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Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

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4.3 Two discourses of terrorism

Given the way that George W Bush framed the 9/11 attacks, it may be surprising to see that the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher used a very different discourse to frame the issue of terrorism. For example, in a speech in 1981, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made clear her views on terrorism clear saying:

There is no such thing as political bombing or political violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status. Crime is crime is crime. It is not political. It is crime and there can be no question of granting political status.

(Thatcher, 1981)

This speech was in response to a series of widely publicised hunger strikes [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  by Irish Republicans in The Maze and Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland who were seeking to be recognised as political prisoners rather than ordinary criminals.

You can contrast this with President George W. Bush’s statement that ‘Al-Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime’ (2001) in discussing the US response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In so doing, he implied that terror and crime were fundamentally distinct.

The language used by both Thatcher and Bush can, respectively, be used to legitimate and justify particular responses. By defining the actions of both Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland as purely criminal, Thatcher denied the motivations or claims behind them any political authority. The British Government also implicitly reinforced the criminal justice system as the mechanism for responding to these actors’ actions, rather than having to engage in political negotiations with them, employing a strategy of criminalisation to respond to political violence in Northern Ireland from 1972 to 1981. This approach included an expansion of counter-terrorism laws – leading to widespread arrests, detention without trial and the use of harsh interrogation techniques (McEvoy, 2001).

Since different discourses can justify different actions by the state they can be seen as significant in the way that power is exercised, particularly over relatively powerless groups. As you will see, discourses of terrorism can be used to legitimate the deployment of extra security measures or even military force against relatively powerless social groups (such as Republicans in Ireland in the 1980s and Muslim populations in various parts of the world today) and in the process contributing to maintaining or increasing inequality.