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How to cast out terrorism

by Simon Longstaff AO
08 June 2017
Should terrorists be stripped of their name, identity and legacy? Simon Longstaff explores our options in dealing with perpetrators of atrocity.

Following a wave of terrorist attacks, some people are again asking why the media and our government officials insist on giving perpetrators a ‘public face’ by naming them. Behind that question lies the reasonable assumption being acknowledged is to the terrorists’ advantage.

In the case of an organisation like ISIS, being ‘named’ helps convey the impression of relevance and potency. In the case of individual terrorists, the presumed benefit is in being acknowledged by history and in being a personal inspiration to those who might be on the cusp of committing their own atrocity.

Why would we pander to the terrorists’ desire to make headlines and be known to the world? Would it not be better to deny them this final satisfaction – and bury them in obscurity?

READ MORE: Lauren Williams on the ethics of terrorism reporting.

Of course, there is a long history of society taking exactly this path in response to especially heinous crimes. For at least a thousand years, convicted murderers would be executed and their bodies consigned to unmarked graves set in unhallowed ground. The deliberate choice of an unmarked grave was society’s final, symbolic act of contempt for the criminal and their wicked deeds.

In a similar manner, under the legal code of Alfred the Great, criminals could be ‘outlawed’ – cast out from the protections of society to become ‘non-persons’ and effectively ‘beasts’ in the wilderness. And in October 1988 Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced that organisations in Northern Ireland believed to support terrorism would be banned from directly broadcasting on the airwaves.

Today, the equivalent sanction would be for society to declare that, by their own actions, terrorists forfeit their identity. That is, terrorists and terrorist organisations would never be named. Instead, they would be assigned a number – an echo of the penal system described in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – where Jean Valjean becomes ‘Prisoner 24601’.

The removal of a person’s name is a classic step in the process of dehumanising an opponent.

It is important to note that the refusal to name a terrorist (whether an individual or organisation) need not be seen as a punishment imposed by society. Instead, it could be argued it is the terrorists who place themselves outside the bounds of civilised society as a matter of choice. We merely need to recognise this is what they have chosen to do and act accordingly.

Now, there are at least two reasons why society might wish to preserve the name of terrorists. First, by naming an organisation like ISIS, it is possible to explain the cause of brutal indiscriminate violence. In general, people desperately need to make sense of the world, especially when they experience cruelty and tragedy. Naming the terrorists helps to explain awful events and to assign blame where it deserves to lie.

The act of dehumanisation gives rise to the risk of becoming more like the foe we seek to defeat.

Second, the removal of a person’s name is a classic step in the process of dehumanising an opponent. In 1984, George Orwell paints the chilling picture of the ‘Ministry of Truth’ routinely excising from all history the names and faces of Big Brother’s enemies. That is a road leading to the creation of a gulag of ghosts. Worse still, to deny another person’s humanity is to open the door to the same kind of human evil that motivates the terrorists. This act of dehumanisation gives rise to the risk of becoming more like the foe we seek to defeat.

Not hating our enemies (indeed loving them – but not their deeds) and continuing to see them as persons may seem an impossibly lofty ideal. However, this may be the only way to avoid an escalating cycle of violence and recrimination. As an idea, it is likely to be as radical and unpopular today as it was just over two thousand years ago.

That, then, is our choice. Do we accept that terrorists have chosen to forfeit their identities, that they should lose their name? Are they just beasts in the wilderness to be buried without honour and forgotten forever? Or do we insist they stand condemned – personally tagged with blame and infamy down through the ages?

Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.

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