There's debate over whether terrorism should be treated more as a criminal matter or as a national security matter — as something that should be fought more with the police or more with the military. One perspective usually missing from this debate is that of criminologists themselves. Criminologists are experts on the nature of crime, the origins of crime, and how to best fight crime.
So what do criminologists think of terrorism? What do criminologists think about how well terrorism fits in the category of crime and how much our knowledge of crime can help us fight terrorism? There seems to be one primary resource on this, Criminologists on Terrorism and Homeland Security, edited by Brian Forst, Jack R. Greene, James P. Lynch. This is a huge collection of essays from leading criminologist across America and it provides new perspectives that are much needed in any debate or discussion about terrorism.
The editors write in their preface to Criminologists on Terrorism and Homeland Security:
Criminology has amassed a rich body of literature ranging from individual motivations toward crime and antisocial behavior, small group dynamics in cultivating and reinforcing deviant subgroups, organized and networked crime syndicates and their use of technology to create and exploit criminal opportunities, and more broadly defined cultural orientations toward the social order.
Criminology has also studied policies and programs to prevent and respond to crime, as well as ones aimed at mitigating the consequences of criminal behavior. This book explores the prospect of putting this alternative perspective to service to help understand terrorism and develop policies to prevent or mitigate its effects.
Terrorism is, to be sure, an extraordinary manifestation of aggression and crime. Still, it has more in common with conventional forms of crime than is widely acknowledged. Like crime generally, terrorism is produced predominantly by young, alienated males with little stake in legitimate society, operating typically in small groups.
It is geopolitical, but it is also a crime in the jurisdictions in which it occurs. It is no coincidence that the burden of protecting the public against hostile aggressors has shifted from the Department of Defense and the military to the Department of Homeland Security and the police. In important ways all terrorism is local in terms of impact.
David Klinger and Charles "Sid" Heal write about the similarities between different forms of aggression and thus the similarities between terrorism and other sorts of crime. Wayman Mullins and Quint Thurman discuss how different choices about the definition of "terrorism" can proceed not from neutral observation but rather from an ideological agenda. Bryan Vila and Joanne Savage discuss an evolutionary and biological approach to the causes of violence and crime, applying the insights of this to terrorism as well.
David Curry is an authority on gangs and gang violence and he applies his expertise to terrorism, writing about some of the very interesting similarities between traditional gang violence and acts of terrorism. The two are by no means identical and there are many differences, but the similarities are striking nonetheless.
Brian Forst writes about how many of the strategies used to address terrorism may actually make terrorism worse. Increased security measures can increase fear, thus giving terrorists some of what they want; counter-attacks can radicalize those who are still moderate or nonviolent.
Cynthia Lum and Christopher Koper compare and contrast terrorism and crime from the perspective of how to prevent them and focus on the fact that terrorism, being so rare, is harder to prevent and control than regular sorts of crime.
John Braithwaite proposes the unusual idea of trying to treat terrorism more as a public heath concern rather than a national security matter. This may seem bizarre, but it has some potential advantages: both focus on rare events that may not be entirely preventable but can be contained, both can require heightened security for short periods of time, both can be fought with incentives that encourage different behavior in people, and both can be better managed with regulation than with military force.