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War on crime adversely affects war on terrorism, professor says

The U.S. government’s war on domestic crime and punishment has left it poorly prepared to deal with the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism, according to a former U-M professor.

Simon (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Jonathan Simon, formerly an assistant professor of political science at U-M, returned to campus Oct. 9 to deliver the lecture, “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Fearful: Governing America Through Fear of Crime before 9/11 and Since,” as part of the International Institute’s Comparative Study of Social Transformations (CSST) program.

“It is clear to me the great bulk of our system of security is not even remotely interested in (the terrorists) or their plot,” said Simon, now a professor of law at the University of Miami. “The plotters who murdered 3,000 people were not born addicted to crack, did not blow off school or do drugs. We should be carefully monitoring the people arrested, punished and deported in this war on terrorism to make sure the government is targeting people who act like terrorists instead of look like them.”

Meanwhile, Simon said, the country has a vast security system ready to seize a 16-year-old with an open beer bottle.

“We should be very concerned that we spend such a large portion of our resources managing the 3 percent of the adult population that is in the justice system, none of whom was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks,” he said. “There seems to be no talk about redirecting our resources to fight a war on terrorism.”

Simon said the focus on crime and punishment since the terrorist attacks has given rise to claims that, before Sept. 11, America was a country with little fear of violence, and that since the attacks, the federal government has launched an assault on the civil liberties of citizens, residents and visitors to the United States.

Instead, he said, fear of crime in America, particularly armed violence, has reshaped the collective lives of Americans and the country’s institutions since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

“The fear of crime can have a more powerful effect on people and neighborhoods than crime itself,” said Simon. “Fear of crime governs us in our choices of where to live, where to work, where to send our children to school. And those choices are made with increasing reference to crime.”

This fear of crime has caused Americans to engage in an unprecedented buildup of mechanisms of punishment and social control, he said. He cited statistics showing a rise in the number of Americans in prison or jail from 110 for every 110,000 people before 1980 to 700 for every 100,000 people during the past 20 years.

Simon said the incarceration of two million Americans is an obvious way to govern through crime. Other signs of the trend are the rise of gated communities and the building of public schools with metal detectors and security forces, he said.

That focus on domestic crime and governing through the fear of crime, he said, will hurt America if it faces a very real war on terrorism.

“The war on crime has been a massive redirection of government effort, and among the side effects is that we are no safer, and a good deal less safe, in the face of terror,” he said. “We are hampered in our ability to deploy human labor and the administrative resources necessary to respond to a serious war on terrorism if we are faced with one.”

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