Ethical & Legal Issues in The Fight Against Terrorism

Technology, Extradition, & Relativism

Ethical & Legal Issues in The Fight Against Terrorism

Terrorism presents a serious ethical and legal challenge in the US because in order to fight it law enforcement must use invasive tactics such as broader surveillance powers. Prior to 9/11 Americans did not really look at concepts such as freedom and security as a balancing act. I think this is a large change and we been forced to look at rights as a more flexible concept during national security issues and events such as 9/11. These are unusual events that often require a more militant approach. It has happened in the past, where the President has declared martial law. Lincoln did it during the Civil War and when the war ended martial was revoked. These examples show how the government does not desire to take away all rights but does want to have control when it is necessary.

Most Americans realize that the government cannot protect its citizens from domestic and international terrorism while preserving individual civil liberties entirely. This is a huge ethical and legal quandary. The loss of civil liberties may be a necessary inconvenience in order to stop terrorism. If American’s desire to be safe, then they need to be willing to submit to the loss of freedom at least to some degree. The problem the US is facing is that fundamentalist terrorists are not the same as fighting an obvious enemy such as in a war. The US is fighting groups who see nothing wrong with strapping a bomb to themselves and running into a crowded building. Profiling such an enemy without resorting to some invasive tactics may be impossible (Matt A. Mayer, 2011). Even technology will not solve this issue in the immediate future because the technology is not there to find people or weapons (Nova, 2013). The Boston Bombing shows how difficult it can be to find suspects or to identify them prior to the act.

Technology & The Constitution

Part of the issue is the fact that the US Constitution is a flexible document that is open to interpretation. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because it definitively protects freedom and privacy but it is a bad thing because it does not always describe in detail the level of protection. In many ways, the constitution is so general in nature that the argument for privacy becomes a matter of intense scrutiny and interpretation. As well, the arguments become confounded by the modern world and the technology of today. In many instances, the wiretap laws of today are extremely outdated even though these laws are not that old. These laws were designed for telephones not for text messaging, cell phones, and email. The main interpretation, for communication privacy, comes from the Wire Tap Act of 1968 (№03–1383., 2004). In so far as laws are concerned, 1968 is not that old for a law and definitely has not reached the status of a Blue Law (antiquated law seldom followed or enforced).

Much of the communication that takes place today is done via the internet. This gap between technology and updated laws presents a problem where judges are forced to interpret old laws or set precedent for these new technologies. The real injustice for many would reside in the interpretation of laws by judges when allowing evidence obtained by police using wiretaps and spyware software. However, these interpretations may be necessary in order to fight terrorism.

As a result of the need for broad police and surveillance powers, the Patriot Act was created but quickly became a source of controversy. While intended to match the law with contemporary terrorist issues, the law came under serious scrutiny by many legal watchdog groups with the primary opposition relating to its constitutionality (Abramson & Godoy, 2006). The Patriot Act was revised and such that new subpoenas are not as broad reaching (Abramson & Godoy, 2006). In the context of national security, the Patriot Act continues to be a source of argument concerning privacy and police powers but has arguably done more to fight terrorism than any law prior.

The Extradition & Jurisdiction Issue

The major obstacle to the extradition of terrorists is the fact that in order to extradite a person from a country on criminal charges, the country that is harboring this person must have a treaty with the US that outlines extradition agreements. This is an extremely problematic area of law because, for obvious cases of murder, countries with these agreements would have no issue with the extradition of the person. However, even countries with agreements can refuse extradition if the crime the person is accused of is not a crime in the country harboring them. For example, Roman Polanski was a fugitive from the US and lived in France for most of his life because the French government refused to extradite him due to issues with his case in the US.

Polanski fled to France in 1978 only after learning during a discussion with the district attorney outside a Los Angeles courtroom that the judge in his case was preparing to sentence him to more prison time and require his voluntary deportation (Fisher, 2009).

Another major hurdle with extradition is the paperwork and administration. Each country requires different types of documentation and this can create issues with extraditing an individual. At the least, it offers them time to escape to another country. All countries have issues with extradition including the US. The US routinely harbors refugees and political activists who are considered criminals in their own country but because their actions do not break US law they are allowed to stay.

The greatest barrier for law enforcement to contend with in the fight against terrorism is the problem of geography or jurisdiction. Because terrorist groups commit crimes on a global scale, they can operate from anywhere in the world. This limits law enforcement from dealing with these groups properly because of jurisdictional issues. However, military solutions are not effective options in most cases because they require declarations of war and this creates massive political issues since every country has a different policy concerning what constitutes terrorism. Military options are also costly in terms of human casualties, trade, and cost.

There are many legal limitations that law enforcement faces but these are often more effective to navigate than using military force. For example, having to obtain extradition can be made difficult because of the differences in countries but there are often leverage points with this area such as using trade or sanctions.


There is definitely a relativistic quality to US policy with terrorism. Relativism refers to culture inclusive of the shared beliefs, attitudes, practices, and values that characterize a group of people. Ethnic subdivisions such as language, customs, behaviors, and religion define a group’s unique cultural identity. Culture can present many problems such as cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. For example, many people think in terms of cultural relativism, meaning that they view right and wrong in terms of being culturally specific. This problem is most evident in the Middle East which has been one long string of waffling policies and changing loyalties. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the US backed Osama Bin Laden and his rebels. Today these groups are our enemy. The problem is that the US has heavy economic interests in the Middle East and this has been a constant thorn with policymaking.

This is problematic because if one culture practices a behavior that is unethical to another culture then the behavior would have to be accepted due to the relativistic nature of culture. For example, many western cultures do not agree with the manner in which Middle Eastern people regulate their societies such as women wearing veils but within a cultural relativist view, the western society would have to accept the practice. This has led to another issue known as ethnocentrism which is ethical relativism. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s culture is somehow better, more important, or correct in comparison to other groups. Ethnocentric people make judgment evaluations concerning other cultures from the point of view of their own cultural system. Typically these judgments are focused on differences in behaviors, language, religion, customs, and other examples of ethnic distinctions defining cultural identity. Using the same example of the Middle East, often western policy is aimed at changing the norms and practices of these eastern cultures such as democratization. If one good thing came out of 9/11 is the act that the US began increasing its oil production domestically. Freeing the US dependence on Middle East oil may result in more consistent policy and actions.


Abramson, L., & Godoy, M. (2006, February 14). The patriot act: Key controversies. Retrieved 2017, from NPR:

Fisher, L. (2009) Roman Polanski: What did he do? Retrieved from

Matt A. Mayer, J. J. (2011, August 23). Homeland Security 4.0: Overcoming Centralization, Complacency, and Politics. Retrieved from The Heritage Foundation:

№03–1383. (2004, June 29). United States Court of Appeals,First Circuit.NITED STATES of America, Appellant, v. Bradford C. COUNCILMAN, Defendant, Appellee. Retrieved from Find Law:

Nova. (2013, May 29). Manhunt — Boston Bombers. Retrieved from Nova:

Ramsey, M. D. (2004, April 4). Can the President Terminate the ABM Treaty? . Retrieved from The Federalist Society:


Vincent Triola. Wed, Jan 27, 2021. Ethical & Legal Issues in The Fight Against Terrorism Retrieved from

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