As a former terrorist (in Palestine, 1946-47), let me tell you that Gordon Brown is right to extricate the UK from Iraq, but he is dead wrong when he argues that suicide bombers can be deterred in the same way as criminals. “Terrorism is not a cause; it is a crime,” Mr Brown recently said. Someone needs to explain to the new British prime minister that changing labels does not modify what is in the bottle.

More important, suicide bombers, as a rule, cannot be hauled into a court, or brought to justice, or deterred by the threat of life in prison. What gives pause to criminals has little effect on terrorists. We had a cause – independence from Britain – and nothing, not even hanging, slowed us down.

Moreover, typically criminals do not set out to terrorise a nation, to change its policies or replace its regime. Criminals do not aspire to use weapons of mass destruction and do not commit suicide as a tactic in pursuit of some collective goal. Because the threats posed by terrorists are of a much higher magnitude than those posed by criminals, curbing terrorism requires a different approach to that of law enforcement. The first goal in dealing with terrorists must be prevention, not prosecution, which takes place after the act has been committed and is the way society limits criminality.

To hold that terrorists cannot be treated as criminals is not to suggest that the “war on terrorism” is the best metaphor or that they are to be treated as soldiers. As I see it, both images – along with the strategies, tactics and laws they invoke – are misleading. It is best to view terrorists as a distinct category. Unlike bona fide soldiers, terrorists do not wear uniforms indicating which government is responsible for their acts. They frequently and easily pass themselves off as civilians, leading to a unique set of burdens on those who must fight them. This is what I did when I helped blow up British installations in Palestine, erected to prevent Jews escaping Nazi Europe from reaching their new homeland.

Terrorists are surely entitled to basic human rights, as are all human beings. However, we cannot allow them full access to all the evidence against them, which criminals are entitled to, without creating unacceptable security risks. I favour allowing terrorists to choose among lawyers who have security clearance, allowing these lawyers to see the government evidence but not sources and methods. Terrorists should not be detained endlessly without being charged in a court of law, but the government should have a right to hold them longer than regular criminals to allow time for finding their partners before it is disclosed that they have been captured.

Up to a point these anti-terrorism measures can be viewed as merely modifications of the criminal justice system. However, given their scope and number, in effect they amount to a different approach. This is most evident when we acknowledge that prevention requires questioning and even detaining people who have not yet violated any law.

In short, although one might differ about how far one can go in trying to deter terrorism, and how to proceed, one may still agree that it makes little sense to treat terrorists either as criminals or as soldiers. At issue is not a matter of neat classifications, but ways to maintain the institutions of a free society while also protecting it from devastating attacks.

The good news is that while Mr Brown and Jacqui Smith, his home secretary, please the left wing of the Labour party with their “terrorists are merely criminals” rhetoric, their actions speak louder then their protestations. Mr Brown is moving to tighten the border controls, extend the period a suspected terrorist can be held without charge and require visa applicants to submit to biometric screening. These are all tougher anti-terrorist measures, not applied to criminals.

As a sociologist, I am aware that labels make a difference – up to a point. However, we should not assume that referring to terrorists as criminals will please the communities to which terrorists claim to give voice. And we will still have to ensure that these new tough measures will be used only against terrorists and not against the rest of us.

The writer was a member of the Palmach underground in British Palestine. He is professor of international relations at The George Washington University and his most recent book is Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale University Press)

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