Combatting Terrorism: Questioning Ethics and the Power of the Department of Defense

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The Department of Defense is a major governing body that is responsible for combatting terrorism and influencing other governing bodies to do the same. In the United States’ recent history, terrorism has shaken the nation. Terrorists and those that are suspected of terrorism or conspiracy are often unrightfully profiled, tortured, and detained unlawfully. Unethical practices of extraordinary rendition and torture are tactics used to combat terrorism and to extract information concerning current and potential threats. By understanding terrorism through ethics frameworks, the actions of the DoD and other governing bodies can be understood but not necessarily justified. Secrecy characterizes practices of detainment and organizations lack adequate amounts of communication in order to determine best practice regarding actions against terrorism. Improving understanding and ethical practices for the treatment of terrorists can mitigate acts of terrorism. However, best practices have yet to be determined concerning the serious issues the DoD faces in keeping the United States safe from terrorism and threat.


The Department of Defense (DoD) takes measures to combat terrorism. We must ask: does the DoD always take ethical measures when considering human rights, equality, liberty, and justice? By understanding the function of the DoD, the recent history of terrorism incidences, racial profiling and the measures that are taken and/or influenced by the DoD as well as possible solutions that could be enacted by the DoD, the challenges that the DoD faces when combatting terrorism as well as the issues that terrorism raises will be discussed

The Department of Defense is the oldest and largest government agency in the United States to date (, 2013). The DoD is headed by the Secretary of Defense whom is responsible for protecting our national resources with one goal in mind: to keep Americans safe. The most critical mission of the DoD is to provide the military focus as well as the forces needed to prevent war and to protect the security of the United States (, 2013). It is also the point resource for finding military information. The DoD provides information for members of the military, civilians, congress, and the public. Therefore, the DoD has to carefully navigate handling terrorism, acts of terror, and terrorists that threaten the security and safety of the United States and the American people. What the public often does not see is what occurs within the department and across governing bodies on behalf of these critical decisions regarding terrorism and terrorists and the social and ethical issues they have to face in order to maintain national security, prevent war, and punish terrorists and criminals adequately.

By understanding the recent history of terrorism in the United States, the role of the DoD and the social and ethical issues that it faces when handling terrorism and terrorists will be discussed further. Between January 1997 and mid-September 2005, 178 terrorist attacks and incidents took place in the United States. With the targeting of urban centers coupled with individual attacks on offices, public spaces, military and governmental infrastructures, and even lone-wolf terrorism such as the 2001 anthrax letters, terrorism has persisted and often gone unrecognized or unheard of (Nunn 2007, p. 89).

So what constitutes a terrorist act, and who becomes labeled a terrorist? As defined in the U.S. code of law, terrorism involves acts or activities that endanger human life and that are also in violation of criminal laws and appear to be committed with the intention of intimidating or coercing civilian populations or to affect the conduct of governing bodies by committing mass destruction, kidnapping, or assassination (Nunn, 2007, p. 91). Individuals that are arrested for committing crimes in a terrorist fashion are not initially classified as terrorists usually and are initially classified as arsonists, bombers, or other typical types of criminals classified solely by the type of criminal activity committed. Now that we have a working definition of what the DoD oversees and what and how common terrorist acts really are, let us review some of the issues regarding criminal profiling and justice when it comes to terrorism before ensuing discussion and analysis on treatment of terrorists, theoretical frameworks, and the actions that could be implemented to improve actions of the DoD.

Criminal Profiling, Unlawful Detainment, and Terrorism

One particular event in U.S. history spurred incessant profiling of potential terrorists. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001 when terrorists piloted planes that destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, sparking the start of war and the ‘war on terror’ Congress passed the USA Patriot Act with the support of the DoD and the Department of Justice. The USA Patriot Act was passed by overwhelming bipartisan support, and armed law enforcement officers with tools and resources to ‘detect and prevent’ terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT, 2001). The act allowed law enforcement officers to use ‘roving wiretaps’ that were typically used to investigate ordinary crimes. However, the Patriot Act allowed law enforcement to conduct impromptu investigations, examine any businesses that could potentially be linked to terrorism (which subsequently meant racial profiling of Arabic and/or middle eastern and South Asian individuals and families) and conduct wide-spread surveillance on any individuals suspected of malfeasance in relation to terrorism up to but not limited to unlawful detention.

According to Cassady Pitt of Bowling Green State University, the passing of the U.S. Patriot Act in 2001 made Muslims more vulnerable to racial profiling while there was no actual association or evidentiary support that Muslim Americans increased support for terrorism in the United States (Pitt 2011, p. 53). Additionally, one of the biggest ironic consequences of the U.S. Patriot act was that Americans tended to be in support of, for instance, wire-tapping and unlawful detainment targeting men of Arabic descent (Pitt 2011, p.53). Evidence supported by William H. Press’ publication concludes that even under optimal prior probabilities, strong profiling and subsequent unnecessary detainment is no more accurate than a random sample of an entire population when it comes to rare malfeasance such as terrorism (2009, p. 1716). In fact, legal resources are often wasted on individuals that are determined to fit a ‘profile’. Even if conditions are ideal and objective, individuals of higher probability are repeatedly screened and detained but also innocent (Press 2009, p. 1716).

According to author Anabelle Lever the most troubling forms of profiling are what she terms ‘preventative’ and/or ‘prospective’ profiling, which was supported by the DoD and the passing of the Patriot Act, in contrast with profiling and detainment that occurs after a known crime is committed (2011, p. 63). These are the most morally wrong, illegal and disturbing forms of profiling and subsequent unlawful detainment in the U.S. Initiative random police searches in order to prevent crime based on statistical evidence of what a criminal should look like for specific crimes is concerning because it leads to harassment of ethnic minorities. While the profiling of terrorists (and many innocent civilians suspected of terrorism) have not proven to be an effective way of terrorism and drives terrorism, there is another aspect to consider: the actual treatment of terrorists and suspected terrorists while detained.

Extraordinary Rendition, Torture, and Terrorism

Practices embraced by the United States are questionable at best when it comes to the treatment of terrorists. One example of a questionable practice is that of waterboarding. Waterboarding, or stimulating drowning in the interrogation of terrorists, was actually ruled out by the DoD, which declined to approve its use by the military (Graham, Collony 2011, pp.66-67). However, the CIA had authorized waterboarding and has acknowledged that at least three high-profile terrorists held in their custody were subjected to it. The use of force during interrogations is something that the DoD has had to consistently navigate and whether or not the use of force during interrogations is justified calls into question the social justice issues under review, specifically, the issue of human rights and whether or not the practice is ‘just’. While radical extremists worldwide have targeted the United States, giving governing bodies reasons to justify the use of torture in interrogations due to the potential consequences of even one successful terrorist attack, governing bodies such as the DoD are tempted to use any means necessary to fight such enemies (Graham, Collony 2011, p.72).

It must be recognized that terrorism, by definition, is morally wrong. Terrorism threatens and sacrifices innocent and defenseless people and is actually enacted by the very people that are supposedly defending innocent people (like the Palestinian Liberation Front, to name one example of a group that makes this claim) (Machan, Gobetz 1987, p. 32). Unfortunately, the reaction to terrorism often leads to the violations of basic human rights up to and including the murder of terrorists and even innocent victims and bystanders, such as warfare. It is also unfortunate that terrorists position authorities in ways that make them decide whether or not to utilize ‘virtually equally unacceptable courses of conduct. For instance, should terrorists be let go free or should the civil liberties of bystanders and even victims be threatened’ (Machan, Gobetz 1987 p. 33). Therefore, this point highlights the ethical and social issues faced by the DoD. In order to defend liberty, the DoD and other authoritative organizations often violate the human rights of terrorists; human rights which the organizations exist to protect for the citizens of the United States. At what point, and to what degree, does a terrorist action constitute equally unacceptable conduct in order to benefit justice and liberty?

The following question presents itself: are extraordinary rendition, torture, and unlawful detention wrong, and should state-sponsored torture continue to persist in secrecy in order to by-all-means necessary mitigate terrorism and keep our country safe? Extraordinary rendition, in particular, is controversial in nature and allows the executive branch, particularly the CIA, to use it in ongoing anti-terrorist campaigns involving detention, torture, and harsh interrogation techniques including but not limited to waterboarding (Natalie 2012). Plaintiffs that have attempted to sue the United States for damages based on abuses sustained during detention have encountered issues in federal courts, which have often dismissed their cases based on the ‘state secrets doctrine’ (Natalie 2012 p.1240). In many of these cases the interrogation takes place abroad so that the U.S. cannot be accountable for actions that didn’t take place on U.S. soil. Therefore, it is evident that evaluating the justice and effectiveness that would come about due to extreme practices in the extraordinary rendition program are extremely difficult to evaluate as well as justify when prisoners are being tortured in foreign lands or, for example, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Secrets of torture and extraordinary rendition are kept within the organization and away from other organizations such as the lack of clear communication between the CIA and the DoD. Secrecy is something that could change the ways in which justice is served when it comes to terrorism.

Theoretical frameworks to consider when evaluating terrorism and the DoD

Political strain drives acts of terrorism; hegemony, oppression and power drive violence against authoritative powers. Without hateful forms of racial and prejudicial oppression, terrorism would likely decrease or even cease to exist altogether. In a world where equality is continuously threatened and inequality persists along the lines of racial and ethnic discrimination, we must question what solutions might exist in order to mitigate the problems that criminal profiling and torture of terrorists and potential terrorists serve to perpetuate. Additionally, terrorists are actively competing with the state for legitimizing justice; terrorists view their actions as just, and so does the state, which presents another problem: who is ethically in their actions?

According to the ethical concept of utilitarianism, both terrorism, as well as the harsh punishment of terrorist acts, can be justified by conceptions of cost-benefit analyses that can be considered efficient but are immoral nonetheless (Butler 2003). However, we must understand that the state, as well as the federal government, deliberately punishes racial and ethnic minorities in order to maintain and perpetuate systems of power and the status quo, therefore achieving some end, which is justified by concepts of utilitarianism. Therefore, those that are suspected of terrorism and those that are actually guilty are typically interrogated, questioned, and punished much more harshly than if it was an individual in the majority population, namely, the American Caucasian population. Utilitarianism justifies harm in order to serve the ‘greater good’, which is obviously a framework and an ethical concept used by the DoD, the CIA and other governing and authoritative bodies. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine if this is ethical. While utilitarianism can result in harsh and cruel punishment, it does not have to result in complete secrecy or lack of communication across governing bodies working to combat terrorism and threat.

An additional framework to consider is conceptions of virtue ethics. When considering criminal punishment, criminal inquiry and punishment of terrorists, one must ask whether or not offenders actually control the relationship they have with the state and the authorities. Unlike utilitarianism, deontology or consequentialism (which cannot be discussed at length here), virtue ethics argues that ethical decisions cannot be decided based on singular sets of what constitutes ‘good’ moral decision-making (Yankah 2008, p.67). Additionally, virtue ethics commit to particular moralities and highlights the moral challenges that weigh all morally relevant features. Features of moral relevance include behaviors, intentions and dispositions. That being said, in reference to what has been previously discussed regarding terrorism, it becomes clear that dispositions clearly influence terrorism and terrorist actions. Therefore, when interrogated, torturing or employing tactics of extraordinary rendition and unlawful detention, authorities such as the DoD forget about the dispositions that lead to the terrorist actions in the first place. However, murder is not morally justified, and it cannot be contended that terrorist actions are ‘just’, but for the purposes of this discussion, the DoD should increase information circulation and understanding in order to effectively curb terrorism.

Potential Improvements for Justice Concerning Terrorism: Concluding Remarks

One solution that should be considered is a reevaluation of the internal separation of powers. There is little evidence that the internal separation of powers, namely powers such as the DoD, DoJ, CIA, and other governing and independent bodies meant to protect national security, that this separation actually protects individual and human rights (Sinnar 2013, p.1027). Currently, Inspectors General are playing roles in monitoring the practices of national security that often obscure or don’t abide to individual rights as prisoners written in to law by ruling documents such as those written out in the Geneva Convention (meant to protect special persons and/or prisoners of war). Investigations across groups such as the DoD, CIA, Homeland Security, and DoJ vary in rigor and independence, and different agencies are held to different standards, which further mitigates the problems faced in human justice, terrorism, and the violation of basic human rights. While Inspectors General are well suited to increase transparency and standardization while evaluating proprietary national security conduct, their independence is undermined (Sinnar 2013, p. 1027). One of the reasons their independence is undermined is the secrecy at which national security actors employ, which alludes to questions of liberty and ethics.

Additionally, CDR Phillip Pattee contends that the ‘domains of warfare’ (namely cognitive, social, informative, and physical) need improvement (2008). In the physical domain, the DoD has made vast improvements of exploiting new technology weapons and systems but has made far less progress of understanding and exploiting proponents that affect the ways in which actors think about war, handling terrorists, and rethinking the rules. The DoD, according to Pattee, needs to investigate new approaches to national security, and there also needs to be more communication and less secrecy across ‘networks’ aimed at protecting national security (2008). This means that secrecy and understanding, not technology, threaten to undermine effective national security, and subsequently, combatting terrorism.

The DoD and the functions of the DoD, while limited, are extremely influential and have the potential to be more influential across authoritative bodies. When it comes to justice, it can be difficult to navigate terrorism and determine best practice. However, certain consequences, such as the criminal profiling and unlawful detainment of the innocent and also the violation of human rights of the guilty, does not seem to be as effective in combatting terrorism as the DoD hopes for. The DoD is challenged with the issues of secrecy and the backlash of unethical tactics used in interrogation tactics. The DoD should increase communication across authoritative bodies, establish more concrete rules for the ethical treatment of prisoners of war and terrorists, and focus on the social issues rather than the technological issues when combatting terrorism. This means that the United States could expect increased transparency as well as increased abilities to determine best practice in communication with different authoritative bodies as well as the public when it comes to terrorism and terrorist threat.


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