Dershowitz: "Why Terrorism Works"

"Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge;"
By Alan M. Dershowitz;
Yale University; 271 pp.


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  11/06/2002

Talk about chutzpah: In his latest book, "Why Terrorism Works," Alan Dershowitz argues that appropriate responses to terrorism include collective punishment of those who merely approve of attacks, bypassing the judicial process with targeted assassinations, and forcing terrorists to talk by torturing them.

Sound cruel and unusual for a Harvard Law professor?

As jarring as those prescriptions sound, Dershowitz's arguments for such extreme action are, for the most part, lucid and persuasive.

In "Why Terrorism Works," a fusion of previous essays and lectures into a compact, post-Sept. 11 manifesto on how a democracy should fight terrorism, the outspoken civil libertarian seeks to show how the United States can take off its gloves without compromising its liberal values. "I am willing to think the unthinkable and move beyond any kind of conventional wisdom," he writes.

Conventional wisdom, for example, would have it that in all cases torture is immoral, collective punishment is unfair, and assassination, in which there is no distinction between prosecution, jury, and executioner, is, at the very least, anathema to our justice system.

But because terrorists are suicidal, are individually hard to deter, and have the deck stacked in their favor - the casualties they create attract attention and raise their profile, while the casualties they suffer in any counterattack help win sympathy for their cause - Dershowitz argues the normal rules often don't apply.

First and foremost, he insists, the fight against terrorism must begin by ostracizing the terrorists. This may sound simple, but as the title of the book suggests, Dershowitz argues it's anything but a given. As he illustrates, with the help of the United Nations, Europe, and other countries, terrorists all too often have succeeded in furthering their goals.

The prime example: Palestinian terrorism. Despite launching a campaign of hijacking and blowing up airplanes in the late 1960s, they gained observer status in the United Nations and legitimacy from heads of state throughout the world.

Rather than trying to "understand them" or "eliminate their root causes," as advocates of a nonmilitary response to terrorism often suggest, he writes: "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."

In a perfect world, or in a dictatorship fighting terrorism, there would be many options: Movement could be restricted, speech in support of terrorists could be banned, trials would be secret.

Much of that, of course, would be illegal in the United States. But as the country seeks a balance between security and freedom, Dershowitz argues that during a crisis it's sensible - and supported by precedent - for the pendulum to swing in favor of controls and restrictions on civil liberties.

Some of his less eye-opening proposals include improving our border controls, introducing sophisticated national ID cards, and changing international laws to make it easier for the nation to fight terrorism.

More controversial is his support for collective punishment, targeted assassinations, and torture. The arguments are nuanced and seek an equitable balance, but in some cases Dershowitz presents false choices.

As he often does, Dershowitz poses uncomfortable questions and presents straightforward, thought-out solutions. In a time when people drive planes into buildings, bomb tourist resorts, and shoot random strangers from a distance, these are questions and answers we all have to consider.

David Abel can be reached at

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