To deter terrorism, think beyond punishment

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, we heard strong proclamations from the president that "justice will be served." It should be.

Our spirit of justice is based on the principle that punishment should outweigh any benefit derived from perpetrating crime — a premise that has guided our nation since its earliest days. However, we expect more. The punishment should be harsh enough to send a strong message to others that they, too, will suffer if they attempt to hurt the American people. We expect punishment to deter future terrorists.

While evidence suggests that punishment can deter some things (e.g., drunken driving, sexual assault), terrorism is not one of them. The historical record shows that terrorists are often willing to die for their cause, making threats of punishment seem inconsequential. In fact, those who die — and even those only imprisoned — are often celebrated as martyrs. In contrast, very few (if any) nonterrorist prisoners are honored by those left behind.

Scholarly research supports the idea that terrorists are immune to deterrence. It further shows that military interventions can increase violence by compromising the government's legitimacy. If traditional methods of criminal deterrence backfire with terrorists, what will stop future attacks?

Tighter security is an obvious strategy. Since April 15, discussions have been under way on how to improve security for marathons and other sporting events. Yet Americans value freedom and have little tolerance for excessive security. Rarely do we stand in airport lines without hearing somebody grumbling about having to remove their shoes.

The United States will always have crowds gathering freely with minimal security, creating unlimited opportunities for terrorists to produce high casualties. One only has to visit a local mall for evidence of this. So, what's left to deter terrorists?

My colleague, Erica Chenoweth, and I have researched this question by looking at what other governments have done. We collect data on the wide range of government actions that could influence terrorism. We systematically comb news reports to detect any actions that are directed toward terrorist organizations or their supporters — even if their purpose is not directly related to the conflict.

For example, our data include this 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 on Palestinian civilians, they might find less value in supporting acts of terrorism. Political scientist Martha Crenshaw has long argued that terrorist organizations rely heavily on civilian support for survival. Losing this backing can disrupt their operations.

Taking this one step further, we expect that when governments provide incentives for civilians to avoid terrorist behavior, such movements will weaken. Indeed, our findings show that when the Israeli government responds favorably to the needs of Palestinian civilians, terrorism lessens.

This suggests that rewarding good behavior, as opposed to only punishing the bad, could be an effective form of counterterrorism. While these lessons come from countries with more domestic terrorism than the U.S., they could be adapted to conditions here at home.

With rising calls for get-tough strategies — often targeting Muslims in the United States — it is important to consider the unintended potential repercussions of alienating important communities. The latest arrests in the Boston bombing case indicate that the suspected bombers likely relied on some community support, as opposed to being lone wolves. Further, the behavior of the older Tsarnaev brother sent clear signals of instability and possible violence to others in his mosque. His listeners might have contacted authorities, but — unlike in other cases in which Muslims have warned authorities about potentially dangerous people in their communities — they didn't. This is a matter of trust.

U.S. counterterrorism specialists could take a number of steps to implement reward-based strategies: 1) identify ideologies that include factions or sects extreme enough to perpetrate attacks (this could include a whole range of groups); 2) determine whether organizations that form around those ideologies rely upon the support of a constituency; and 3) identify the grievances of that constituency. The fourth and final step would be to address some of the concerns of vulnerable populations, leaving extremists short of the resources needed to implement attacks.

For example, addressing concerns in U.S. Muslim communities about discrimination could help build a more trusting relationship with government officials. We can only speculate whether that might have helped in the Boston case. But it seems to have made a difference in the recent case of a foiled plot to blow up a rail line in Canada.

This strategy could apply to would-be terrorists from all backgrounds, from those on the extreme right to radical, violent environmentalists. Addressing legitimate grievances tends to alienate terrorists from their supporters, undercutting their arguments. While people should always be punished for breaking the law, when it comes to preventing terrorism we need to focus not on what is emotionally satisfying but on what works.

Laura Dugan is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland and co-developer of the Global Terrorism Database. Her email is

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