Do Revelations of Injustice Increase Violence?

Activists protest the US’ use of torture in front of the Supreme Court. By Justin Norman.

By Erica Chenoweth

Activists protest the US' use of torture in front of the Supreme Court. By Justin Norman.
Activists protest the US’ use of torture in front of the Supreme Court. By Justin Norman.

Critics of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture suggest that the report will heighten anti-American sentiment, give fuel to jihadist groups who wish to target the United States, and ultimately make Americans less safe.

This rhetoric is baseless if unsurprising. In reality, there is no real systematic evidence to suggest that revelations of brutality lead to more violence.

There is considerable evidence, however, that actual brutality (i.e. human rights violations, military invasions, and other forms of state violence during occupations) is associated with subsequent increases in terrorist attacks. Many people have referred to this effect in Iraq and Afghanistan—cases where foreign invasions and human rights violations clearly exacerbated rather than reduced violence. But plenty more scholarly studies  indicate that states that rely on violence (especially indiscriminate and/or extrajudicial violence) to combat terrorism almost always end up prolonging terrorist campaigns rather than rooting them out.

Research by James Piazza and James Igoe Walsh show that states that violate physical integrity rights experience higher levels of subsequent terror attacks. Seung-Whan Choi finds a similar effect with regard to civil rights practices in general. Laura Dugan and I find that in the Israeli case, from 1987-2004 indiscriminate repression generally increased Palestinian violence, whereas more conciliatory counterterrorism measures (such as offers of negotiation or even public admissions of government abuses of Palestinians) tended to reduce subsequent violent incidents. And several others have shown that while British military strategies in Northern Ireland generally increased dissident violence, negotiations effectively ended it. Still other studies convincingly argue that criminal justice measures against those who have actually committed criminal acts are perfectly adequate in combating and deterring terror attacks.

In other words, brutal state strategies to counter “terrorism” are usually unnecessary – and they are more likely to backfire than to succeed.

There is also convincing evidence that even though such measures are visibly ineffective in defeating violent dissent, states rarely stop torturing until the domestic political costs of continued abuses become intolerably high. And those costs don’t begin to stack up without public revelations such as these. Popular pressure is apparently necessary for states to put an end to these practices, and truth-telling about brutality is probably necessary for popular pressure to develop.

In short, revelations of human rights violations don’t increase violence. Actual human rights violations do. If critics of the report are truly concerned about making Americans safer, they should pay attention to this vast body of empirical evidence and swiftly promote and adopt laws that permanently end these and other ongoing practices that violate basic human rights. Word of warning: they might need a little popular pressure to do so.

  1. It is also essential to point out that not only violations by occupiers increase subsequent terrorist attacks, but repression in general by any government leads to further dissent. It is also shown empirically in the works of Christian Davenport and Susan Hyde.

  2. In addition, it’s the perception of violence and torture, as well as word of mouth, that leads to more violence rather than official releases. By the time there is an official release, rumors and half-truths would have made their rounds.

  3. Thanks for the studies showing that tough counterterrorist measures are counterproductive. It’s going to be interesting to read them. I have two questions though:

    1) Don’t Jones and Libicki (2008) show or argue that heavy-handed military responses to terrorism are the best option to deal with large terrorist groups, whereas law enforcement is best suited to deal with small terrorist groups (most terrorist groups)? Isn’t there any research that suggests that tough counterterrorist measures work? At the very least, I know that a study on drone strikes by Patrick Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi (2014) show that drone strikes are associated with “decreases in the incidence and lethality of terrorist attacks”.

    2) Doesn’t all that research on the counterproductive nature of tough counterterrorist measures at the very least *suggest* that people have to be *aware* of the human rights violations for them to be counterproductive?

  4. Are there any studies on whether the revelations actually have to be true in order to increase violence or if it is just that they are believed? If so, is there any difference in outcomes versus false v true revelations? This is not a comment on the CIA Report which I have not read but something I’ve wondered about more generally. In Lawrence Wright’s book on the formation of al Queda (The Looming Tower) he mentions that one of the critical factors in finally convincing Mohammed Atta to take the path of terrorism was when he learned of the Jewish conspiracy to murder Moslems in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechyna. Obviously there was no such conspiracy and in fact Jewish organizations were very prominent in urging Western intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. The reality simply did not matter in Atta’s world.. While this is endemic in the Moslem world today one can certainly go back and pick some examples from Europe and America of propaganda used to inflame the populace.

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