Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2003 / 13 Elul , 5763
Why terrorism works
By Alan Dershowitz
An examination of the root causes of terrorism, why madmen continue to perpetrate it, and, most importantly, what can be done to curtail it once and for all.
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Although state-sponsored global terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon, and is in some ways quite different from other evils previously confronted, it is still subject to the basic rules of human nature and experience that teach us how to reduce the frequency and severity of harmful conduct. This chapter sets out some fundamental rules of deterring crime in general and then shows how these rules relate to terrorism in particular. The next chapter shows how the international community, and especially the United Nations and our European allies, have refused to follow these obvious rules since at least 1968, and in fact have deliberately violated them, thereby encouraging increased resort to terrorism, both in frequency and in severity..
The first technique is to ensure that the potential criminal understands that he has far more to lose than to gain from committing the crime. This serves to disincentivize the act, or deter the actor, by sending a clear and unequivocal message: not only will you not benefit from the act, but if you are caught doing it you will be severely disadvantaged. (A disincentive seeks to eliminate the benefit seen as an incentive by the offenders. A deterrent seeks to impose a negative cost on them and their cause.) A useful example of this mechanism is the treble or punitive damage remedy, which disgorges all gains from the person who secured them improperly and imposes a punitive fine.
The second technique is to incapacitate those who would carry out the actions by imprisoning them, killing them, keeping them away from the places they wish to target, or otherwise making it impossible for them to be in a position to undertake the undesirable actions. A useful metaphor for incapacitation is the zoo, where wild animals are kept behind bars. We are not seeking to change the animal's propensities but are simply erecting an impermeable barrier between it and us.
A third technique is to persuade the actor not to undertake the action, by rehabilitating, reeducating, or shaming him, convincing him that the action is wrong. A good example of this mechanism is requiring drunken drivers to attend classes or enter programs designed to influence behavior.
Another traditional technique is proactive prevention. The word "prevention" carries broad implications, including eliminating or reducing the causes of crime, such as poverty. I am using "prevention" in the more specific sense of gathering intelligence about plans or impending crimes. Secret service agencies throughout the world plant spies in terrorist organizations to gather such information. They also bribe or extort actual members of these organizations to serve as double agents. Sometimes they engage in scams or stings calculated to get the criminals to commit the crimes under controlled situations (such as selling drugs to an undercover agent, or hiring a hit man who turns out to be a government agent). Intelligence agencies also gather information by means of high technology, such as satellite photography, electronic intercepts, and the like. A useful metaphor for this mechanism is building a trap for a wolf that is eating a farmer's sheep and baiting it with a dead animal.
There are clearly overlaps among these methods. The death penalty, for example, incapacitates and punishes the specific offender (this is called "specific deterrence") while also, it is hoped, deterring other potential offenders (this is called "general deterrence"). The age-old rule disallowing a murderer to inherit money from his victim disincentivizes killing for those who would do it in order to inherit more quickly. Imprisonment incapacitates (at least during the period of confinement, and at least against those on the other side of the bars) while also deterring both the offender and others. Even the mandatory class or program deters as well as rehabilitates (and may even incapacitate at least during time the person is in the program). Sometimes these mechanisms conflict with one another. Although imprisonment incapacitates during the period of confinement, it may increase the likelihood of recidivism among some inmates by exposing them to a criminal culture, even as it decreases that likelihood among others by demonstrating the horrors of prison. Paying double agents may help prevent some crime, but it may also promote others at the same time.
The goal of removing all positive incentives (disincentivizing) while also imposing negative consequences (deterring) is to send the following powerful message to any person or group contemplating the commission of a harmful act: you, your group, your family, and everything you hold dear will be considerably worse off if you commit the prohibited act than if you forbear from committing it. That was the intent of the following statement made by President Bush on April 4, 2002: "I call on the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority and our friends in the Arab world to join us in delivering a clear message to terrorists. Blowing yourself up does not help the Palestinian cause. To the contrary, suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state." Anything that mutes this message, or undercuts it, diminishes the impact of this age-old technique for reducing the frequency and severity of harmful conduct. For example, if a bank robber's family (or the cause he was robbing for) were allowed to keep the proceeds of the robbery, the deterrent message would be decidedly mixed, even if the robber himself is caught and imprisoned.
The major difference between the disincentive-deterrent approach, on the one hand, and the incapacitation approach on the other is that deterrence relies on a rational calculus-a cost-benefit analysis-by those contemplating the harmful act. Incapacitation relies exclusively on the physical impossibility of certain acts being carried out by people who are confined, exiled, or killed. Again, think of a zoo as incapacitating the wild animals, and think of an animal trainer who threatens the whip and promises the food as more akin to the disincentive-deterrent model. Or think of the hospital for the criminally insane as incapacitating a dangerous person who cannot be deterred by the threat of future punishment, while at the same time trying to reduce his propensity toward violence by treating his aggressive mental condition.
In addition to these techniques of harm reduction, all of which focus directly on the behavior in question, there are also some "softer" approaches that tend to be oriented more toward the longer term and have a more subtle impact on the harmful conduct. This kind of approach includes such efforts as education, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, religious indoctrination, and so on.
In the next chapter I will focus on how the international community not only failed to disincentivize terrorism but went so far as to incentivize it, by rewarding it rather than punishing it. In subsequent chapters, I will discuss the other techniques..
CAN TERRORISM BE DETERRED?
Between the extremes of this continuum lies a wide range of actors and actions that are more or less subject to deterrence, based on a wide variety of factors. In the context of the kind of terrorism I am focusing on in this book, there is also a long continuum whose terminal points parallel those on the more conventional continuum. Some terrorists are exquisite calculators and will engage in terrorism only if the benefits (as defined by them) outweigh the costs (also as defined by them). As George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told a reporter:
main point is to select targets where success is 100% assured.
To harass, to upset, to work on the nerves through unexpected small damages. . .
. This is a thinking man's game. Especially when one is as poor
as the Popular Front is. It would be silly for us to even think
of waging a regular war; imperialism is too powerful and
the extent that terrorism is "an entirely rational choice" and
"a calculated move in a political game"-as some have concluded-it
should be subject to the usual rules of deterrence theory. As
I will show later, however, not all terrorism is the same, and
some may be subject to somewhat different calculations. The benefits
contemplated by some terrorists may vary, both in kind and in
degree, from those contemplated by the more conventional criminal
or by other terrorists. Moreover, the costs may also be defined
and calibrated differently. The 1972 terrorist attacks against
the Israeli Olympic team in
IS DIFFERENT BUT NOT THAT DIFFERENT
As a crime, terrorism is different. Most crimes are the product of greed, anger, jealousy, or the desire for domination, respect, or position in a group, and not of any desire to "improve" the state of the world or of a particular nation. Most crimes do not involve-as part of the plan for accomplishing their objectives-trying to change the occupants of government positions, their actions, or the basic structures and ideology of a nation. Some would argue that violence carried out for political purposes is more altruistic; others would vigorously deny that. But all would agree that political violence is different from ordinary crime, in that it is planned to force changes in government actions, people, structure, or even ideology as a means to whatever ends the perpetrators are seeking with whatever motivations drive them towards those ends. It is in that sense that the U.S. State Department definition says that the violence is usually "perpetrated for political reasons."
Terrorism-at least of the kind described by Heymann-is thus more, not less, subject to disincentive and deterrence techniques than most ordinary crimes. To be sure, some acts of terrorism are revenge-driven and impulsive, but most are carefully calculated to achieve a goal. Sometimes the goal will be specific and immediate, while other times it may be more general, long term, and apocalyptic. But whatever the object, if it becomes clear that it will be dis-served by terrorism-that the cause will be worse off-then it will be only a matter of time until co-supporters of the cause turn against those who resort to terrorism. Without widespread support from within the cause they are seeking to promote, terrorists cannot long thrive. Certainly if there is widespread opposition to terrorism within the cause, it will soon dry up.
When we look at terrorism simply as a technique whose frequency and ferocity we seek to diminish-without necessarily making any moral judgments about particular terrorists or causes-certain conclusions seem beyond dispute. The first is that those who employ terrorism should always be worse off-by their own criteria-for having employed it than if they had not employed it. President Bush's rhetoric, that terrorist crimes "only hurt their cause," must become reality.
only must terrorism never be rewarded, the cause of those who
employ it must be made-and must be seen to be made-worse off as
a result of the terrorism than it would have been without it.
The way calculating terrorists define and calibrate the cost and
benefits may be different from the way common criminals decide
whether to rob, cheat, or bully, but society's response must be
based on similar considerations. Those who employ terrorism have
their own criteria for evaluating success and failure, and in
implementing the immutable principle that those who employ terrorism
must be worse off for having resorted to this tactic, we must
make them worse off by their own criteria. It will not always
be possible to do this. If the terrorists' criteria
for success is massive publicity, for example, it will
be difficult for a democracy to control the amount of publicity
a terrorist act generates. (Totalitarian regimes, such as
ROOT CAUSES OF TERRORISM
The reason terrorism works-and will persist unless there are significant changes in the responses to it-is precisely because its perpetrators believe that by murdering innocent civilians they will succeed in attracting the attention of the world to their perceived grievances and their demand that the world "understand them" and "eliminate their root causes." To submit to this demand is to send the following counterproductive message to those with perceived grievances: if you resort to terrorism, we will try harder to understand your grievances and respond to them than we would have if you employed less violent methods. This is precisely the criterion for success established by the terrorist themselves. Listen to the words of Zehdi Labib Terzi, the Palestine Liberation Organization's chief observer at the United Nations: "The first several hijackings aroused the consciousness of the world and awakened the media and the world opinion much more-and more effectively-than twenty years of pleading at the United Nations." If this is true-and the Palestinians surely believe it is-then it should come as no surprise that hijackings and other forms of terrorism increased dramatically after the Palestinians were rewarded for their initial terrorism by increased world attention to its "root causes"-attention that quickly resulted in their leader being welcomed by the U.N. General Assembly, their organization being granted observer status at the United Nations, and their "government" being recognized by dozens of nations.
We must take precisely the opposite approach to terrorism. We must commit ourselves never to try to understand or eliminate its alleged root causes, but rather to place it beyond the pale of dialogue and negotiation. Our message must be this: even if you have legitimate grievances, if you resort to terrorism as a means toward eliminating them we will simply not listen to you, we will not try to understand you, and we will certainly never change any of our policies toward you. Instead, we will hunt you down and destroy your capacity to engage in terror. Any other approach will encourage the use of terrorism as a means toward achieving ends-whether those ends are legitimate, illegitimate, or anything in between.
is there any single substantive root cause of all, or even most,
terrorism. If there were-if poverty, for example, were the root
cause of all terrorism-then by fixing that problem we could address
the root cause of specific terrorist groups without encouraging
others. But the reality is that the "root causes" of terrorism
are as varied as human nature. Every single "root cause" associated
with terrorism has existed for centuries, and the vast majority
of groups with equivalent or more compelling causes-and with far
greater poverty and disadvantage-have never resorted to
terrorism. There has never even been a direct correlation-to say
nothing of causation-between the degrees of injustice experienced
by a given group and the willingness of that group to resort to
terrorism. The search for "root causes" smacks more of after-the-fact
political justification than inductive scientific inquiry. The
variables that distinguish aggrieved groups willing to target
innocent civilians from equally situated groups unwilling to murder
children have far less to do with the legitimacy of their causes
or the suffering of their people than with religious, cultural,
political, and ethical differences. They also relate to universalism
versus parochialism and especially to the value placed on human
life. To focus on such factors as poverty, illiteracy, disenfranchisement,
and others all too common around our imperfect world is to fail
to explain why so many groups with far greater grievances and
disabilities have never resorted to terrorism.
It may well be true that desperation contributes to the willingness of individuals to become suicide bombers, but it is the success of this tactic that incentivizes those who recruit and send the suicide bombers on their lethal missions. It is crucial to distinguish between the motivations of the bombers themselves and those of the leaders who decide to employ the technique of terrorism to achieve political and diplomatic goals. It would seem to follow from this reality that an act of terrorism should never be the occasion for addressing the substantive root causes of terrorism. The unequivocal message to all terrorists should be that the only response to acts of terrorism will be to make certain that it never succeeds, to inflict severe punishment on the terrorists, and to interdict their future terrorist acts by incapacitating them and undertaking effective proactive preventive measures. Just as we don't address the root causes of a bad marriage that may have led a man to murder his wife-we hunt down the murderer and punish him-so too we shouldn't consider the root causes that may have motivated the violence of the terrorists. We must hunt them down and punish and incapacitate them, without regard for the possible substantive justice of their cause. That is the only way to send the message that no cause-no end-justifies resort to the unacceptable means of terrorism. If we deviate from this principle, we become complicit in encouraging further terrorism.
This tough approach toward terrorism does not mean that root causes should never be addressed. If the cause is just, it should be considered-in the order of its justness compared with that of other causes, discounted by the penalty that must be imposed for resorting to terrorism. Again an analogy to ordinary crimes: we recognize that poverty and unemployment may contribute to the causes of street violence-that they are among its root causes. But we don't use the occasion of a drug-related murder to address these root causes. Instead, we punish the murderer and redouble our efforts to deter and interdict future murders. At the same time, we continue to try to address poverty and unemployment, because that is the right thing to do, even in the absence of drug-related murders. There are many just causes throughout the world. Those who advocate or resort to terrorism should be moved backward-not forward-on the list of just causes warranting consideration by the international community.
This is especially so if the terrorists are representative of the cause, rather than peripheral to it. An act of terrorism should be the occasion only for punishment and incapacitation, not for negotiation and consideration of root causes. The message must be that nothing will be gained by terrorism, and much will be lost. The cause will be set back, not furthered, by resort to terrorism. Here an analogy to child rearing is useful. Suppose you have two children, each of whom has an equally legitimate grievance. One of them discusses it rationally with you, while the other one hits you over the head with a stick. The latter will surely get your attention, but only a terrible parent would give preference to the grievance of the violent child over that of the peaceful one. To do that would be encouraging further violence by both children. (A concerned parent might pay more attention to the violent child, because his violence may reflect pathology, but the concern would not take the form of giving in to his demands.)
This would seem an obvious and simple first principle in dealing with terrorism (as it is in dealing with other crimes). But, as we shall see in the next chapter, the international community has responded in precisely the opposite manner. Terrorism has generally moved its cause forward rather than backward. And it continues to do so-even after September 11. The more horrible the nature of the terrorism, the greater has been the forward movement. Terrorists-especially terrorist leaders-have been honored rather than punished. Indeed, at least three terrorist leaders have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Some have received honorary degrees from leading universities. Several have been made heads of state or government. Some have been embraced by religious leaders. The message has been clear: if you believe your cause is sufficiently just to resort to terrorism, you must be right. The very decision to resort to terrorism is seen as a confirmation of the justness of the cause. The more horrible the nature of your terrorism, the more just your cause must be. Terrorism leapfrogs its cause over other equally or more just causes whose advocates have not resorted to terrorism.12 It's no wonder, therefore, that some aggrieved groups employ it as a first, rather than a last, resort.
There is also another reason why terrorism advances its cause. Terrorism frightens us into seeking quick solutions. If we give in to the demands of the terrorists, maybe they will stop using terrorism.
The combination of these reasons - some moral, others pragmatic - understandably inclines decent and thoughtful people to opt for an approach that advances the cause of terrorists, by giving in to their demands and advancing consideration of their root causes over the root causes of other groups. The long-term effects of this approach have been to legitimate terrorism as a means of achieving certain ends and to encourage other groups to resort to it. The recent history of terrorism demonstrates that this is how we have responded to it, and how terrorists have responded to this approach. This history of advancing the causes of terrorists, honoring their leaders and giving in to their demands-rather than punishing and repressing them, while at the same time moving their cause backward on the international agenda-has been an important contributing factor in the recent proliferation of international terrorism. This paradox-that by addressing the root causes of one group of terrorists we encourage others to resort to terrorism-should become an important foundation for any policy designed to reduce the frequency and severity of terrorism..
But a desire for martyrdom need not eliminate all possibilities of deterring the act by threatening severe punishment. It merely requires that the severe punishment be directed against someone, or something, other than the potential martyr himself-such as his cause, or those who harbor him. In theory, the punishment could also be directed against his family, but such a strategy would raise daunting questions of morality and fairness.
There would be various steps, at least in theory, that could be taken to deter many suicide terrorists, if one were prepared to act amorally. Punishment of kin or friends is one obvious tactic that has been successfully used by tyrannical regimes throughout history. Putting aside these extreme tactics, there are entirely moral ways of deterring suicide actors as well. These tactics require that we think beyond the individual suicide terrorist, who probably cannot be effectively deterred by means acceptable to a moral society, and that we understand that the vast majority of individual suicide terrorists do not act on their own. They are part of complex organizational structures. They are sent to engage in their suicide terrorism by the organizations that have recruited them, persuaded them to become martyrs, promised them and their families rewards (in this world or the next), and selected the target, time, and place for the terrorist act. Often, their terrorism has widespread support within the cause, manifested through financial contributions, logistical assistance, and harboring. Few, if any, suicide bombers act on their own as a result of uncontrollable rage. They may volunteer to act because of rage, but the decision to send them is almost always calculated by others. The question therefore is not whether the individual suicide terrorist can be deterred from suicide terrorism. The questions that must be asked are whether the organization can be deterred from sending him on a suicide mission, and whether the supporters can be deterred from rendering needed assistance. The answer to the first question is generally going to be yes-if we can figure out effective threats and carry them out with sufficient public demonstration that terrorism does not benefit, and indeed harms, the organizations that opt for it, and the causes they represent. The answer to the second question can also be yes, if we are prepared to punish those who assist terrorism through material and other support.
When the terrorist organization is believed to be state sponsored or supported-as it often is-the deterrent threat can be directed against the state. This will not always be easy, for several reasons: state sponsorship or support is often a matter of degree, the evidence supporting the belief is often difficult to secure, and other factors-diplomatic, legal, economic-will sometimes militate against strong action..
IMPACT OF SEPTEMBER 11
Before September 11, terrorism worked because those who sponsored it too often benefited from the terrorist acts. The sponsors were rewarded because the dramatic nature of the acts got our attention and brought their perceived grievances to the forefront of public consciousness.
attention caused many decent people-religious leaders, academics,
politicians, ordinary citizens-to seek to gain a better understanding
of terrorists' grievances and to address the root causes of the
terrorism. The very brutality and desperation of the acts led
many in the international community to believe that the terrorists
represented "a cause that could no longer justifiably be denied."
Because their grievances and causes were addressed in response
to terrorism, other groups with perceived grievances saw the benefits
of terrorism and were more likely to resort to it, rather than
to opt for other less visible and hence less successful mechanisms
of change. Success begets repetition and imitation. (We will also
see, in Chapter 2, that terrorism works because the short-term
self-interest of some countries inclines them to make self-serving
deals with terrorists that set back what should be a universal
and coordinated attack on terrorism. This variation on the "prisoner's
dilemma" encourages terrorists to believe they can always extort
benefits from some countries, especially, it seems from experience,
This, then, is the first paradox of dealing with terrorism: Terrorism does, of course, have substantive root causes. Every act of violence, criminality, and evil has root causes. By addressing and fixing the root causes of a particular terrorist group, we may sometimes-though not always, as we shall see-reduce or eliminate the specific terrorist threat of that group (and those who share its goals). But in doing so, we encourage other potential terrorists to resort to this unacceptable means of having their root causes addressed and fixed.
There is, however, another paradox of dealing with terrorism, which may point in the opposite direction. The more brutal and repressive we are toward the terrorists, the more we make them martyrs to be emulated by other potential terrorists. Punishing rather than honoring terrorists and moving their claims backward rather than forward may contribute to the breeding of new terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives to the cause. If both of these paradoxes are equally true, then it would seem to follow that neither of the obvious approaches to dealing with terrorism will work, at least not without at the same time encouraging new terrorism and breeding new terrorists.
Actually, this conclusion is false, as we shall see, because paradox I is far more powerful than paradox II. Paradox I is far more powerful because it influences the conduct of leaders of the cause and it affects the ultimate goals of the cause. Paradox II, on the other hand, influences only the followers and may make them more susceptible to the calls of the leaders for martyrdom volunteers. In this kind of "organized terrorism," leaders are far more important than followers, because such terrorism is more authoritarian than democratic. It is a top-down, not a bottom-up, phenomenon. Individual martyrs in search of a leader can be dangerous, but far less so than charismatic leaders capable of persuading followers to risk or forfeit their lives.
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© 2003, Alan Dershowitz . Excerpted from "WHY TERRORISM WORKS: Understanding the threat, responding to the challenge". Published by Yale University
Press. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher
© 2003, Alan Dershowitz . Excerpted from "WHY TERRORISM WORKS: Understanding the threat, responding to the challenge". Published by Yale University Press. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher