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Ethics in counterterrorism: do you sacrifice one person to save ten?

Counterterrorism specialists often have to contend with difficult ethical dilemmas. There is currently a lack of any adequate infrastructure within intelligence agencies for discussing these dilemmas, Michael Kowalski writes in his dissertation. PhD defence on 12 March.

Imagine, for example, a Boeing 737 with two hundred people on board is hijacked by a terrorist group. It soon becomes clear that the aircraft is on course for the New Orleans tower in Rotterdam, the country's tallest residential building. There are some four hundred people in the building at that point in time, who are completely oblivious to the imminent danger. Would you shoot down the aircraft to avoid a higher number of fatalities? 

Difficult dilemmas

This is one of the key moral dilemmas from Michael Kowalski's PhD dissertation. Kowalski is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs. ‘In the Netherlands, the Minister for Justice and Security can give the order to shoot the aircraft down,’ he says. ‘But in Germany such an action has been declared unconstitutional because you are not allowed to take a life in order to save another life. This shows how difficult these kinds of dilemmas are.’

The employees of security services in the Netherlands such as the AIVD (the General Intelligence and Security Service), MIVD (the Military Intelligence and Security Service) and NCTV (the National Coordinator for Security and Counter Terrorism) are often faced with moral dilemmas, particularly in the case of terrorism prevention. We have no regulations in place for a proper discussion of these ethical questions, Kowalski writes in his dissertation. Not only that, but there is also currently no proper infrastructure for dealing with these issues, and bringing them into the open for discussion is made more difficult by state secrecy and political sensitivity. These are factors that hamper the proper professional conduct of the security services, according to the PhD candidate, who has many years of experience working for different security services.  

Guided by ethics

‘In my research I called for ethics to be regarded as an essential additional element in legal rules,’ Kowalski comments. ‘In practice, you see that legal rules can often be interpreted in different ways, or they don’t really provide an answer in a specific case. How should the government handle these kinds of cases? The only way of doing that is by taking ethics as your guideline.’

This is an issue not only in hypothetical incidents such as with the hijacked plane, but it also affects ‘more minor’ dilemmas that the security services have to manage on a daily basis. Do you, for example, exchange information with foreign secret services on a Dutch terrorism suspect, if you know that the foreign service could use a drone to eliminate him? And what do you do if the department head is steering an issue in a particular direction, for example by shifting research capacity in such a way that you lose sight of what is at that point in time a more urgent threat?’ 

Example of the medical sector

According to Kowalski, a ‘moral debate’ can offer a way forward. This type of discussion is already common practice within other organisations that regularly have to deal with ethical dilemmas, such as health care. How long do you want to extend the life of an older patient, and how do you weigh the costs against the benefits? These kinds of questions can be discussed openly within health care institutions. 

‘We need something similar in intelligence agencies,’ says Kowalski. As part of his research, he subjected more than fifty staff of the NCTV to such a moral reflection. ‘An ethical grounding should be institutionalised within the organisation, for example in the teaching programme and by appointing a number of ethics advocates. This will make for a much more professional approach. Policymakers and politicians should also benefit from the fruits of the discussions, which will allow us to arrive at a well-considered and soundly argued policy on terrorism prevention.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
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