How can free people fight terror?

In a month, we will mark the first anniversary of the events that shattered a myriad of illusions about our national security. The commandeered airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not only direct hits on iconic buildings and the thousands who worked within them but assaults on our public confidence.

In "The Lessons of Terrorism," a volume completed just before the attacks on Sept. 11, but published afterward, Caleb Carr, a novelist and military historian, argued that, while terrorism was an age-old "technique of warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will," it was also "one of the most ultimately self-defeating tactics in all of military history." (Reviewed in the Monitor Feb. 14, 2002.)

In his new book, "Why Terrorism Works," Alan Dershowitz, Harvard professor, civil libertarian, attorney for the scorned (including some labeled "terrorists"), and well-known iconoclast, takes a very different position. Dershowitz contends that such a low-tech, "poor man's" form of warfare is most effective as a tool for disrupting social systems, especially democratic societies.

While never excusing the single-minded, hate-based, and maniacal schemes of purveyors of terror, Dershowitz emphasizes the responsibility of would-be victims (including, in the most recent incidents, the American people) for allowing the terrorists to do what they do. We encourage them, he contends, to be more emboldened by stretching the tolerance limits of acceptable protest or giving in to outrageous demands.

Dershowitz says that, unless something is done to stop the momentum, such terrorism will persist because it works, impelling risk-takers, particularly those driven by fundamentalist zeal, to escalate their furtive aggression as they see the fruits of their labors rewarded with one concession after another.

An accounting of terror

To underscore his point, he offers a 20-page, two-column chronology of "Palestinian Benefits Following Terrorist Attacks" in the years from 1968 to 1998. One column lists the nature of the attacks; the second enumerates the points scored, especially in the international arena.

Dershowitz provides other, if less detailed, examples of this sort of political cost/benefit calculus, indicating that the martyrs of mayhem are often triumphant in achieving their short-term goals of disruption and devastation, frightening ordinary citizens, and weakening the resolve of leaders or forcing them to use extraordinary measures such as massive retaliation to respond.

They even often attain long-term objectives like sympathy and acceptance, though the major reasons for such changes of heart are related to the fear of further violence.

"Why Terrorism Works" is roughly divided into four parts. The first elaborates on the thesis just presented, focusing mainly on "how the international community served as midwife to the birth of international terrorism beginning in 1968 by encouraging it, providing incentives for its continuation, and refusing to take the steps necessary to curtail it."

Then Dershowitz outlines a plan for wiping out the scourge of terrorism, "if we were not constrained by legal, moral, and humanitarian consideration." But, he notes, we are indeed fettered by that powerful caveat, making unbridled opposition impossible.

So what can be done? Before offering some suggestions, the law professor detours into a highly idiosyncratic disquisition on teaching about challenges to civil liberties under the severest threat. The chapter title lays out the conundrum: "Should a Ticking Bomb Terrorist Be Tortured?"

In many ways, it sets the stage for Dershowitz's denouement, the part in which he tries to offer ways of reducing terrorism "even if law and morality require us to fight [it] with one hand tied behind our backs." That section, "Striking the Right Balance," pregnant with ideas and calling for a concerted, nonpartisan, hard-hitting response, is sadly (and understandably) the least convincing.

Dershowitz knows that, to many, one man's terrorists are another's freedom fighters. This includes supporters/justifiers of the Hagganah and the Stern Gang, the Black Panthers, the Jewish Defense League, UNITA, Black September, the ANC, the IRA, the various movements for Palestinian independence, and Al Qaeda. But he claims not to buy the nuance.

Terrorism is terrorism

His position is that it is essential to see terrorism, regardless of the motivation of its perpetrators, as a heinous policy. He contends that "all terrorism must be condemned, if condemnation of any terrorism is to have an effect."

While few readers will disagree with the author's belief that "we need to start thinking outside the boxes that failed us, but without becoming like those who attacked us," the quandary remains.

How can the members of the world's strongest nation, the home of the brave and land of the free, bend their most basic rules of conduct without breaking them to respond to unprecedented behavior on the part of those determined to destroy the heart and soul of this nation? The president, the Cabinet, Congress, the courts – and Dershowitz – are all still struggling for an answer.

• Peter I. Rose, a sociologist, is Senior Fellow of the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute at Smith College.

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