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May 11, 2018

Who Deserves Civil Rights? Many Say Suspected Terrorists Do Not

Cover of Law and Human Behavior (small)Anyone suspected of committing a crime should be entitled to basic civil rights that ensure access to due process and physical integrity. In the US, many of these rights are constitutionally guaranteed.

However, people are sometimes willing to condone civil rights violations in the criminal justice domain. For example, when debating the treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013, many Americans argued that the threat of terrorism justified the denial of Tsarnaev's Miranda rights and his right to legal counsel.

In their recent paper published in Law and Human Behavior, social psychologists Anna Newheiser and Tina DeMarco (2018) examined what explains people's willingness to fore-go civil rights protection in the treatment of terrorist suspects.

Violations of suspected terrorists' procedural and physical rights — for example, denial of Miranda rights and unnecessary use of force by law enforcement — are often viewed as justified on utilitarian grounds related to heightened threat to public safety. That is, both laypeople and law enforcement tend to argue that rights violations justifiably serve the greater good of protecting the public against terrorism.

At the same time, social psychological research on punishment has shown that although people strongly endorse utilitarian principles in the abstract, their more concrete preferences also reflect retributive notions of deservingness. For instance, people often want punishment to fit the crime more than they want punishment to prevent future crimes.

Newheiser and DeMarco proposed that retributive concerns may similarly explain willingness to condone civil rights violations.

To test this hypothesis, the authors conducted a study in which utilitarian and retributive reasons for violating a suspected terrorist's civil rights were pitted against each other.

All participants read about a terrorist suspect who was accused of perpetrating a bombing. Some learned that the suspect was a known member of an extremist group, intended to lead them to view the suspect as deserving of harsh treatment and activate retributive concerns. By contrast, others learned that there was no evidence linking the suspect to extremism. Participants further learned that the suspect either did or did not pose a continued threat to public safety, activating utilitarian concerns for those who learned about continued threat.

Next, participants were asked about the acceptability of a series of events taking place during the arrest and interrogation of the suspect. Some of these events were violations of due-process rights (e.g., failure to provide Miranda warnings) and some were instances of unnecessary use of force (e.g., torture).

The results revealed that people condoned rights violations if retributive concerns had been activated by information about the suspect's deservingness for harsh treatment. Further analysis showed that this willingness was based on the view that the suspect who had ties to extremist groups was simply undeserving of lawful treatment.

By contrast, opinions about rights violations were not affected by utilitarian concerns about public safety and dangerousness.

Judgments of how suspected terrorists ought to be treated are thus informed by retributive concerns, over and above utilitarian ones.

These findings have implications for how people reason about rights violations more broadly, including when and why people support universal human rights.

As proclaimed by the United Nations, human rights should be upheld without regard to factors that may be viewed as grounds for violating them — including terrorist suspects' perceived deservingness for punishment. Despite this ideal, there appear to be circumstances under which people are willing to say that not everyone deserves basic civil and human rights.


  • Newheiser, A.-K., & DeMarco, T. C. (2018). Who deserves basic rights? People condone violations of procedural and physical rights in the treatment of terrorist suspects. Law and Human Behavior, 42(1), 50–56. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/lhb0000275

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Note: This article is in the Forensic Psychology topic area. View more articles in the Forensic Psychology topic area.

About the Authors

Anna Newheiser received her PhD in social psychology from Yale University in 2012 and is currently an assistant professor of psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Her research addresses the question of how group-based biases are perpetuated, with a focus on social identity, moral judgment, and psychology and the law.

Tina DeMarco is a PhD candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Her research interests include intragroup relations, social identity, and emotion regulation.

More information, including contact details, is available on the Social Identity & Justice Lab website.