Civil Death and Terrorism

Many governments are trying to develop legal structures to prevent and punish acts of terrorism. Their proposals and actions would extend to those who have not (yet) committed terrorism in their countries, to those who join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State/ ISIS.

France has considered stripping a person of their French citizenship if they engage in terrorist acts, if they were not born in France and held a second passport. The United Kingdom is considering a law of stripping British citizenship for naturalized Britons (those not born in the country).

While western European governments consider different ways of inhibiting terrorism and would-be terrorists, rights groups have argued that these steps infringe on an individual’s freedoms.  The groups contend that a government should not take punitive actions against a person before they actually commit a wrongful deed.

The governments are seeking a middle ground: not incarcerating a person if they are not found liable of committing a crime, yet still punishing them from embarking on a path towards terrorism.  Indeed, prison takes away a person’s freedoms, while withdrawing citizenship removes a person’s rights. Placing a person in jail removes a potential threat; the softer stance of removing citizenship inhibits dangerous associations.

The governments’ course of actions are not without precedent.

Civil Death

The United States has a legal concept called “Civil Death.” A “civil death” essentially strips a person of their rights that are connected to the government. For example, a violent felon would lose:

  • The right to vote
  • The ability to hold public office
  • The ability to be licensed for a business (many businesses require licenses to operate)
  • Ability to enter contracts or sue in court
  • The right to obtain insurance or pension
  • Any and all property

These are no small matters. Such person would not be in prison, but remain very limited in the ability to live, work and function freely in society. The courts effectively rule that if a person has shown a willful intolerance and disdain for society’s rules and laws, they will no longer be protected by those same laws.

Israel has used a similar approach in its ongoing war against terror.


Israel has long struggled with how to deter terrorists.  The military reduces acts of terrorism through roadblocks, checkpoints, and barriers, but they do not inhibit a person from considering such action.  The difference is significant, particularly for people who are willing to kill themselves in the act of terrorism.  There is no jail sentence for a suicide bomber.

Israel has ruled that people who aid and abet violent acts can be found liable, or at least partially liable, for the criminal behavior.  Israel has used home demolitions of suicide bombers as a means of punishing the murderer’s family who knowingly enabled the act of terrorism.

IDF demolishing home of Palestinian Arab terrorist
(photo: Reuters)

Rights groups have condemned the Israeli policy.  They claim that such actions amount to collective punishment against ordinary civilians who did not participate in any crime.  That position, while used by B’Tselem broadly, is actually unclear.  Not only may the family members be aware of the planned attack, but if the terrorist was the owner of the house, then the government could claim that all such rights to property ownership were null and void the moment the owner committed the terrorist act.  As such, the home became government property, which it can handle as it sees fit.

The Israeli government is exploring other punitive acts that are similar to the actions taken by European governments, such as revoking work papers or residency rights for terrorists and those that assist them. Other penalties could be handed down for the “civil dead” should they be found guilty of crimes in the future:

  • Forfeit any chance for parole
  • Never be exchanged in a prisoner swap


Governments around the world are investigating ways to slow the tide of would be terrorists.  As they do, the various punishments of a civil death will likely be explored in the future.

Related First.One.Through articles:

Collective Guilt / Collective Punishment

UN’s Confusion on the Legality of Israel’s Blockade of Gaza

Alternatives for Punishing Dead Terrorists

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1 thought on “Civil Death and Terrorism

  1. Pingback: Trump’s Take on Obama’s “Evil Ideology” | FirstOneThrough

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