Speculative Justice: The Shifting Temporality of Crime in U.S. Counterterrorism Stings


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“Speculative Justice” asks how U.S. terrorism cases with numerous indicators of entrapment prevail in federal court despite case law designed to prevent these very policing practices. Drawing on a combination of two case studies, an original archive of digital court filings from over 250 defendants, and a collection of over 150 official press releases, I examine the legal narratives used to justify proactive, preventative policing tactics in the so-called War on Terror. Existing research on terrorism focuses primarily on indicators of radicalization in order to develop and assess effective preventative strategies. My research reveals, however, that these studies miss the degree to which preventative tactics overdetermine case outcomes in practice. Starting with the legal narratives themselves, I show how counterterrorism stings expand the temporality of crime, pushing the start of wrongdoing back before clear signs of criminal intent, while simultaneously projecting criminality into the future by speculating over what could have been but never was. The dissertation makes three important contributions. First, I develop a sociological approach to the study of terrorism, inspired by narrative and discursive methods in sociological research. Such a model illuminates the legal, legislative, and tactical mechanisms that contribute to the production of criminality, rather than merely responding to it. Second, I show how legal narratives of counterterrorism stings lawfully expand the temporality of crime, extending wrongdoing further into the past and also projecting it into the future by guessing what a defendant would have done had law enforcement not intervened. Finally, I develop a conceptual framework for these findings I term speculative justice. Speculative justice uses conjecture over future action rather than criminal intent as the basis for legislative and executive policy, law enforcement, criminal proceedings, and punishment. In so doing it not only allows fear of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities to flourish, but also institutionalizes this fear as a legitimate basis for recognizing criminality in the eyes of the law.

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