Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge by Alan M. Dershowitz 

reviewed by
Robin Melville



hould the ticking bomb terrorist be tortured?”: Alan Dershowitz’s prescription, discussed at length in chapter 4 of his book, Why Terrorism Works, that law enforcement officers should be able to seek and judges should be able to issue a warrant to torture a supposed terrorist who might be able to provide information that might save lives, has already been much commented on. It is only the most notorious of the several “tragic choices” he canvasses in exploring how a democracy might change its ways in order to grapple with a certain sort of threat. In light of the commentary his suggestions have already excited, I see little point to further discussing them here. Rather, taking as my starting point the notion that solutions tend to be prefigured in the way a problem has been defined, I propose to reflect on the way Dershowitz defines his problem. In doing so, I wish to urge that he, like everyone else who does more than merely gesture vaguely towards 9/11 and its consequences, is presenting a history-laden and theory-laden perspective on those terrible events. But histories and theories are necessarily subject to critical evaluation. And this remains true of Dershowitz’s particular history and particular theory, despite the fact that he does what he can to discourage their evaluation.

At the outset I suppose I ought to confess I’ve always been just a little bit envious of the self-assurance of those who can assert their opinions without a hint of qualification or evidence. I almost wish I had the sort of mind and personality that would allow me to impose my worldview authoritatively on those who read or listen to my words. Hence it was that I read the opening sentence of Dershowitz’s “Introduction” with a mixture of envy and incredulity:

The greatest danger facing the world today comes from religiously inspired terrorist groups—often state sponsored—that are seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction for use against civilian targets. [2]

How can he make such an unqualified claim in a world in which there is so much disease and hunger and so much violence, even deadly, mass violence, which has nothing at all to do with religiously inspired terrorist groups? Surely Dershowitz must recognize that there are other dreadful, deadly dangers in the world? So what criteria is he employing to rank order them out of sight? Dershowitz’s book provides no answer to these questions. Rather, his selective focus distorts the nature of the problem, restricts the range of questions to be raised, and presupposes the kinds of answers to be provided.

Underdeveloped argument, unexplored alternatives hidden behind the mask of confident assertion, would seem, in fact, to be the symptoms of the intellectual disease from which this book suffers, namely, no matter what the cost to honesty and fair dealing, to force his worldview on his readers.

Consider this second example, from the third paragraph of Dershowitz’s Introduction:

Global terrorism is thus a phenomenon largely of our own making . . .

—Aha, I thought, he is going to ponder the fact that the “weapons of mass destruction,” whether fuel-laden jumbo jets, or deadly chemical or biological agents, or nuclear weapons deliverable by long-range missiles, cargo containers, or suitcases, were devised, created, developed and disseminated by the world’s most economically and technologically advanced and powerful countries for their own purposes. But no, I was mistaken.

The international community—primarily the European governments and the United Nations, but also, at times, our own country [presumably the United States, though from the evidence of this book, Dershowitz’s national identity is not entirely unambiguous]—made it all but inevitable that we would experience a horrendous day like September 11, 2001. We are reaping what we have sown . . . [I]t is our policy toward terrorism that will determine whether their terrorism succeeds or fails. It is we who must change our failed approach to terrorism if the world is not to become swept up in a whirlwind of violence and destruction. [2]

So we are not, after all, going to be asked to reflect upon the regrettable and foreseeable consequences of our own pursuit of what Philip Green so long ago scornfully referred to as “Deadly Logic.” Rather, we, who made the possible destruction of the entire world a key component of our “defense posture” and who seem not to be about to deny ourselves the capacity to go on threatening to utterly destroy selected portions of it, and who in the process have contributed and are still contributing massively to the production of so many kinds of terror weapons of mass destruction, must now try to figure out how to curb and contain relatively minor practitioners of an approach to difficult political problems that we, the great ones of the earth, have employed so energetically for so long. And to help us do so, Dershowitz claims, not, I think, without pride, that he is, as Herman Kahn was once willing to do with respect to nuclear war, “willing to think the unthinkable.” [13]

Neither—despite his observation that “we are reaping what we have sown” –are we going to be invited to reflect upon possible consequences of an imperial presence, past or present, in various parts of the world distant from whatever “homeland” the imperialists hailed from. Rather, Dershowitz is inviting us to blame the old, now enervated imperialists for failing to be rough enough and tough enough to play their proper part in the world-order we now inhabit. Thus, despite having repudiated the notion that the root causes of terrorism can be understood and eliminated, [24] Dershowitz shows no reluctance to understand it, at least in part, in a decidedly particular way. The subtitle of his second chapter could hardly make it more clear: “How Our European Allies Made September 11 Inevitable.” [35] And in the passages that follow he excoriates these allies for their pusillanimous treatment of those, mostly Palestinian, whom Dershowitz himself would have treated much more harshly. It may, incidentally, be relevant here, given his own clearly stated political commitments, to point out that France, at least, has a much longer record of this sort of pusillanimity than he is perhaps willing to acknowledge. For so long ago as 1946 that country gave asylum to Eliyahu Lankin, an Irgun terrorist who had escaped from British custody, thus allowing him to assume a leading role in Irgun’s European operations (see “The Irgun Abroad,” at the Irgun web site,

It is, I think, also relevant to note that Dershowitz is here castigating “old Europe” and the United Nations for their failure to behave as he would have them behave some time before they became the object of official defamation and talk-show abuse because they refused to acknowledge the wisdom of President Bush’s approach to Iraq. Unlike the regularly noted and invariably criticized anti-Americanism, anti-Europeanism is neither a widely acknowledged nor regretted phenomenon in the United States (where by my observation it is actually quite widespread). But it surely ought to be. Certainly, Dershowitz, for one, would seem to appeal quite blatantly to aspects of that fuzzy set of prejudices regarding Europe. This is, I would venture, entirely in keeping with his approach to argument, at least in this book, aimed at a large, largely American audience. It is not scholarly; it is unscrupulously lawyerly, in the sense that he seems set on making the best case possible for his side, no matter how much obfuscation, misrepresentation and ad hominem argumentation that may require.  

Thus, in his very opening paragraphs Dershowitz arbitrarily and prejudicially delimits the range of his reflections, and so ours, on the eternally troubling problem of political violence. And thus does he thereby prescribe the ways in which it should be dealt with. But troubling as these broad contextualizations are, yet other of his contextualizations are even more reprehensible because they are so outrageously parti pris. To be sure, he does briefly, very briefly, acknowledge that “nearly every nation has made some use of terrorism.” [7] And he does admit, rather dismissively, as if of little account, that the United States and Israel, among others, have supported or engaged in terroristic actions. [7] It is necessary to remark his brief comments on these two particular states because they occupy such a privileged place in Dershowitz’s concerns. Indeed, after reading the book I find myself wondering whether it is really about the United States and the problems it faces after September 11. It could surely be read in the other direction, so to speak: now that Americans have experienced September 11, perhaps they can be persuaded to accept a very particular account of Israel’s predicament and to sympathize with the harsh measures the Israeli government has employed against its enemies? The manner in which he frames his discussion, first, on his book’s dust jacket, and secondly, and at some length, in his second chapter, reflects on this possibility and on the egregiously biassed character of his book.

Surely, looking first to the book’s dust jacket, it is no accident that it features the smiling faces of Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden with the word “TERRORISM,” dripping blood, between them. Such, however, is the subtlety of images that it would surely be possible for Dershowitz to claim, should he wish to do so, that he was not in fact asserting any close linkage between the secular Palestinian and the fanatically religious Saudi. But frankly, I would not believe him. The argument of this particular image—that, somehow, the Palestinians were responsible for what happened on September 11, 2001—is of a piece with all those other—failed—attempts to prove there was a link between the detestable bin Laden with others, in Iraq and elsewhere, who have been demonized. And no doubt many Americans will believe him. Just as many have been led to believe Saddam Hussein did it. And who knows, before long many may find themselves being led to believe it was Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

What is merely implied in the visual imagery on his dust jacket is made verbally explicit in his second chapter, “The Internationalization of Terrorism.” [35-103] For in this chapter Dershowitz makes quite clear his belief that the Palestinians stand at the heart of “global terrorism.” Further, as already noted, he holds that the European governments which failed to deal harshly with Palestinian acts of terror in Europe contributed to its flourishing and so contributed to making them an example to be emulated. In pressing these claims, Dershowitz again contextualizes to his own convenience. Don’t ask about Jewish-Palestinian relations prior to the territorial rearrangements brought about in the 1967 war. Don’t ask what the Europeans might have been grappling with domestically or internationally. Dershowitz nowhere acknowledges that they may have been struggling to manage a number of related Middle Eastern problems or that they may simply have developed a different understanding of how to contain terrorism. Their top, indeed, their sole priority should have been the same as Dershowitz’s, as should have been their way of dealing with it.  Furthermore, unwilling to leave us scope to misunderstand just how awful the Palestinians have been and just how complicitous the Europeans and the United Nations have been in fostering this awfulness, he imposes on his readers a 21-page list of Palestinian perfidies and the benefits they supposedly derived from them [57-78], this on top of 21 pages of text highlighting several of the items in his list [36-57]. After all of this, it takes quite a mental effort to remember that the Palestinians were not in fact responsible for September 11. It also takes quite a mental effort to remember that it is the Palestinians who have lived in thoroughly miserable conditions under military occupation by foreigners for so many of the last 35 years (to look at matters only from within the time frame Dershowitz himself imposes) and who have seen illegal settlement after illegal settlement installed on their lands. If this constitutes success, what would Dershowitz consider failure?

To advance his cause, Dershowitz must also downplay the terrorism of others in order to make the terrorism of his enemies seem so much the worse, even unique. Thus, he relatively briefly mentions a number of cases where terrorism met with less success and yet others where, according to him, terror had little to do with outcomes which favored those who employed terror. With respect to the former, the Armenians and the Kurds, Dershowitz’s account is again rather peculiar. For his main aim seems again to be to put the Palestinians in a bad light: both the Armenians and the Kurds, he asserts, had much stronger grounds than the Palestinians for seeking their own nation states, but their resort to terrorism failed to get the approval of “the international community,” perhaps, he explicitly suggests, because neither of their enemies was a Jewish state. [91-92] Similarly, according to Dershowitz, resorting to terror has not brought success to the Irish Republicans. [93] This would likely cause Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness to smile and cause a host of Britain’s leading politicians over the last 35 years to shake their heads in disbelief. In this last regard, coincidentally,  recent news reports on the still largely secret findings of the British Stevens Commission do raise the possibility that British state terrorism, in conjunction with the terrorist campaigns of the Ulster Loyalists, may in fact have helped the cause of those seeking to resist change in the constitutional arrangements of northern Ireland. Will it ever be permissible to raise the question of the terrorism of the Israeli state and its consequences?

Turning to the two cases where, he acknowledges, some might argue terrorism contributed to the successes of those practicing it, in the case of the African National Congress, he asserts without discussion, that its defeat of the apartheid system owed little to the terrorism it did employ.  His second case is necessarily more controversial because, as already noted, Dershowitz himself devotes so much attention to yet other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let me quote his remarks on Jewish terrorism in their entirety:

In Palestine, the Irgun and the Stern Gang attacked British military and administrative targets primarily, seeking to make it so difficult for the British to rule that they would simply give up and leave. Terrorism certainly contributed to the achievement of this goal, but other factors were much more important, and many historians believe that the British would not have remained in Palestine very long in any case. [93]

Now it is indisputable that, where the British were concerned, there were, indeed, other factors conducing to their departure from Palestine and from a great many other places too. But surely Dershowitz’s account of the activities of Irgun and the Stern Gang—certainly when compared to his lengthy account of Palestinian actions and supposed successes—is all too self-servingly brief. Even the Irgun veterans who operate the Irgun website ( offer an account of their own history rather less anodyne than the one Dershowitz presents. Thus, one would never know from what he says that the Arab population of Palestine was also subject to attack by these Jewish terrorist organizations, that so early as 1937 Irgun began attacking Arabs, thereafter setting off bombs in Arab markets in Haifa and Jerusalem (cf. the section “Restrain and Retaliation,” at the Irgun site). Since it connects with yet other aspects of the contemporary terrorist culture which Dershowitz views with understandable repugnance, it is also interesting to note that Irgun heroized its terrorist bombers. Thus, one who was attacked by local people as he was about to set off a bomb in Old Jerusalem receives the following recognition: “Yaakov Raz was the first member of the Irgun to die as a result of an operation. The heroism he displayed, and particularly the manner of his death, made him a symbol and inspiration for generations of young Irgun members.” (ibid.)

Dershowitz also sees fit to distinguish “global terrorism” from terrorism that limits itself “to more localized attacks” [93]—the former being, for some unexplained reason, more culpable than the latter. Surely the two Italian passers by who were the victims of Irgun’s bombing of the British Embassy in Rome in November 1946 would not agree with him. (Cf. the section “The Irgun Abroad,” at the Irgun site.) So far from being localized in their operations, the Irgun veterans also inform us that Irgun began to organize abroad before World War Two and that, having decided after the war to renew activity in Europe and to there launch a “second front,” which led, inter alia, to an attack on the British headquarters in Vienna and the sabotage of a British troop train. Further, might it not be reasonably argued that the infamous assassination of the UN representatives, Colonel Serat and Count Bernadotte, who had had the temerity to advocate a settlement Irgun didn’t like, constituted an attack on the international community and hence an act of “global terrorism”?

So fraught with misunderstanding and bad faith is the discussion of these matters, it is perhaps necessary to repeat that it is Dershowitz himself who juxtaposes the Jewish groups to the Palestinian ones, to the extreme detriment of the latter. I am merely trying to point out that he does so in such a fashion as to raise questions regarding his objectivity. 

In sum, then, Dershowitz’s history, like his analysis, is simply too idiosyncratically focussed on his own narrowly and self-servingly defined concerns to be of any use to anyone genuinely seeking to think through the problem posed by terrorism and how to respond to it. What he seems to be engaged in is demonization, not scholarship. It thus renders his suggested responses to terrorism both understandable and worthless. Having categorized the “global terrorists” as a new, utterly inhumane species, spawned by the Palestinians, whom he utterly abominates, and whom he depicts as utterly unlike anyone civilized people like himself would hold any truck with, why not torture them (with sterile needles under the finger nails).

Sadly, one cannot just leave it at that. For it is very possible that Dershowitz’s experience of September 11, 2001, was so traumatic as to radically affect his discourse.  But it must also be acknowledged that many among his anticipated audience were similarly traumatized. Nevertheless the burden of authorship is surely more demanding than is the burden imposed on the reader. Especially in such times, when passion is all too common while perspective is not, those making political arguments and pressing policies should surely be trying to exercise the greatest responsibility. On the basis of this book, however, Dershowitz must be ranked alongside all those others who have irresponsibly chosen to appeal to and exploit the passions generated by 9/11 for their own ends. Sadly, too, this may well help bring yet more pain and suffering to people around the world, including those belonging to the very communities to which he most intensely imagines he belongs.