Volume 1(2012)

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Terrorist Threats, Executive Powers and Democracy under Siege
Liubomir K. Topaloff

Assistant Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University, Japan.


The state, any state, provides the means without which the individual would not be able to survive and function meaningfully in the society. The state is so far the most complex sociopolitical construct to provide an alternative of what Thomas Hobbes termed ‘a warre, as of every man, against every man.’ Provision of ontological security, however, is not only the state’s main goal, but also it's major source of legitimacy. In the current paper I argue that this source of legitimacy is the real target of terrorist acts. This explains why terrorism, domestic as well as transnational, attracts such attention despite its relatively small impact compared to other sources of ontological insecurity, such as public health threats, car accidents, or crime. To protect itself, the executive engages in a complex strategic behavior to exploit the terrorist threat for its own benefits, a process known as “macro-securitization of a threat” in order to extract emergency powers, to promulgate anti-terrorism laws, and to secure additional budget for its power agencies. This is not a goal in and of itself, but an attempt by the executive to fulfill its role and secure its source of legitimacy. Security in such circumstances takes preponderance, as the argument goes, over democratic principles. In times of crisis, especially in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the general public fantasizes about the power of the state to extend protection, and is willing to trade civil liberties for greater security. The current research demonstrates how the executive constructs the image of external threat, especially in the aftermath of an incident, and uses the anxiety and fear in the society in order to put enormous pressure on the legislator to pass laws that otherwise would not slip through the democratic checks. Once the additional powers are acquired, it becomes increasingly difficult to revert the balance to the status quo ante. In a long run, this could be harmful to the democratic arrangement and institutional balance of power, even in the most consolidated democratic systems. The temporal powers get extended time after time, and in some cases become permanent laws. Historical examples from UK, US and Spain are used to test the validity of the hypothesis.

Keywords:   terrorism, democracy, emergency (antiterrorism) legislation, special executive powers