Terrorism as conventional security for democracies: America, Japan, and military action in the asia-pacific

David Leheny*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Because of their vulnerability both to attack and to political exploitation, democracies face in terrorism a particularly double-edged threat. As other chapters in this volume note, open and liberal societies present a wide array of targets to organizations that would use the space afforded by civil liberties to recruit and plan attacks, and these groups can also count on a relatively free press to publicize and even sensationalize attacks. Terrorist groups are not the only beneficiaries of the expansion of fear. Even one attack-the possible detonation of a "dirty bomb," the release of anthrax in a crowded mall, the deliberate crashing of a passenger plane into a national landmark-might be ruinous. As a result, it might make sense to remove, overcome, or simply ignore the legal and constitutional burdens, no matter how constitutive of democracy itself, that would allow a terrorist to escape detection and capture or allow a captured terrorist to "lawyer up," thumbing his or her nose at desperate investigators as the clock ticks. In this view, the growth of the state's coercive capacity-the amassment of unprecedented government databases with information on virtually all private telephone calls, the suspension of habeas corpus rights and the routinization of violence against terrorist suspects, the increasing abrogation of search-and-seizure restrictions-is simply something to be expected in a time of emergency. But if the health of a democracy is measured at least in part in the robust defense of civil liberties against the powers of the state, even a decline in the risk of an attack may reflect a Pyrrhic victory for citizens and a decisive loss for liberal institutions. In part for this reason, debates over the relationship between democracy and terrorism often build from the liberty-versus-security tension that epitomizes state efforts to combat terrorism. And yet the very reference to security in this equation displays how curious the exclusive focus on law enforcement and intelligence abuses actually is. After all, when scholars discuss "security politics," terrorism represents only a small part of the larger literature; indeed, this was a major source of embarrassment to international relations scholars in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Even as security specialists have argued that we need to address terrorism as a national security concern, they have been slow to develop theoretical frameworks and arguments that incorporate terrorist organizations and state responses into broader debates about how governments pursue national security. And if we consider terrorism more broadly in security debates, the implications for democracies grow even wider and more troubling. Indeed, the character of a democracy is more than the sum of its formal institutions. For example, whatever else is implied by its separation of powers, single-member districts, and federalism, American democracy is incomprehensible in its operation and preoccupations without attention to racial politics, the role of Christianity, and regional economic inequality. French democracy, aside from its mixed presidential/parliamentary system and institutional links to the European Union, is characterized by the nature of its welfare and employment bargains and by postcolonial immigration; together these forces have shaped the nature of inequality and stakeholding in France. And Japanese democracy has long been marked, more than anything else, by a bitter division over the role of the military. In this chapter, I consider the types of challenges that terrorism poses to democratic states in terms of their military activities and efforts, focusing especially on post-9/11 Japan. I describe initially the tensions in Japanese security and counterterrorism policies before 2001, a long postwar period during which Japanese pacifism emanated largely from a political impasse over the state's right to use violence. I then turn to the example of the Iraq War, for which the September 11 attacks helped to break a potential logjam in the aspirations of some Bush administration officials to attack and depose Saddam Hussein's regime; indeed, terrorism in this case seems intimately linked to the political logic underlying a democracy's decision to wage war. In the next section, I argue that this policy was a crucial step outside of the prevailing international framing of international terrorism as a law enforcement issue, a framing that has constrained debate despite the absence of clear evidence that law enforcement is more successful than other approaches, such as the employment of military force or political negotiations. I then turn to debates over the relationships between democracy and the military, arguing that the primary theoretical paradigm used-the "democratic peace" theory-offers, for whatever its problems, at least intellectually coherent if empirically suspicious monadic claims about how democratic institutions might theoretically constrain the use of force. Finally, I return to the discussion of Japan, arguing that the speed and structure of Japan's dramatic military steps since 9/11 can only be understood by examining how those attacks permitted a fundamental reframing of Japan's primary security nightmares as "terrorist" and thus as requiring the same kinds of military tools that the Bush administration had chosen in its "war on terror".

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Consequences of Counterterrorism
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages31
ISBN (Print)9780871540737
Publication statusPublished - 2010 Dec 1
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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