It was almost exactly three years ago today that I moved to the UK from Canadia, my maple-syrup loving homeland where beavers and moose are sacrosanct and Brian Adams’ “Summer of 69” is perpetually playing on all radio stations at all times. At the time, my only other previous experience with England was a two-night stop over in and out of Heathrow Airport as I gallivanted through Europe on one of those all-encompassing, coming-of-age Eurotrips. My return this time was for a much different purpose: to pursue what had become a burgeoning interest in global anti-terrorism policy at one of, if not the, best universities in the world.
I set off with a relative level of confidence that life in Oxford, and in the UK in general, couldn’t be that different from life in the Great White North that I had called home. I held myself to be very fortunate in comparison to a lot of international students, in a couple of crucial manners. I had no language barrier to overcome (my command of English was, and still is, superfluous). There were no visa applications to sort out, which can be a painful process for many international students (thank you very much, Italian family heritage).
Similarly, I told myself that the commonwealth links shared by Canada and the UK would mitigate the learning curve I would inevitably face when learning a new legal system, political climate, and culture. We’re both using the common law, I said, how hard could it be? Swapping snow and maple syrup for rain and warm beer seemed like a negligible, if not favourable, tradeoff. Those political, financial and legal arrangements between the U.K. and the European Union surely couldn’t be any more complex than those shared by Canada and our neighbours to the South, right?
I still remember one of my earliest meetings with my current supervisor Lucia Zedner, a frighteningly prolific and responsive academic. In said meeting, I tried to make a case for including Australia as an additional country of analysis, largely because of a long-burning desire to visit the land down under, but also because I genuinely thought that the country’s legal and political similarities and differences to Canada and the UK would make for interesting comparisons.
Thankfully, she saw through my naivety (or hubris), which in hindsight I am eternally grateful for. I don’t remember the exact words, nor would I wish to quote them, but the advice she offered was something along the lines of: Relax young man, comparative research is heavy work, and adding another country to your analysis might be unduly aggressive, regardless of how much you want an academically related (and funded) excuse to write your dissertation on a beach in board shorts.
Today, and indeed for much of the last three years since that meeting, I have grown to fully understand and appreciate the advice that she gave me that day. This brings me to the subject of this, my first Judicalis post: the utility of, and complexities associated with, the often strenuous exercise that is comparative research (specifically legal/criminological comparative research, in my case).
I do not wish to offer an all-encompassing literature review of the massive swaths of material written on the subject (those who are interested can read anything written by David Nelken, particularly Comparative Criminal Justice and Globalization, or contact me for additional sources). Nor do I purport to suggest that I have been able to find a truly definitive method whereby one can best engage in comparative anti-terrorism research (although Kent Roach’s The 9/11 Effect: Comparative Counter-Terrorism is certainly a standard to aspire to). Instead, I think it useful, particularly in the context of my first (and largely introductory) post here, to offer a reflection on the impact that this comparative endeavor has had on me, and suggest how it might influence future posts in this space.
Perhaps the biggest impact the “comparative exercise” has had on me pertains to becoming comfortable with differences. These can include differences in culture, legal systems and political arrangements. Anyone who has done comparative research can attest to the fact that these differences can be daunting and terrifying, adding additional layers of complexity to issue areas, such as terrorism, that are already inherently multi-faceted and convoluted.
When I first started my DPhil, I remember thinking that it would be the similarities that I found between Canada and the UK’s anti-terrorism policies that would truly bring value to my dissertation. During these early stages, understanding Canada and the UK's legal, political and cultural differences, and their possible impact on the policies that I was analyzing, terrified and frustrated me to no end. What do you mean there’s no constitutionally entrenched Bill of Rights? How long is it going to take me to learn, and become well-versed, in the vastly complicated animal that is European Union Law and the operation of the European Convention on Human Rights? What had I gotten myself into, I often thought, in my moments of first-year DPhil crises that most graduate students can relate to having experienced.
Today, I realize and appreciate that the excruciating process whereby I got past the aforementioned learning curve will not only be useful in the context of my dissertation, but also in a number of my other life endeavours, both personal and professional. Becoming comfortable with the fact that things work differently in other countries, political and legal systems, organizations, and relationships, to the point where you genuinely celebrate these differences and recognize their value not only to your personal research, but to your maturation as a human being and global citizen, is one of the biggest utilities of comparative research, in this writer’s humble opinion.
As such, there is a significant likelihood that future posts in this space will contain some kind of comparative element. This is not to say that all posts will be related to both Canada and the UK as, in true Canadian form, this forum will be inclusive of viewpoints and happenings from all around the world that pertain to terrorism and human rights. Much blogging (and, to some extent, academic research) in the fields of anti-terrorism and human rights is reactive to events of the day (terrorist attacks, significant judicial decisions, and the introduction of new legislation, to name a few). Security, Eh? will very much follow in this tradition, in the hope of stimulating discourse and introspective thought about global anti-terrorism policies, and the exercises we engage in when analyzing them.