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Security, Civil Liberties, and Terrorism

Security, Civil Liberties, and Terrorism

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Comprehensive Unit
130 pages
Grade Level: High School – Community College
Includes curriculum unit + 2 CD-ROMs

One of the defining aspects of terrorism is that it is a resort to violence that circumvents the democratic process. How, then, do liberal democratic governments fight terrorism within their existing governmental constructs?

In the latter half of the twentieth century, and especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001, sub-state terrorism has emerged as one of the most prominent security concerns for the United States. The war on terrorism dominates U.S. diplomatic, foreign affairs, military, law enforcement, and judicial discourse. To make effective decisions on how to wage the war on terror, Americans must think critically about what terrorism is and what policies best prevent future terrorist acts. They must also ask themselves what, if anything, they are willing to trade to gain security from future terrorist acts.

Such an analysis begins with a simple question: What is terrorism? Upon inspection, no definition seems adequate; terrorism is a strategy that takes many forms and is committed by many types of actors, and there is vast disagreement on what constitutes a terrorist act. Seeking a definition nonetheless yields important clues to the nature of terrorist threats.

Some measures that liberal democracies use to respond to terrorism, such as freezing the financial assets of proven terrorist organizations, garner wide support and generate little controversy. Other measures are more contentious, both in terms of their effectiveness in combating terrorism and their effect on civil liberties. The notion of a tradeoff between liberty and security is often invoked, implying that some of society's freedoms must be curtailed or suspended to eliminate a terrorist threat. This leads to discussion over "finding the balance between freedom and security," but this is not the only way to think about the dilemma. Some argue there can be no freedom unless there is security; that is, true freedom can only be achieved when we can live without the fear of an imminent terrorist strike. Others make the opposite argument: to have security, we must have freedom. In other words, protecting individual rights domestically and promoting them abroad is the best way to ensure our security because it removes the grievances that cause terrorism in the first place. How, then, should a liberal, democratic society respond to terrorism? There are no simple answers to those complex topics, but this unit provides students with the background and tools needed to consider these important questions critically.

Security, Civil Liberties, and Terrorism is based on lectures from a Stanford University course taught by a scholar on counterterrorism. The unit consists of the lectures, included on CD-ROM, and four lessons of activities and readings that supplement the lectures. In the first lesson, students learn how difficult it is to define terrorism and the complexity of labeling someone a terrorist. Lesson Two gives students background into the nature of liberal, democratic states and explains the centrality of civil liberties in such states. In Lesson Three, students participate in a simulation of a terrorist threat and evaluate specific counterterrorist measures, focusing on the USA PATRIOT Act passed after the September 11th attacks. Finally, Lesson Four encourages students to think of counterterrorism in larger terms. Students learn three models for responding to terrorism and are challenged to draft their own counterterrorism legislation. Each lesson contains a variety of group activities and numerous suggestions for assessment.