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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914

USHS Blog

14 December 2015

Paths through Policy: The Historical Roots of CT Approaches

In the wake of the frightful terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent manhunt in Brussels, it has once again become clear that, although security services cooperate intensively across state borders, much depends on local and national policies and approaches. Bureaucracies and policy-making institutions are relatively vast constructions within post-industrial and highly complex societies. Therefore, bureaucratic changes often occur in gradual and time-consuming ways. The creation of a more general approach to fight terrorism or the adaptation of new policies might therefore not be as easy as some hasty populist rhetoric suggests: new measures strongly relate to historical path dependence and societal roots. Historical examples can illustrate why some counterterrorist approaches have grown to become as omnipresent as they have in particular societies.

Counterterrorism operation by members of the Berkeley County Police Department Special Response Team. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Counterterrorism operation by members of the Berkeley County Police Department Special Response Team. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

The Past of Counterterrorism Policies

For many countries, the fight against modern terrorism cannot just be traced back to the violent 1970s, but even to the late nineteenth century. In fin-de-siècle Europe, vicious anarchists bombed cafés, restaurants and theatres and attempted assassinations on policemen, monarchs and presidents. For over a decade, fear of an international campaign of political violence ruled the Western world – comparable in scope to present-day anxieties. In turn, the countermeasures which were developed back then can be traced back to cultural and societal developments of even earlier times. Policies have always been rooted in countries’ historical heritage, resulting in a diverse range of national approaches. Each major European city was characterised by its own engagement with potential terrorists and supposedly dangerous migrants – an assumed linkage that is currently worded as explicitly as ever. Simultaneously, nineteenth-century police authorities intensified cross-border cooperation. Terrorist violence was perceived to be transnational, and thus the means to counter it had to fit this outlook. The policemen of the era felt the urge to exchange knowledge and information (or just plain inspiration) in order to develop new policing methods.

Historical Police Cultures in Comparison

This shared sense of urgency was clearly present in 1898. The chief commissioner of the Amsterdam police, Jacob Franken, visited various foreign capitals in anticipation of the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina. Abroad, Franken studied the various modes to guard monarchs and presidents against acts of violence. After his return, Franken concluded that, although many approaches appeared to be a success, each approach was ultimately limited to the specific context in which it had originated. ‘As a police organisation is so deeply rooted within the lives of the people,’ he argued, ‘its appearance and performance should take into account the nature and spirit of a specific population’.

For instance, he disparaged on Brussels police for being highly divided and lacking in internal communication. Paris, Franken thought on the other hand, possessed one of the most well-developed detective departments in the world.Yet the Parisian officers took a rather harsh, repressive approach against all forms of political radicalism.

Police violence after social uprising in Paris' suburb Clichy, 1 May 1891. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Police violence after social uprising in Paris’ suburb Clichy, 1 May 1891. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Repression reaped new violence, and renewed violence renewed repression. Between 1892 and 1894 more than thirty attacks took place in the French capital. Even residing near anarchists provided the police with a motive for arrests, while violent anarchists held in custody simply awaited the guillotine. London’s Metropolitan Police completely opposed such overly repressive lines of action and advised the Dutch authorities not to take any security measures during Wilhelmina’s coronation. Such measures, even if invisible to the public, would merely generate unrest, they claimed.

In the Netherlands, foreign study trips, like Franken’s travels, helped bring about the transfer of new technologies and connections. Personal records and photographs of dangerous anarchists were, without legislative limitations, shared with foreign counterparts, and registration lists developed. Meanwhile, the Dutch police and government, much like the British, were reluctant to operate with a high public profile. Political calls for tolerance towards migrants combined with lessons from the past, like that of the public commotion that broke out after socialist arrests in the 1880s. Not willing to direct attention to socialism or anarchism, this resulted in the absence of any governmental publicity concerning terrorism. Attention, after all, would only provide what terrorists were aiming for. Similarly, political refugees were welcome to reside within the Dutch borders, as long as they did not endanger public order.

Balancing Acts: Dualities of Policy
Candles in Paris, 19 November 2015. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Candles in Paris, 19 November 2015. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Overall, both from an historical and contemporary perspective, distinctions can be made between countries that developed modern services for surveillance and registration, and countries that combined such developments with openly harsh police measures. The distinction is that between a certain tolerance on the one hand and a repressive approach on the other. Although some present policymakers witness the ‘soft power’ line of action as a recent invention, a post-9/11 novelty, it can actually be traced back to the early twentieth century, when a general tolerance developed into more active measures of prevention. For example, policemen increasingly paid attention to the influence of social childhood circumstances in the individual development of criminal behaviour.

To illustrate this distinction: Dutch counterterrorism responses were lastingly characterised by pragmatism, restraint and tolerance, and today this is reflected in policies of preventing school leave, helping people to internships or job opportunities and making use of family mediation. Recently, a youth worker in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny stressed ‘the danger that the French state authorities will emphasize even more on repression after the latest attacks.’ He named the Netherlands and Denmark as countries where the balance between repression and prevention is more even. Changes within CT policy, however, do not materialize overnight and are strongly dependent on societies’ historical experiences and cultural specificities. Still, even an acknowledgement of the historical roots of such policy would be a start in measuring out this balance.