Seeking Deterrence, Breeding Defiance

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In January 1776, the news that King George III was about to send a “massive” invasion force to crush the colonial rebellion inspired American soldiers in Boston to continue fighting after their agreed terms of service had expired, producing not the desired deterrence but rather moral outrage and defiance among George Washington’s troops.

According to Dr. Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at Penn, U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, and especially the invasion of Iraq, has been similarly counterproductive, encouraging suicide bombers to retaliate against what they see as Western disrespect for Islam. Their moral outrage is fueled by a lack of evidence linking Iraq with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, and the reported desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.

American popular support for the invasion of Iraq—shown by the near-majority that backed it during the 2004 presidential election campaign—is evidence of a code of “street values” that seeks revenge for the killing of Americans by another group, regardless of whether the individuals targeted were actually responsible for the first attack, Sherman said. “Whether or not the Muslims who attacked us on 9/11 had Iraqi connections may be irrelevant from this perspective. As long as the war on terror retaliates against the Muslim world in some way, that may be justification enough.”

Sherman’s remarks came in a speech at the 14th World Congress of Criminology held at Penn last summer, which he was hosting as the current president of the International Society of Criminology. The conference, attended by more than 1,100 delegates from some 65 countries, also examined issues including gun violence, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, and restorative justice.

Policymakers and criminologists must learn to recognize crimes that are driven by moral outrage, and to distinguish them from others such as robbery or assault, Sherman said. They should understand that traditional theories of deterrence do not apply in the first category. In such cases, “punishment, no matter how justified, may only fan the flames of defiance, causing more crime than if no punishment had been done at all,” Sherman said.

A gang member who kills a member of another gang in revenge does not see the act as a crime because he is governed by a code of street “justice,” he added. In the same way, at least four of the 9/11 suicide attackers did not see themselves as criminals but as judges and executioners punishing the “crimes” of the West.

“Whenever people are punished for behavior that they think was moral in the first place, they may refuse to accept the legitimacy of the duly constituted government that decides to punish them,” Sherman said. Suicide bombers undermine the very foundations of deterrence doctrine because no penalty, however severe, will deter someone from committing a crime for which he is willing to die.

The victory of defiance over deterrence is shown by a surge in suicide bombings since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and is also highlighted by a survey finding after the July 7 London bombings that 6 percent of British Muslims (representing about 100,000 people in the U.K.) believed the suicide attacks were morally right, he argued. “No modern survey result in a G8 nation has ever shown such murderous intent by so many citizens against their neighbors.”

In the current climate, criminologists may be able to find alternatives to deterrence, such as by incorporating minority-group leadership into justice processes from which they have been excluded, Sherman suggested.

James Gilligan, visiting professor of psychiatry and social policy at Penn, pointed to the psychological trauma that resulted from the overthrow of religion by science starting in the Enlightenment as the root cause for both the assault on the West by Muslim fundamentalists and the West’s response. Gilligan argued that today’s Islamic terrorists are trying to destroy what they see as the godless West, where doubt has undermined the certainty of God that dominated the medieval world.

The result has been a “cognitive vacuum” that for the last four centuries has forced humans to seek some new basis for certainty. In an attempt to fill the cognitive vacuum, a series of ideologies has emerged that are really religions disguised as politics, he argued. They include nationalism, imperialism, totalitarianism, and, now, apocalyptic fundamentalism—a violent attempt “to replace uncertainty with certainty, skepticism with dogma.”

Such personal disorientation can produce psychosis that leads to terrorist outrages such as 9/11, Gilligan said.

But the West itself, and particularly the United States, is also in the grip of a fundamentalist impulse that seeks to create religious certainty where science has undermined it, he added. This was evidenced most recently by the demand by Christian evangelicals for the teaching in high schools of “intelligent design,” a non-scientific alternative to evolutionary theory that claims nature is so complex it could only have been the work of an intelligent creator. Such fundamentalism is less prevalent in Europe, which is a more secular society than the United States, Gilligan said.

In the Netherlands, where traditionally liberal attitudes toward issues such as sex, drugs, euthanasia, and abortion further alienate followers of a strict Muslim code, the clash of cultures between Islam and the West led to a murder that shocked Dutch society and revealed the Netherlands to be far from the haven of tolerance and multiculturalism that it is commonly assumed to be, according Willem de Haan, a professor of criminology at the University of Groningen.

In November 2004, film maker Theo van Gogh was killed by a 26-year old born-again Muslim, who was animated by moral outrage—offended by what he saw as the anti-Islamic content of van Gogh’s work. The killer’s lack of repentance—“He acted purely in the name of his religion and said he would do it again,” de Haan said—ensured that he received the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The incident sparked attacks on mosques and Muslim schools, and a survey following the murder found that 51 percent of Dutch people surveyed admitted disliking Muslims—more than in France, Germany, and the U.K.—prompting an open confrontation on immigration policy, and playing into the hands of far-right political parties.

It also turned the nation’s attention to its community of Moroccan Berbers who began arriving in the 1960s to do jobs “that the Dutch no longer wanted to do.” Many are now unemployed and susceptible, like the murderer, to radical Muslim preaching and talk of holy war. They are “still estranged from the country whose culture they never mastered,” De Haan said. The big issue, for criminologists and society as a whole, is how a secular majority can coexist with a religious minority. “The clash of civilizations isn’t so much about democracy as it is about morality,” he said.

—Jon Hurdle

Rehabilitation vs. Transformation

In what was called a unique event in the history of criminology, about 150 participants in the World Conference of Criminology held at Penn this summer visited the maximum-security Graterford Prison outside Philadelphia, mixing freely with the inmates in their brown uniforms as representatives of Lifers Inc., an organization of prisoners serving life sentences, presented their ideas for ending the culture of street crime.

The Lifers argue that traditional rehabilitation programs have failed to stem a tide of recidivism. Only a radical new approach of personal “transformation,” they say, will prevent further rises in a prison population that in Pennsylvania has increased eight-fold since 1970 to a current level of about 40,000. And only those who have lived the street culture, rather than police, social workers, or academics, have a chance of persuading its members to abandon the behavior that nurtures crime.

A growing group of about 80 Graterford inmates meets weekly to encourage participants scheduled for release to renounce street behavior such as violence, revenge, and dishonesty and adopt codes such as integrity and responsibility. The aim is to ensure not only that the individual avoids behavior that will land him back in prison but also that he leads others in a community that may currently be ruled by a culture of street crime.

Since undergoing transformation, inmates said they had abandoned the machismo of street culture and adopted a different version of manhood that led them to be responsible members of society. “A lot of us come from a culture where you always put up a front,” said Lloyd, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence. “When you raise yourself up to a new level, you find out what makes you a proper man.”

David Kennedy, professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York City, hailed the Lifers’ work as “an enormous accomplishment” and called it “the single best piece of work that has been done on this issue.”


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