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Tolerating Terrorism

In response to:

In Cold Blood from the March 8, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Reviewing my book The Ultimate Weapon and Bowyer Bell’s A Time of Terror (NYR, March 8), Bernard Avishai concludes we “have little patience for…moral argument” and thus have produced defective books that are “examples of how behavioral social science interprets the world.” From our presumed “failure to provide any consistent moral criteria for judging terrorist activity” he concludes that we have succumbed to dangerous moral relativism of a kind preached by Thomas Hobbes.

I cannot speak for Mr. Bell, but since I am neither a moral relativist (in your reviewer’s sense) nor a Hobbesian, I think at least those parts of the record should be set straight. Mr. Avishai might have struck nearer the mark if he had accused me of being a moral absolutist. To someone who finds all forms of killing repugnant, killing a hundred people may be more appalling than killing one, but that hardly makes the latter act desirable by comparison. The dilemma of the pacifist, whether he is a social scientist or a poet, is most acute when he watches policy makers debate whether to kill a few people now in the hopes of saving more later on, or—even more insidious—whether to sacrifice thousands of lives in a purported defense of the national interest. My own moral agony in such cases stems from the knowledge that I could not bring myself to sacrifice one person (unless it were myself) in hopes of saving a number of others, and equally from the cynicism and self-deception I have seen in leaders calling for aggressive attacks against innocent people, ostensibly in order to preserve the “abstract laws” Mr. Avishai wishes to defend at all costs.

Such leaders may equally be terrorists or the heads of duly constituted governments.

Further, to say Bell and I are “moral relativists” and then to declare that we have a limited sense of the costs involved or we would be more willing to sacrifice lives is a notable self-contradiction. If we did weigh “lives” against “costs” and chose now one, now the other, then we should be moral relativists. But I, at any rate, do not.

The implicit argument throughout Mr. Avishai’s review—one also maintained at various times by both the Israeli cabinet and the US State Department—is that negotiation with hostage takers and other terrorists is a form of weakness that will give rise to more incidents of terrorism in the future, whereas shooting quickly and decisively may save the day. By now almost every police department in the United States has learned differently. One major reason for the lessened loss of life (among police, terrorists, hostages, and by-standers) in domestic hostage-taking situations in the past six or seven years is the discovery by police of the value of artful negotiation. Internationally, with image more important than lives to many policy makers, these lessons have often been ignored.

Finally, no one has yet offered convincing evidence that talking with terrorists and trying to accommodate the political points of view they represent has resulted in a waning of democracy or a growth of totalitarianism. On the contrary, such results have followed from rigid repressive measures of the kind Uruguay used against the Tupamaros. All the outrage in the world should not prevent us from hearing what the terrorist has to say. We may and should deplore his methods, but we ignore him at our cost. To dismiss the underground left on three continents as “totalitarian” (by contrast with the anti-colonial national liberation movements) skews the argument from the start and does nothing to aid political decisionmaking. This is moral relativism of a genuine and dangerous kind.

Jan Schreiber

Social Science Research Institute

Boston, Massachusetts

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