private enterprises carry out their own observation operations, should we not rather talk about many ‘Big Brothers’ now? What does that mean four individual rights and civil liberties?
Finally, is citizenship a ‘right’ or a ‘duty’? From a citizen’s perspective, it’s the individual rights that matter – while from the state’s perspective, it’s the general duty of the citizens to adhere to the law: think of the demands on citizens to forego certain individual rights, such as the right of free assembly, in the times of Covid-19. Could it be argued that against the backdrop of ever more sophisticated surveillance, observation, and identification technology, the element of ‘duty’ becomes ever more important, while the element of ‘right’ becomes ever less important?
How liberal democracies (and any other states, for that matter) react to terrorism depends on how this threat is constructed: Is it seen as a crime, or as an attack on the ‘body politic’ with the potential to disrupt the fabric of our societies? If the threat is seen as a largely criminal one, the responses will be left to intelligence agencies, police, and judiciary (known as Criminal Justice Model, CJM); if it is seen as an attack on the body politic, the military will be used, in particular to combat the threat outside of our own borders (War Model, WM). Both come with their own advantages and disadvantages – which ones can you identify?
Depending on the perceived severity of the threat, responses to terrorism could include a) extended police powers or emergency laws such as indefinite detention without trial, deportation of individuals suspected to be members of terrorist groups, special courts, burden of proof of innocence on the accused (CJM); b) military counter-terrorism operations abroad, extrajudicial killings via drone strikes, use of inappropriate weapons systems (WM); and c) waterboarding and torture, extra-ordinary renditions (both).
The general argument behind such draconic measures is that ‘in order to protect democracy, you sometimes have no choice but to use undemocratic measures’ (British PM Margaret Thatcher). Do you agree? In the context of the UK, it is worth looking at Chapter 3 on Critical Terrorism Studies for a critical discussion of the PREVENT strategy (page 46).