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the iJamming! Book Review WHY TERRORISM WORKS by Alan Dershowitz

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The iJamming! Featured Book Review

understanding the threat,
responding to the challenge


The Monday morning after a Thanksgiving Weekend away from it all, I caught up on some current affairs by listening to Brian Lehrer on WNYC. You may recall that on Thanksgiving itself, the start of Chanukah, Al-Qaeda or its African counterparts launched two surface-to-air missiles from outside Mombasa airport in Kenya in a mercifully unsuccessful attempt to bring down a charter aircraft full of Israeli tourists. (Unfortunately, a near-simultaneous car bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya did kill innocent civilians.) Lehrer's show was discussing this alarming new weapon in the terrorist arsenal with an on-air expert delivering the discouraging news that terrorists holed out on Cape May in New Jersey could quite feasibly bring down a JFK-bound or -departed jet with the same equipment.

As always, Lehrer took calls on the subject, and one of them attempted to by-pass the problems posed by terrorists bringing down airplanes with missiles and get to what he considered the 'root causes' of the terrorism itself. 'These people are acting out of desperation,' he insisted. (I am paraphrasing, though I typed out near enough his exact words as soon as I heard them.) 'They feel there's no other way to get the world's attention. If Ariel Sharon (Prime Minister of Israel) would just start talking to the Palestinians, these attacks would stop.'

Fortunately, Lehrer is not an idiot. 'What about the Al-Qaeda attacks on the American Embassies in 1998?' the host pointed out. 'One of those also took place in Kenya. Were these not during the 'Oslo period', when the Israelis and Palestinians were intensely involved in peace negotiations? They were talking to each other then, and it didn't stop the attacks.'

Why Terrorism Works: Excerpts can be found at this link at

Just for a moment, there was silence on the airwaves. And in that silence I realized there could hardly be a better anecdote for me to lead off a review of the book Why Terrorism Works by Alan Dershowitz. The core of this controversial new tome, published around the first anniversary of September 11, is an analysis of the Palestinian terror movement that shows a systematic pattern throughout the decades: whenever concessions have been made to the Palestinian cause in an attempt to avoid further bloodshed, the result has instead been an emboldening of Palestinian terrorist resolve leading to ever more audacious attacks - followed in turn by further international concessions. The Palestinians have learned, conclusively, that 'Terrorism Works.' Sadly, too many appeasers in the States and Europe have failed to draw the same conclusions – as evidenced by the amnesiac caller to the Brian Lehrer Show – and still naively believe that if they bend over backwards in the face of genocide, they will somehow forestall further murder. Those people need to read this book.

Dershowitz is professor of law at Harvard Law School, and a prominent civil liberties attorney, but he's a hard person to pin down politically. There are many who see Why Terrorism Works as a right-wing tome, but Dershowitz' last book was entitled Supreme Injustice: How The High Court Hijacked Election 2000 and before that, he sided with the defense in Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case. Ultimately, Dershowitz is his own man, someone willing to think beyond traditional party lines, and it's for that reason I find Why Terrorism Works particularly compelling.

The book's five chapters break down into three parts, only the second of which really lives up to the title. And it's that section which is most powerful. In hard-hitting sentence after hard-hitting sentence, Dershowitz details the history of the Palestinian terror movement, showing how the unintended complicity – or at least appeasement - of European countries and the United Nations has, to a large degree, brought us to our present precarious position, where groups such as Al-Qaeda feel confident enough to attack entire cities.

Why so? Because, back in 1968-1972, when Yassir Arafat's PLO first set about hijacking airplanes with alarming regularity, a pattern was set. "Terrorists who hijacked, blew up, or otherwise attacked commercial airliners would, if captured, quickly be released by most countries," writes Dershowitz. "Individual terrorists were neither being deterred by any realistic threat of punishment nor incapacitated by being kept confined. Indeed, they could expect to be released after a brief detention and returned home where they were treated as heroes." The numbers make for embarrassing reading. "According to one survey," writes Dershowitz, "of the 204 terrorists arrested outside the Middle East between 1968 and 1975, only three remained in prison at the end of 1975."

In the midst of this period occurred the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, which was met, initially at least, by expressions of outright revulsion, horror and condemnation from the international community. But West Germany preferred to be rid of the three terrorists captured during a tragically bungled rescue effort than have the international attention and security risks posed by bringing them to trial. Just two months after the massacre, a Lufthansa plane flying from Beirut with but a few passengers and a skeleton screw was conveniently hijacked, the captors demanding the release of the three Munich killers. Chancellor Willy Brandt, publicly proclaiming his desire to protect the innocent German hostages, obliged. The three murderers were released and flown home to a hero's welcomes for their part in the Munich massacre. West Germany, while for many years claiming no complicity in this hijacking (Dershowitz' book indicates evidence that suggests otherwise), was nonetheless rid of its immediate security threat without any loss of German life. (Israel hunted down and killed two of the terrorists; the third is believed to be living in Africa.)

A full decade later, this intra-European policy of appeasement remained firmly in place. In 1985, armed PFLP terrorists boarded the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro in Egypt, and murdered a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American holidaymaker. Italy refused to allow the Americans to launch a rescue effort, and the terrorists were instead freed in Egypt, where they boarded a plane bound for another Arab country. Determined to bring the murderers to justice, the American military intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Italy, where a C-141 was waiting to fly the terrorists to the USA to stand trial. "Italian soldiers blocked the Americans from approaching the Egyptian plane," writes Dershowitz. "Finally, after the Italians promised to bring the hijackers to justice, the United States backed down, and the four hijackers were taken into Italian custody. Among them were two important terrorist leaders with rivers of blood on their hands. The Italians released them immediately. The others were tried, convicted and allowed to 'escape' while on leave from Italian prisons."

Dershowitz rightly accuses Germany and Italy of serving only to encourage further international terrorism by their actions. He seems equally angry with France, though I struggled to find a similarly egregious example – unless he's talking of the French Foreign Minister's self-confessed "favorable and encouraging impression" of Yassir Arafat after their meeting in October 1974. Britain, however, crops up in the case of Leila Khaled. This (female) terrorist had taken part in the hijacking of a TWA plane from Rome to Damascus, but was captured, imprisoned in Syria and promptly released. Sure enough, she soon took part in another attempted hijacking, this time of an El Al flight from Amsterdam to New York. Captured in a shoot-out with security forces, she was placed in a British prison of which Dershowitz quotes her as saying she was treated "as if I were an official state guest." The British released her within a month.

But it was not only European nations who kept tossing the short-burning fuse of terrorism over their borders in the hope that someone else would reap the inevitable explosion. Between pages 57 and 77, Dershowitz lays out a timeline that demonstrates how the United Nations, rather than demanding dialogue and denouncing terrorism, instead succumbed to it. And so, not surprisingly, concessions were met with ever more violence. In 1974, the very day after the United Nations granted observer status to the PLO, the Palestinian Rejectionist Front hijacked a British DC-10 airliner, diverting it to Tunisia, where a German passenger was killed. So much for Chancellor Brandt's gamble that by freeing the Munich terrorists, his country and its citizens would avoid further bloodshed.

There will be those reading this review who will argue that the Palestinians and other terror groups have been driven to terrorism out of sheer desperation. That the policy of sacrificing young men and women as suicide bombers (or stone-throwing children to Army bullets) represents last-ditch resistance in the face of brutal occupation and after all attempts at diplomacy. And that the use of surface-to-air missiles on civilian aircraft, or indeed, the use of civilian aircraft on tall buildings, will immediately cease if only we correct the 'root causes' of terrorism. Even while writing this piece I have come across an interview with Jackson Browne, a man for whom I have utmost respect – especially for publicizing the American-supported terrorism in Central America during the 1980s – stating "The most fundamental causes of Sept. 11 are poverty and injustice," as if this simultaneously explains and excuses everything.

Dershowitz tears this argument apart. "The 'root causes' of terrorism are as varied as human nature," he writes. "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 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.' "

He draws an analogy with child rearing. "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." But that's exactly what the United Nations and to a large degree, the western media, has done by focusing attention on the grievances of terrorists over those of peaceful protestors.

Can violent resistance ever be justified as an act of last resort? Not if non-violent resistance has not been tried first, Dershowitz argues. Between 1948 and 1967, he writes, there was little effort made by Palestinian 'refugees' to establish statehood over their Jordanian and Egyptian occupiers. It was only after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, "following its victory in a defensive war" that "the Palestinians began to seek statehood in earnest." And they immediately did so through violent means. The first airline hijacking by Palestinian terrorists took place in July 1968.

As for the ongoing intifada, launched in 2000, Dershowitz presents evidence that it was a pre-planned counter-response to the Camp David talks on Palestinian statehood. "Rather than trying to negotiate some additional concessions – or compromising their maximalist claims- the Palestinians reverted to the terrorist tactics that had brought them so far already," he writes. "And why not? It had worked in the past. The resulting epidemic of suicide bombing – killing many Israeli civilians and wounding even more – was not a result of any 'desperation.' It was a carefully worked out policy designed to increase the power of the Palestinians.'"

"The Palestinian terrorist leaders have concluded that it's worth sacrificing the lives of young Palestinians as suicide bombers because a) they kill unwitting Israeli civilians in the process, and b) the inevitable military response can be broadcast around the world as examples of brutal military oppression, thereby justifying further suicide attacks on civilians as acts of 'desperation,' and perpetuating the cycle."

And that policy – sending young people to certain death as 'suicide bombers' – has accordingly raised the stakes. "The goal of suicide terrorism is to create a 'cycle' of violence – or at least the illusion that the violence and counterviolence are part of the cycle of morally equivalent actions and counteractions. But the actions of the Palestinians, who glorify homicide and dehumanize its Jewish victims, are not morally equivalent to the actions of the Israelis, who put their own soldiers at risk in order to minimize the inevitable killing of civilians that accompanies any military response to terrorism, especially when terrorists hide among civilians and use them as human shields."

In other words, the Palestinian terrorist leaders have concluded that it's worth sacrificing the lives of young Palestinians as suicide bombers because a) they kill unwitting Israeli civilians in the process, and b) the inevitable military response can be broadcast around the world as examples of brutal military oppression, thereby justifying further suicide attacks on civilians as acts of 'desperation,' and perpetuating the cycle. All the while, the Palestinian political leadership (represented by Yassir Arafat) denies official involvement in the terrorism itself, and vast portions of the international community accept this lie at face value. Yet Israel, a functioning democracy whose army is clearly acting under orders, can offer no such smokescreen and receives international condemnation every time it dares take military action to defend itself.

Before I get angry responses from, particularly, British visitors to this site, many of whom seem to have an automatic aversion to the existence of Israel (no surprise given my experience with the media bias there last April), the above paragraph neither condones any examples of an overly aggressive Israeli military response nor suggests that the loss of a civilian life counts for any more, or less, on either side. But as someone who supported American military action in Afghanistan to root out Al-Qaeda's leadership, its training camps and its state sponsors, fully aware that such action was bound to result in the unfortunate loss of some civilian life, I'm aware that any government-approved, acutely-focused military response to terrorism will bring knee-jerk international condemnation that can prove equal to the unannounced and anonymous attacks on civilians that provoke it in the first place.

Dershowitz describes this scenario as a "win-win situation for the terrorists and a lose-lose situation for the victims." And he notes the inevitable results. "In March 2002, following the massive increase in suicide bombings that killed scores of Israeli citizens, the UN Security Council rewarded the Palestinians by, for the first time, unanimously voting in favor of establishing a Palestinian state."


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