Book Project

“The Preventive State: Terrorism, Security and Liberty”


When the bombs go off, it is the sirens that follow. For the public, terrorism is a problem with a political solution. Consequently, when acts of terror occur politicians must be seen to act; they quickly adopt policies and programs designed to insulate themselves from responsibility should another attack occur. It is of little surprise then that as soon as the smoke clears governments restrict rights and liberties in their efforts to fight, and to be seen fighting, terror. Yet while the political motivations driving these policies are clear, their effectiveness is not. The mechanisms by which liberty-reducing counterterrorism policies presumably make the public safer from terrorism are little understood and almost never systemically explored.


To understand if these policies do in fact work is the goal of “The Preventive State”. In order to do this, the book develops an analytical foundation for studying the efficacy of coercive counterterrorism policies. It shows that liberty need not be in conflict with security: when accounting for strategic interactions between terrorist organizations and security agencies, liberty-reducing counterterrorism policies may not decrease the probability of a terrorist attack. More importantly, the analysis shows that the security agencies in charge of terrorism prevention, the very agencies whose expertise afford them a disproportionate influence on policy-making, have a preference for liberty-reducing counter terrorism measures – even when such policies are ineffective. Simply put, there is a bureaucratic bias for restricting rights and liberties in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, whether or not such restrictions actually prevent terrorism. This allows the book to show the importance of assessing anti-terror policies in light of the incentives of the bureaucratic agencies responsible for implementing them. When taken together these findings lead to an account of the normative, policy and institutional principles that should guide and limit the powers and actions of counterterrorism agencies, most of which are missing from existing scholarly and public debates about how liberal societies ought to fight terrorism.


These lessons concerning terrorism prevention have broader implications for understanding the role of the state in liberal societies. In recent years, commentators have identified prevention in anti-terror law as an important manifestation of the shift in the emphasis of governance from being reactive or punitive to being preventive. Whereas the punitive state reacts and responds to harm by punishing criminal acts, the preventive state intervenes before harm occurs. This change in emphasis is not without consequence. The anticipatory nature of preventative action leads to infringements of individual liberty that do not occur with respect to punitive action. Consequently, the preventive use of coercion raises normative concerns distinct from those associated with the punitive use of coercion; these novel concerns have not been systematically explored. This book identifies these distinct concerns carefully and discusses the broader implications and ramifications of preventive coercion in strategic contexts.