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The War on Crime as Precursor to the War on Terror

Discussions on Policy

This article focuses on examining the parallels between the domestic ‘war on terror’ pursued by the US and an earlier ‘war’ on domestic criminality. The authors argue that firstly, policies in both eras developed from political actors’ desire to “do something” to assuage public fear, a reflex yielding a bricolage of ad hoc responses lacking internal consistency and proven efficacy. Secondly, just as changing sentencing policy and prosecutorial practice in the crime context circumvented judicial review and constitutional entitlements of due process, contemporary counterterrorism typically avoids any entanglement in the criminal process, instead relying largely on an immigration system with even fewer protections than those in the criminal law (even as the latter have become attenuated over the course of the “war on crime”). Thirdly, logics of zero-tolerance, particularly the use of pretextual arrests, guide both “wars” (albeit with different justifications). Finally, the consequence of both “wars” has been mass imprisonment and physical displacement — programs that in their selective concentration in particular communities have proven to be “race-making”. This article begins by charting the origins of the American “war on crime” before reviewing its parallels to and divergences from the “war on terror” and, finally, drawing some tentative conclusions.

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