Wednesday’s joint House-Senate hearing on homegrown terrorism was interesting, enlightening, painful, embarrassing, and infuriating… sometimes in the course of a single minute or two. If you were not in the hearing room or missed the C-SPAN broadcast (available in archived entirety), individual videos and prepared testimonies are available at the House Homeland Security Committee website.
One of those testifying was LT. COL. Reid Sawyer, Director, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. In his prepared testimony LT. COL. Sawyer noted,
The emergence of homegrown terrorism and the targeting of U.S. military forces requires a renewed examination of the nature of radicalization and the changing nature of autonomous radicalization—a process that today occurs largely in isolation from direct connection with external networks, creating new challenges for law enforcement and intelligence communities to detect, prevent and deter homegrown terrorism.
Most of Wednesday’s testimony, questions, answers, and occasional pontificating focused on detecting and preventing. The lack of attention to deterring is unfortunate. Especially in regard to homegrown terrorism there is a significant opportunity for deterrence… especially if deterrence is well-understood.
The Latin origin of deter, deterrent, and deterrence is deterrere. During the classical era deterrere was much closer to our understanding of discourage or hinder than the Mutual Assured Destruction of Cold War deterrence. There is even a positive aspect to the concept.
In Cicero’s Impeachment of Verres we read, “… testis praesertim , timidos homines et adflictos, non solum auctoritate deterrere, sed etiam consulari metu, et duorum praetorum potestate.” A reasonable translation: “… witness in particular, timid and oppressed men, hindered not only by your own private influence, but fear of the consul, and the power of two praetors.” The explicit distinction between deterrere (hindered) and metu (fear) is meaningful. Moreover they are hindered by influence, while they fear power.
Deter entered English in the 1570s. An early use is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667):
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing Death be,
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil?
Of good, how just! Of evil-if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunned?
John Milton, Paradise Lost (l. Bk. IX, l)
Early English usage reflected the classical meaning. In the passage above, dauntless virtue being not discouraged or not hindered seems more coherent with the tone than “not terrorized.”
In 1764 Cesare Beccaria published Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crime and Punishments) in which he argued for a systematic approach to what we would now call deterrence.
It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the fundamental principle of good legislation, which is the art of conducting men to the maximum of happiness, and to the minimum of misery, if we may apply this mathematical expression to the good and evil of life. But the means hitherto employed for that purpose are generally inadequate, or contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the tumultuous activity of mankind to absolute regularity; for, amidst the various and opposite attractions of pleasure and pain, human laws are not sufficient entirely to prevent disorders in society.
To effectively prevent crime Beccaria recommended swift, consistent, and just punishment of proven wrongs combined with education, rewards, and application of science to encourage desired behavior.
The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham built on Beccaria’s foundation, gave considerable attention to the efficacy of punishment to prevent unwanted behavior, and called it a “deterrent” (introducing the word in 1829). But Bentham notes a distinction between a longer-term and nearer-term deterrent:
All punishment has a certain tendency to deter from the commission of offences; but if the delinquent, after he has been punished, is only deterred by fear from the repetition of his offence, he is not reformed. Reformation implies a change of character and moral dispositions.
The ultimate deterrent is change of disposition or what moderns might call motivation. Bentham certainly perceived we could be influenced by fear of detection, detention, and punishment. But a more permanent form of prevention would, he argued at length, emerge from engaging the prospect of pleasure. By understanding the fear of pain and the prospect of pleasure, Bentham perceived society can be constructively shaped:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.
From 1861, when “deterrence” first appeared in the English language, until the mid-Twentieth century the most common usage of the word related to issues of criminology. Following World War II, however, deterrence was increasingly associated with military strategy and, particularly, the nuclear doctrine of Mutual Assurance Destruction.
In a January 1954 speech Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared,
We need allies and collective security. Our purpose is to make these relations more effective, less costly. This can be done by placing more reliance on deterrent power and less dependence on local defensive power.
This is accepted practice so far as local communities are concerned. We keep locks on our doors, but we do not have an armed guard in every home. We rely principally on a community security system so well equipped to punish any who break in and steal that, in fact, would-be aggressors are generally deterred. That is the modern way of getting maximum protection at a bearable cost. What the Eisenhower administration seeks is a similar international security system. We want, for ourselves and the other free nations, a maximum deterrent at a bearable cost.
Local defense will always be important. But there is no local defense which alone will contain the mighty landpower of the Communist world. Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power.
Rather than carrot and stick, after Dulles deterrence was understood as the prospect of a very big stick pounding as hard as possible.
This Cold War definition was so deeply ingrained in our political culture that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks President Bush asserted, “Deterrence—the promise of massive retaliation against nations—means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.”
Deterrence is being retrieved. In defense policy there is considerable talk of a “new deterrence.” In homeland security and counter-terrorism important work has been done by Matthew Kroenig, Brian Jenkins and Paul Davis. But we still tend to operate under the shadow of Dulles and his terrible swift sword. For optimal deterrence we also need some beauty of the lilies, wisdom to the mighty, and succor to the brave.