In the UK, political philosophy is a pre-crime

Soldiers of the United States Army Criminal In...

Soldiers of the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division inspecting a crime scene. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only a brave self-confident community can tolerate a man uncompromisingly dedicated to the open quest for truth. –Harry Neumann

On the surface, the idea seems to be ludicrous like something Philip K. Dick might write. He coined the term “pre-crime”[1] to refer to criminalizing thoughts or behaviour before the crime is committed. The idea, better suited to a fervid imaginary world, is now a reality in the United Kingdom (UK). The police and the counter terrorism forces rely on the idea of pre-crime in their work. They call the time and space before a crime occurs as the pre-criminal space, which they want to manage or influence to prevent the crime.[2] It is not enough to punish the crime after it occurs, they want to prevent the crime.

The UK, like the United States, faces terrorist threats. To counter these threats, which they classify as threats to national security, they have developed counter terrorism strategies. The strategies combine law enforcement and national security in a way that requires the existence of a pre-criminal space. Traditionally, law enforcement was what occurred within a state and international politics outside of it. Thus, many states have laws against using their own foreign intelligence agencies for domestic purposes. Moreover, many states will not recognize the authority of law enforcement officers who come inside their borders.

The pre criminal space is a common term in counter terrorism work with the focus on preventing something from happening. It exists before an event which would be a crime under domestic legislation or an act of war in the international realm. However, the goal is not to reduce the opportunities to commit crimes or change the context in which crimes are committed as it in in law enforcement. However, the duality of domestic and international becomes blurred as law enforcement becomes national security.

In the Counter Terrorism Act 2015[3] (CTA2015), which is part of the UK’s Counter Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST), public sector organisations have a duty to prevent terrorism. The PREVENT pillar of CONTEST explains how they will discharge that duty.[4] To help public sector organisations, the government issued guidance and training called “Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent” (WRAP). In the workshop guidance, the government says that terrorism begins in the pre-criminal space.

The government wants to manage the pre-criminal space as it believes this to be the only way to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. With the PREVENT strategy, the government wants public sector organization to identify and support vulnerable individuals at risk of being groomed in to terrorist activity. They want to prevent these individuals from being radicalized. The strategy says that radicalisation is comparable to other forms of exploitation; it is therefore a safeguarding issue staff working in the health sector must be aware of.[5]

Formally, only a court can determine who is a criminal as they are space in which verdicts are reached. The court does not label someone ‘terrorist’. [6]  By contrast, counter terrorism exists within a political sphere that seeks to identify future terrorists so they can be punished, if necessary, without charge, prosecution or conviction. [7] In the pre-crime space, a person’s behaviour, speech, or thought is enough for the state to act. In particular, the state will act to prevent radicalisation that convinces and encourages people to carry out terrorist acts. As the pre criminal space is where the pre-crime of the radicalisation process begins, the PREVENT strategy focuses on it. However, the criminalisation of potential behaviour is not limited to radicalisation that leads to terrorism.

The potential consequences of your actions can make you a criminal

In the UK, various counter terrorism legislation criminalizes activity based on potential consequences even though no crime or event occurs. For example, if you sell something to a terrorist, even if you do not know they are a terrorist, you can be prosecuted for the sale.[8] The CTA2015 continues the pre-emptive trajectory so that if you speak and thus think about radicalisation or extremism you can be charged with a crime. As mentioned earlier, the goal is to prevent or stop radicalisation. To fulfil this duty, the government created the CHANNEL duty for all public authorities which is a police coordinated multi-agency programme, to identify and provide support to people at risk of radicalisation, the vulnerable person.[9] As radicalisation manifests itself in a variety of ways such as changed behaviour and changed language, the CHANNEL process reminds its members to be vigilant and report *any* concerns. When a person is radicalised, they are encouraged to see violence and breaking the law as a way to solve their problem.[10] Even though many people who are radicalized are not violent, they are encouraged to see violence as a possible if not *the* solution.[11] At its root, what the strategy seeks to prevent is someone going from words to deeds. The public believe that the law only applies to extremists with extremists only those who advocate violence. However, everyone seems to miss the fact that the laws apply to everyone. Everyone, by definition, is a potential terrorist awaiting radicalisation in the pre criminal space. Everyone lives within a pre criminal space according to the strategy. We are all pre criminals awaiting the opportunity to act.

How does this relate to political philosophy?

The short answer is everything. The process by which radicalisation occurs is the same process by which someone is awakened to philosophy with the same potential outcome.[12] When the government literature describes the radicalisation process they also describe how Socrates behaved. He taught his students to question authority. He also suggested that Athens was not the ideal society and that its gods were not worth following. Moreover, one of his followers, Alcibiades was know for genocidal talk when he said “The un-examined life is not worth living.”  If Socrates were alive in the UK today, he would be considered a radicaliser. Even though he never encouraged violence for political change his writings showed dissatisfaction with the existing political regime and he was known to have tyrants and potential tyrants as his students. He would be immediately suspect under the Prevent strategy. He tried to replace opinion about the best way of life with knowledge of the best way of life. Such activity is by its nature designed to challenge if not change opinion about the current way to life. Leo Strauss described philosophy’s threat.

“In studying certain earlier thinkers, I became aware of this way of conceiving the relation between the quest for truth (philosophy or science) and society: Philosophy or science, the highest activity of man, is the attempt to replace opinion about “all things” by knowledge of “all things”; but opinion is the element of society; philosophy or science is therefore the attempt to dissolve the element in which society breathes, and thus it endangers society.”[13]

At the best of time, even in a regime as tolerant of inquiry as Athens was, the activity is dangerous. We know that Athens killed Socrates for they could no longer tolerate his threat to their way of life. His inquiry was too extreme for the city.[14] They had to close off some ideas from inquiry for he was corrupting the youth and did not believe in the city’s gods. In its own way, the Prevent strategy closes off some thought as criminal. Socrates understood that by suppressing him, Athens was hurt itself more than it hurt him.

According to Socrates, the suppression of free inquiry for any reason necessarily corrupts its victims.[15]

Yet, the society cannot exist if it does not suppress those opinions which threaten it. The tension between society and the individual is what makes philosophy a dangerous activity.

Political philosophy is reportable activity under the Counter Terrorism Act 2015

In the UK, such philosophical activity would have to be reported to the police as it would be considered pre-crime.[16] Anyone who discusses the best life, a life that did not conform to the orthodoxy, would be considered to have attempted to radicalize their listeners. You will have encouraged them to think that the regime may not be just, beneficent, or legitimate.[17] As Strauss explained in The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws

The quest for the best laws seems to compel the Athenians to transcend the laws of Athens and to become the pupils of an enemy of Athens—to act in a way which could appear to be unpatriotic. p.1

Socrates teaching implied that the basis for ruling was either wisdom or pure consent. Both of these would challenge any regime’s legitimacy. Even though Socrates never sought political office, we know that many of his followers were tyrants or would be tyrants. As a result, he was considered disreputable for he was accused of teaching the tyrannical art. In today’s language, he would be charged with having radicalized his students.

Philosophers used to be able to protect themselves, now there is no place or way to hide.

Philosophers[18] usually protect themselves by philosophizing in private.[19] We note that Plato’s Republic, which discusses the best city, occurred in private household at night and Plato’s Laws occurred during a secluded walk to a cave. Yet, if such behaviour was discovered, it would need to be reported to the police. Another way the philosopher might be able to avoid the charges against him would be to write esoterically. In this the philosopher would avoid talking directly about the topic so as to avoid upsetting the censors. The problem is that under the Counter Terrorism Act, the censor is no longer the government, it is the public. Everyone has a duty to report such behaviour for the failure to report it would make the person an accessory to a pre-crime. Philosophy is now impossible. One can only talk of the orthodoxy for to discuss heterodox views is to be reported to the police. Philosophy that conforms to or confirms the orthodoxy becomes ideology. What is surprising is that all of this has occurred without even a whimper from the country’s leading thinkers. In a sense, it suggests that philosophy, in particular political philosophy, has ended. Philosophy’s end, though, is not because history has ended or we have reached a liberal democratic future, it because as Leo Strauss argued in On Tyranny, all societies seek to tyrannize thought.[20]

Why do people obey the law or do we educate the young to be citizens?

The public who find the political order benefits them see no reason to challenge it or question it. The laws work for them. The political system listens to them, gives them a voice, and delivers for them. They obey the laws as they appear legitimate. They are educated, in a sense, to see the system as legitimate. The laws appear legitimate for the benefits they provide. As part of the education, the citizen is encouraged to believe the regime, which creates the laws, exists by consent and thus serves their interests. As people see Parliament elected, they believe the appearance backed by the laws, which creates a powerful barrier to challenge or change it. Even civil disobedience or an attack on the regime through speech if not by deed, would require someone to overcome the regime’s appearance of legitimacy before change could occur. Such an education, one counter to the regime’s, is now impossible. The terrorism policy, guidance, and training reinforce the status quo by indicating any other education is radicalism. As a result, any inequality political, economic, or social is permanent or nearly permanent as pre-crime can stifle any dissent. It is only enough to show that such thought or speech threatens the regime with the potential that it could lead to terrorist activity to be sanctioned. Even though the policy, the guidance, and the government are at pains to deny or at least downplay that possible outcome, it exists.[21] They will, rightly, point to the guidance that says that some discussion or debate is tolerated. They avoid the obvious point, though, that it can be used to identify would be radicals. Moreover, such discussion can only occur with the understanding the speakers were either authorised by the state or acting as criminals.[22] However, the law creates its own perversity, which undermines the idea of free inquiry which is supposed to support the state.

The government approves all change to maintain the status quo.

The government never asks “Why do people obey”. They take it for granted that people will obey and the order is legitimate. The government acts on the belief that the political system is open to peaceful change where the public domain allows ideas to be discussed even those that might challenge the limits of orthodoxy. In this fashion, they believe that the system is tolerant. They cannot truly understand why people disobey or want to change the political system by persuasion or by violence if necessary. Yet to discuss such an issue, reveals pre-crime’s perverse paradox. To ask why people obey and what makes the political system legitimate or good is to engage in political philosophy. Such an activity, especially outside of an academic setting such as this blog, would be to engage in pre-crime. It raises questions about the regime that could be described as the process to radicalization. The constraints mean that we cannot question the status quo as legitimate and just *even if* we know that it is not. Moreover, we cannot discuss why it is just or what makes it just.[23] The public must not question authority or the status quo for that is to engage in pre-crime.

In the UK 2015, we now have a law that forbids philosophy. You may wish to ask how we came to this point, but if you do, though, you can be charged with a crime.

[1] In his short story, The Minority Report, Dick named the criminal justice agency “Precrime”. The agency worked to identify and eliminate those who will commit crimes in the future. In a sense Dick was following an earlier tradition that believed that some people were born criminals and those criminal traits could be identified and therefore predicted, criminals would have children who were criminals, and thus prevented. Today, counter terrorism agencies try to prevent events from occurring so they seek to anticipate the threats which leads them to view any temporal or physical realm as a pre-crime space. In effect, anything before a crime occurs is a pre-crime space, which allows counter terrorism, in its effort to prevent an event, to combine law enforcement and national security without reconciling the tension between the two. As McCulloch and Pickering point out, there is a tension between the two as law enforcement relies on the idea of impartial criminal justice while national security is partisan and politically charged. Jude McCulloch and Sharon Pickering Pre-Crime and Counter Terrorism: Imagining Future Crime in the “War on Terror” British Journal of Criminology 2009 49 (5) 628-645

[2] See ACPO guidance for the management of extremist speakers 2015


[4] 1.12. Our counter-terrorism strategy will continue to be organised around four work streams, each comprising a number of key objectives• Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks;• Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism;• Protect: to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack; and• Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack.

[5] NHS England – Prevent Training and Competencies Framework p. 5

[6] McCulloch and Pickering p. 630

[7] See McCulloch and Pickering 2009 p. 629-630

[8] See for example section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006. as described by Lucia Zedner (2010) Pre-crime and pre-punishment: a health warning, Criminal Justice Matters, 81:1, 24-25, DOI: 10.1080/09627251.2010.505409

[9] The language always stresses that the person who is radicalised is vulnerable. Often times, it is suggested that if they are a potential target they are impaired in some way. It suggests that radicalisation is a pathology which needs a medical response. The question that the government cannot answer is what to do with someone like Martin Heidegger who was radicalised into an extremist ideology? Would he be a vulnerable person under this system? How would the CHANNEL and PREVENT system deal with him? Would he be banned from teaching?

[10] There are a variety of models on the radicalisation process. Most agree that it is a process with debate over the stages, whether the states are distinct, whether one stage is more important than another and whether the right stages are identified.

The UK Prevent Strategy describes it as “Radicalisation refers to the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism.”

[11] See for example Alex Schmid’s work

[12] We only need to note that Socrates was accused of teaching the tyrannical art (Strauss On Tyranny p.32) and one of his most famous students Alcibiades was known for his tyrannical aspirations as well as well as the tyrannical consequence of a belief that the unexamined life was not worth living.

[13] Leo Strauss “On a forgotten kind of writing” pp 221-232 What is Political Philosophy and other studies University of Chicago Press 1959

[14] The Athenians, like all societies, had a limit set by their fear for self-preservation. Socrates wanted the rule of the wise which would mean that Athens would have to relinquish its rule. The individual would rule the city. In the 21st century, though, political society suppresses speech not for fear of self-preservation but simply out of safety for any citizen. Whereas Athens faced an existential threat before it suppressed Socrates, the UK and the United States have lowered the threat to the death of any citizen from terrorism. We have gone beyond what Hobbes created where man feared violent death, it is now just the potential fear, let alone the reality of such fear or the actual death, that justifies suppressing free speech.

[15] Socrates and the Tragedy of Athens Harry Neumann Social Research, Vol. 35, No. 3 (AUTUMN 1968), pp. 426-444 . P.428

[16] Even though the legislation says that universities have to promote freedom of thought, it does not exempt them from the legislation. Thus, anyone teaching political philosophy or even philosophy would be committing a pre-crime under the legislation as they could be consider to be radicalizing their listener. Under section 31 of the CTA2015, the speaker could have a defence of academic freedom of freedom of speech in an academic setting. However, that does not cover anyone outside that setting.

[17] In particular, if you point out that the regime is not based in consent but that the Queen rules through force of arms, all coercive power within the regime swear a personal oath of allegiance to her, then you indicate that the regime is flawed form a Xenophon’s Socratic perspective. Xenophon’s Memorabilia (I, 2.41-46),

[18] People who teach political philosophy or philosophy are not philosophers.

[19] One could argue that this is nearly impossible with Internet of Things and the myriad forms of surveillance now possible through platforms like Vine, Periscope.

[20] On Tyranny p. 27.

[21] The legislation states that Universities will be required to protect academic freedom. Yet that immediately raises the question of what happens when that teaching threatens the regime? How far will the regime tolerate such teaching?

[22] The government, it would appear, would like to lull the public into believing that the laws, strategy, and guidance only apply to “extremists” and anyone else has nothing to fear so long as they obey the law and do not speak up.

[23]Parliament is exempted from the legislation but as they already exist beyond the law and the system exists to serve them, there is no chance they would challenge or change the system. They resist the rule of law so why should they want to do something even more radical such as question their legitimacy? Lord Neuberger recognized this point when he quoted Lord Justice Laws,

“It may be that my perceptive and far-thinking colleague , Lord Justice Laws, will one day turn out to be right when he argued that, through judicial development of the common law, ‘a gradual reordering of our constitutional priorities [may] bring alive the nascent idea that a democratic legislature cannot be above the law.61 ’ But we are not there yet.” (the footnote is from: Laws, Illegality and the Problem of Jurisdiction, in Supperstone & Goudie (eds), Judicial Review, (Butterworths) (1997) 4.17 cited in Goldworthy, The Myth of the Common Law Constitution in Edlin (ed), Common Law Theory (CUP) (2007) at 204)

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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6 Responses to In the UK, political philosophy is a pre-crime

  1. Might Socrates not suggest that his philosophizing is the best strategy to fight terrorism, since only political philosophy as originally understood educates/rises us to a (metaphysically-rooted) civil conscience impervious to all barbaric assaults? Then the question arises as to the possibility that philosophy be replaced officially by law-enforced social engineering.

    • That would require Socrates to rule which Athens was not willing to allow. As for social engineering that is what the Web is doing. It is changing the way we live with it premise and its’ implicit philosophical approach unexamined.

  2. The liberalization of liberal education as originally understood does not require at all the conversion of Socratism into dogma. It rather forestalls it. Sorry, I missed the sense of your last sentence.

    • The Web, technology, is already changing the way we understand nature and man. As such it has built in, largely unexamined, premises. These premises need to be uncovered and examined.

  3. Who is “we”? Is the Web not trickling-down an early-modern mechanistic conception of nature? Is the Web not but an exteriorization/effect of the “success” (popularization) of ideas long preceding it? Ideas the acceptance of which remains a necessary condition of possibility for our remaining duped by the Web?

    Social engineering is evidently not limited to the Web-experiment. Are not schools and other vehicles of propaganda serving a comparable function? Are they not all carriers of misguided attempts to replace Philosophy as an end in itself?

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