Political Crime

views updated Jun 08 2018


Political crime has been more often an object of partisan assertion than of independent research. Passions are easily aroused, facts are difficult to establish. Nevertheless, a growing number of studies have contributed to (1) articulating the issues in defining political criminality, (2) describing instances and patterns of resistance to political-legal authority, (3) cataloging and analyzing governmental efforts to prevent and counter such challenges, and (4) proposing research agendas.


Political criminality may be narrowly or broadly defined, with greater or lesser regard for definitions offered by laws and interpretations by authorities. Moreover, the values and politics of observers frequently influence their conceptions of what and who is politically criminal. The resulting mélange of definitions has led Kittrie and Wedlock to conclude pessimistically, "It may be that an objective and neutral definition of political crime is impossible, because the term seems to involve relativistic relationships between the motives and acts of individuals and the perspectives of government toward their conduct and allegiances" (1998, p. xxxvi). However, an alternative view is implicit in their understanding of political criminality as perceptual and relational, defined in interaction between opposing parties.

Whose perceptions decide what is to be called political crime? Apart from partisan and subjective answers, the empirical reality of political criminality is that it is defined by those with enough power to impose their perceptions. Insofar as a political authority structure has been established, one may argue that the dominant parties within it by definition have the power to define criminality (Turk 1982a, pp. 11–68, 1984; pp. 119–121; for more restrictive legalistic definitions, see Ingraham 1979, pp. 13, 19; Frank Hagan 1997, p. 2). However, this view leaves unsettled the question of how authorities themselves may be defined as political criminals.

The most common resolution is to expand the definition to include anyone who commits extralegal acts defending or attacking an authority structure. For example, Roebuck and Weeber consider political crime to be any illegal or disapproved act committed by "government or capitalistic agents" or by "the people against the government" (1978, pp. 16–17). This very subjective definition (disapproved by whom?) leaves one unable to distinguish either between acts against and on behalf of authority or between legal and nonlegal behavior. A more promising approach is to recognize that criminality may be defined at different levels of political organization—international as well as national.

International conventions, treaties, and judicial decisions have gone far toward formally defining war crimes, genocide, terrorism, violations of human rights, and environmental depredations. Such international standards may be invoked as criteria for labeling not only individuals but also agencies and regimes as political criminals guilty of "state crimes" (Barak 1991; Ross 1995). Even when formal legal criteria have not been articulated, evidence of harmful consequences of governmental policies and corporate practices may be used to define as political crimes "acts of commission and omission that result in grave social harm" (Tunnell 1993, p. xiv).

Formal pronouncements and unofficial assertions, however, may not have much significance. Accusations against governmental and corporate regimes are unlikely to impact on them unless there is a significant likelihood that they will be penalized for their actions. Within nations, acts by subnational authorities have sometimes been effectively treated as political crimes by national authorities who saw them as endangering societal or elite interests. An example is the American federal government's historic crackdown on state and local violations of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights in the South.

At the international level, it is still rare for even gross violations of human rights to result in sanctioning. Though often accompanied by rhetorical accusations of criminality, expeditions such as the Kosovo intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have typically been launched more out of geopolitical concerns than legal or moral ones, and tend to end in new political and economic accommodations rather than criminal trials. For the present, the lack or weakness of international policing and judicial institutions leaves powerful nations such as the United States free to reject or ignore such charges as practicing genocidal policies toward Native Americans, holding political prisoners, torturing detainees and convicts, and illegally authorizing operations in other countries by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). With little or no chance of their enforcement, invoking international or national laws to define political crimes will continue to amount to little more than largely subjective and partisan ideological tactics.

Another question is whether political criminality is to be defined only as behavior. While one may agree that only specified harmful acts should be punishable, the historical fact is that, in addition to offending behavior, nonbehavioral attributes such as ethncity and class background have frequently been used by antagonists as criteria of intolerable political deviance. Moreover, imputed as well as observed deviations or threats have been used. Anticipation as well as reaction are involved in the identification of political criminality. At the beginning of World War II, Japanese immigrants and their descendants in the United States were officially defined as security risks and forcibly relocated to prison camps, and during both world wars many German nationals and immigrants were subjected to surveillance and orders restricting their freedom to travel outside the areas where they lived.

In sum, political criminality is most realistically defined as whatever is treated as such by specified actors (usually governments, dominant groups, or their agents) who have the power to impose their conceptions in particular historical situations.


Resistance to political authority may be more or less deliberate, organized, or planned. As noted above, even the appearance or potential of resistance may be sufficient for authorities to act against perceived challengers. Actual resisters may be engaged in activities ranging from merely disrespectful comments to the most violent assaults, from spontaneous eruptions to carefully orchestrated attacks, from individually motivated acts to organized strategies of rebellion. Acts of resistance may be categorized as evasion, dissent, disobedience, or violence.

Resisters may simply evade the orders and demands of the powerful. Avoiding masters, bosses, tax collectors, and military conscription has generally been safer than explicit defiance—because open defiance tends to force authorities to respond, while tacit evasion is more easily ignored or minimized. Russian serfs learned in such instances as the St. Petersburg massacre how ruthless the Cossacks could be in suppressing dissenters and petitioners—the kind of lesson that has been taught to peasants and workers over the centuries in many lands. As Karl Marx complained, peasants and industrial workers tend to settle for mere survival and small gains instead of becoming revolutionaries. Fear of brutal repression is not groundless, and those with little social power are realistically skeptical even in democratic societies (as regularly shown in legal and political attitude polls) of notions that they can expect protection because they have legal rights.

The right to speak out against authority is enshrined in many legal traditions but in practice is limited by the varying tolerance of authorities and people—decidedly lower in wartime and economic hard times. After centuries of attempting to deter such offenses as seditious libel and treasonous utterances, more democratic governments have de facto concluded that the effort is incompatible with the concept of free speech (Law Commission 1977; Stone 1983; Hurst 1983; cf. Franks 1989). However, other labels may be invoked to authorize punishing those whose dissent is especially galling, especially when authorities feel particularly threatened. U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, for instance, achieved the lasting notoriety of "McCarthyism" by making freewheeling accusations of "subversion" against a wide spectrum of targets—from known communists to President Dwight Eisenhower. Though McCarthy's failure to refrain from smearing the president and the army, both icons in 1950s America, resulted in his downfall, the political climate remained one in which public objections to capitalism, American foreign policies, and even racial segregation carried the risk of being labeled a "communist" or at least a "fellow traveler."

Dissenting is one thing, but actually disobeying rules and commands is another. Lower-class people have historically suffered many demonstrations of their vulnerability, and so have characteristically been less likely than higher-class people either to dissent or to disobey overtly (Turk 1982a, pp. 69–114). On the other hand, dissenting or disobedient higher-class, especially youthful, resisters have typically been subjected to less punitive treatment. For instance, sentences of Vietnam draft resisters decreased in response to the political repercussions of imprisoning growing numbers of higher-class young men (Hagan and Bernstein 1979). Not surprisingly, civil disobedience has been more likely to be a higher-class than a lower-class mode of resistance—that is, a tactic of those whose backgrounds encourage them to believe, perhaps erroneously, in their own significance and efficacy and in legal rights and protections. Certainly in the 1960s, in the early stages of the civil rights movement, marchers against southern segregation were far more likely to be students, intellectuals, and "bourgeois" than laborers, farmers, and "proletarians."

Violent resistance by individuals and small organizations seldom threatens authority structures directly, but does indirectly weaken them in that authorities facing or fearing violence typically adopt extralegal and repressive control measures—which contradict beliefs in legal restraints on governmental power. The more actually and ideologically democratic the political order, the greater the contradiction—which is associated with the greater vulnerability of democratic than despotic regimes to terrorism (Turk 1982b, p. 127).

Political violence tends to escalate from coercive to injurious to destructive forms, in an interaction spiral generated by decreasing hope on the side of one or both parties of an acceptable accommodation and/or by perceived advantages in escalation (Turk 1996). Coercive violence, which may complement or succeed verbal or legal appeals and arguments, is intended to pressure opponents to change their policies or practices—typical acts being telephoned threats, disruption of communications, and rioting. Injurious violence is aimed at causing limited damage to property or persons, with little or no risk of lethal damage, when opponents do not respond satisfactorily to coercion—as when Quebec separatists blew up mailboxes and American student radicals firebombed Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) buildings on university campuses. Torture and execution mark the transition from injurious to destructive violence. Destructive violence seeks to terrify active and potential opponents and to eliminate the enemy's resources of personnel, supplies, and facilities; examples include the assassinations of governmental (or revolutionary) leaders, as well as acts of terrorism (e.g., the Oklahoma City bombing).

Political offenders have commonly been viewed as morally or mentally defective. However, even the most violent assassins and terrorists appear unlikely to exhibit psychopathology (Turk 1983, 1984, p. 123; cf. Schafer 1974; also Robins and Post 1997). The effort to understand political resisters begins in recognizing that they may vary enormously in political consciousness and motivation, organizational involvement, and readiness to commit violent acts, in addition to other characteristics, such as class origins. Distinctions must be made among deliberate political actors, emotional reactors to climates of political instability and violence, and apolitical opportunists such as ordinary criminals who merely seek to profit from their contacts with resistance figures and movements.


Political dominance is defended legally and often extralegally at all institutional levels. The highest and broadest level is typified by national (and increasingly international) policies of insulation (regulating access and mobility, e.g., through immigration and licensing laws), sanctioning (defining and enforcing behavioral rules, e.g., through criminal laws), and persuasion (disseminating favored communications, e.g., through education and censorship)—that is, through statecraft, governing strategies designed to ensure that potential resisters lack the opportunities, resources, and will to challenge authority (Gamson 1968). More specifically focused on controlling resistance is political policing—the organized effort to gather relevant intelligence, manipulate channels of communication, neutralize opposition, and deter challenges.

Because the value of information can never be fully anticipated, intelligence gathering is inherently limitless. Advancing technologies of surveillance and analysis enable ever more extensive and intensive monitoring of human behavior and relationships. The distinction between public and private is increasingly dubious in both law and practice. Recurring legislative and judicial efforts to impose legal restraints have occasionally slowed but never stopped the trend (Marx 1988). One of the most celebrated efforts—to end surveillance of civilians by U.S. Army intelligence officers—failed when the highest court ruled in 1972 "that it was not the business of the Supreme Court but of Congress to monitor executive practices like surveillance" (Jensen 1991, p. 255).

Authorities have never been entirely comfortable with the ideal of free and open communications. Even where that ideal has been most firmly asserted in law, in practice the right to disseminate critical information and ideas has been limited (Kittrie and Wedlock 1998, passim). Openly or subtly, communications favoring the status quo have been facilitated, while dissent has been inhibited to a greater or lesser degree. For example, Eugene Debs (leader of the Socialist Party) was convicted and imprisoned not explicitly for his outspoken opposition to American involvement in World War I, but instead for "conspiracy" to obstruct military conscription and war production—a charge under the Espionage Act of 1917, which required no direct evidence of either conspiracy or obstructive actions.

When resistance is encountered, some blend of enclosure and terror tactics is used—that is, a combination of methods designed not only to suppress resistance but also to convince offenders that apprehension is inevitable and punishment unbearably severe. Psychological as well as physical coercion is accomplished by subjecting targets to sanctions varying from character assassination to torture and extermination. An example of the first is the FBI's effort to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., as a subversive agitator, a communist sympathizer or dupe, and an immoral womanizer. As for the second, South African apartheid forces provided many instances, including the beating death under interrogation of Steve Biko, leading voice of the "black consciousness" movement.

International covenants notwithstanding, torture and other violations of human rights continue throughout the world (regularly documented by Amnesty International and other organizations). Extreme human rights abuses are reported not only in dictatorships such as Iraq and authoritarian regimes such as Sri Lanka but also in democracies such as Britain, India, Israel, and the United States. Clearly, authorities facing serious challenges are unlikely to be restrained by legal or other norms.

The ultimate goal of political policing is general deterrence. Insofar as the subject population does not knowingly and willingly accept the political order, fear and ignorance may still ensure acquiescence. Surveillance, censorship, and neutralization are designed not only to repress political deviance but also to discourage any inclination to question the social order. But intimidation must be supplemented by persuasion if superior power is to be legitimated—transformed into authority. A classic technique is the political trial, in which legal formalities are used to portray the accused as a threat to society, to convey the impression that political policing is legally restrained, and to reinforce the sense that political dominance is both right and irresistible. Such trials have not been limited to totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (Kirchheimer 1961), but have also occurred with some regularity in democratic nations such as the United States. Historically, examples have occurred from the Puritans' legalistic suppression of Anne Hutchinson to the Chicago trial for "conspiracy" of eight assorted radicals with varied causes, whose only link was that they "represented the spectrum of leftist dissidents" (Belknap 1994, p. 240; see also Christenson 1986).


Studies of political criminality have raised far more questions than they have answered. In the future, it will be not isolated, small-scale investigations but ongoing research programs, that will be essential if the quest for systematic explanations of political criminality is to be successful. Such programs will necessarily be multilevel, integrating research on the political socialization of individuals, the radicalization of defenders as well as challengers of authority, the interaction of resistance and policing strategies, and the conditions under which the political organization of social life is relatively visible (low rates of both resistance and repression).

The viability of a political authority structure can in principle be objectively defined: The probability of its survival increases or decreases. Accordingly, research can identify progressive actions (which increase viability) and destructive actions (which decrease viability) by anyone involved in political conflict. Turk (1982a, pp. 181–191) hypothesizes that random violence, economic exploitation, and weakening social bonds are destructive, while nonviolent actions increasing the life chances of everyone instead of only some people are likely to be progressive.


Barak, Gregg 1991 Crimes by the Capitalist State. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Belknap, Michal R. (ed.) 1994 American Political Trials. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Christenson, Ron 1986 Political Trials: Gordian Knots in the Law. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction.

Franks, C. E. S. (ed.) 1989 Dissent and the State. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Gamson, William A. 1968 Power and Discontent. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey.

Hagan, Frank E. 1997 Political Crime: Ideology and Criminality. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Hagan, John, and Ilene Bernstein 1979 "Conflict in Context: The Sanctioning of Draft Resisters, 1963–76." Social Problems 27:109–122.

Hurst, James Willard 1983 "Treason" In Sanford H. Kadish, ed., Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice, vol. 4. New York: Free Press.

Ingraham, Barton L. 1979 Political Crime in Europe: A Comparative Study of France, Germany and England. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jensen, Joan M. 1991 Army Surveillance in America, 1775–1980. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Kirchheimer, Otto 1961 Political Justice: The Use of Legal Procedure for Political Ends. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kittrie, Nicholas N., and Eldon D. Wedlock, Jr. (eds.) 1998 The Tree of Liberty: A Documentary History of Rebellion and Political Crime in America. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Law Commission 1977 Codification of the Criminal Law: Treason, Sedition, and Allied Offences. Working Paper 72. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Marx, Gary T. 1988 Undercover: Police Surveillance in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robins, Robert S., and Jerrold M. Post 1997 Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Roebuck, Julian, and Stanley C. Weeber 1978 Political Crime in the United States: Analyzing Crimes by and against Government. New York: Praeger.

Ross, Jeffery Ian (ed.) 1995 Controlling State Crime: An Introduction. New York: Garland.

Schafer, Stephen 1974 The Political Criminal: The Problem of Morality and Crime. New York: Macmillan.

Stone, Geoffrey R. 1983 "Sedition" In Sanford H. Kadish, ed., Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice, vol. 4. New York: Free Press.

Tunnell, Kenneth D. (ed.) 1993 Political Crime in Contemporary America: A Critical Approach. New York: Garland.

Turk, Austin T. 1982a Political Criminality: The Defiance and Defense of Authority. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

——1982b "Social Dynamics of Terrorism." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 463:119–128.

——1983 "Assassination" In Sanford H. Kadish, ed., Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice, vol. 1. New York: Free Press.

——1984 "Political Crime." In Robert F. Meier, ed., Major Forms of Crime. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

——1996 "La violencia politica desde una perspectiva criminologica." (Political Violence in Criminological Perspective) Sistema 132–133 (Junio):41–55.

Austin T. Turk

political crime

views updated Jun 08 2018

political crime Historically, the term refers to conspiracy, and the actual deed of challenges to political rulers or sacred authority. Political criminals were likely to suffer much more gruesome punishment than ordinary or common criminals. Over time, however, the meanings of the term–and indeed attitudes toward political criminals themselves–have undergone significant shifts.

For example, politically motivated crimes came to be redefined as offences against the state in Western Europe during the nineteenth century, and there were also debates about whether offenders such as the Suffragettes and the Fenians should be dealt with in the conventional criminal justice system because of their self-proclaimed political status. By the late twentieth century the political criminal had been transformed into the ‘arch-criminal’–the terrorist–who uses illegitimate violence against innocent citizens. However, human rights campaigners and some criminologists have also raised questions about the way in which the state itself can use its monopoly of force in a criminal way, in the pursuit of socio-political and military objectives (for example through torture, disappearance, and genocide). Some writers even argue that only states can be truly terrorist because they have the wholesale capacity to deploy terror as a systematic mode of domination and governance (see, for instance, N. Chomsky , The Culture of Terrorism, 1988

Political Crime

views updated May 18 2018


A serious violation of law that threatens the security or existence of the government, such astreasonorsedition.

crime, political

views updated May 23 2018

crime, political See POLITICAL CRIME.

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