Though nothing can be immortall, which mortals make; yet, if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their Common-wealths might be secured, at least from perishing by internall diseases…. Therefore when they come to be dissolved, not by externall violence but by intestine disorder, the fault is not in men, as they are the Matter, but as they are the Makers and orderers of them.

—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

No terrorist will admit to “terrorism”—only to committing the violence necessary for his presumably just struggle. Terrorism is the more perplexing since many good causes—the abolition of slavery, the subversion of the Nazi occupation, the founding of the Jewish state, the destruction of European colonialism—have been furthered by sickening acts of violence.

Of course the effectiveness of such acts may be exaggerated; it is doubtful that the underground operations of the Irgun and the Sternists would have had much impact on subsequent events were it not for the Histadrut’s previous success in organizing an incipient Jewish state in Mandate Palestine. But even if some “terrorist” act does little to further the good cause it is meant to serve, the moral status of the action still gains. No one could think it an end in itself just to be terrifying. Underground fighters themselves prefer that their declared purposes—and not their murderous strategies—be the main subject of debate. Why not accept their view?

There are, as Michael Walzer1 has recently suggested, good reasons for resisting it, although, like most of us, he is prepared to make some allowances. We might reasonably forgive the assault of the assassin, bomb thrower, kidnapper, or hijacker if his acts are a response to the active and violent repression of the lives and ideals of people opposing a tyranny—a cruel foreign imperial regime, for example, or police acting brutally for an intolerant majority. Second, the terrorist must convincingly be seen as working for a society in which one form of violent repression will not be replaced by another. Third, and here Walzer is more explicit, the assault must not be directed randomly against innocent civilians, but only against the officials and armed agents of the repressive regime, taking all precautions not to harm those who are neither. All these conditions are necessary. The Red Brigades, for example, cannot be exonerated merely because their victims are carefully chosen. The judges, prison officials, government workers whom they murder and cripple enforce a constitution which provides effective political freedoms that the Brigades forgo. Only terrorism that is defensive and limited to the tyrants and their cruel agents is morally tolerable. And such actions are probably not best described as “terrorism” in the first place.

It is when underground groups take the offensive against civilians in a society that would otherwise suppress neither their ideas nor their nonviolent political organizing that we need an unequivocal epithet like “terrorism.” Terror is clearly a moral violation in democratic societies, in which libertarian constitutions and practices make violence superfluous to the pursuit of dissenting political objectives. In such societies the terrorist can be condemned by his tactics alone because, Walzer suggests, such tactics betray the revolutionary’s “totalitarian” view of politics.

It should not be difficult to accept Walzer’s conclusion that terrorism, particularly in its “current European and Palestinian manifestations,” is intrinsically totalitarian and should be repudiated. These terrorists’ strategies betray contempt for learning, reflection, articulate criticism—activities from which subtle and lasting commitments to social improvement derive. The terrorist can murder at random only if he repudiates the democrat’s fundamental belief in the dignity of individuals, only if he reduces individuals to categories—“bourgeois,” “imperialists,” “Zionists,” etc.—which he decides are disposable.

A terrorist act can grow only from immanently absolutist—i.e., mechanistic—historical and philosophical presumptions. Without some highly mechanical theory of history, how could the terrorist aim to advance to a more just society merely by inciting the violent rising of “have-not” classes, nations, or races against “vested powers”? Only someone who believes that men are nothing but the products of their social circumstances (class, nation, race, etc.), and that their professed beliefs are no more than a cosmetic gloss on their intense drive for power, could take responsibility for the murder of people whose names, ages, occupations, and political opinions were not known in advance.

Bowyer Bell2 and Jan Schreiber have undertaken to teach us about such calamities. They are social scientists who claim to be experts on terror and give advice on how to deal with it. Their separate books are nearly interchangeable, not only in style and concern but also as examples of how behavioral social science interprets the world—and might affect it, for they think in ways that bureaucrats will find congenial.

In particular, these authors have little patience for the kinds of moral argument I have just mentioned. They do not take us much beyond the vantage point of the voyeur. Their tone is casual and clear of indignation. Aside from some lively descriptions of the strange, even erotic, bonds which have at times evolved between hostages and their captors, they virtually ignore the effects of captivity on the victims. Bell and Schreiber want us to see terrorized people as a familiar part of the human condition; we should not single them out for special attention:


The many and the media [wrongly] perceive the dramatic slaughters of recent years, the machine-gunning of innocents, the no-warning bombs, the murdered diplomats, and the extended hijacking odyssey, as novel….[Bell]

[P]arts of almost every major modern army must be considered terrorist organizations as well, for they have all burned villages, raped women, shot children and old people, destroyed hospitals and places of worship.[Schreiber]

These authors are frankly3 more interested in aggression than in “shot children.” Of course they profess concern for “innocents.” But like the terrorists they aim to comprehend, they see the people whose lives are disrupted or ended by terror as one-dimensional characters in a political melodrama, or, as Schreiber prefers, “theater.” And, since he and Bell usually cast terrorists in the leading parts in that theater, we find ourselves rooting for the bad guys if only for the sake of a satisfying climax.

Worse than their stoic attitude toward the suffering of others is Bell’s and Schreiber’s failure to provide any consistent moral criteria for judging terrorist activity. Neither raises the question whether such violence is a just means to a just end, but rather they take it for granted that we can recognize a “terrorist” by his violent manner and “radical” ideology. Two serious analytical weaknesses result. The first is the confusion of totalitarian-left undergrounds in today’s Europe, Japan, and the Middle East with the old anticolonial national liberation movements of Africa and Asia. The success of Africans and Asians in the 1960s is taken by Schreiber to be a cautionary sign of the potential success of the urban terrorists of the 1970s and 1980s. Neither author asks what such different revolutionaries want—aside from publicity—or whether what they want can make sense to the people whose support they need, or whether their “terrorist” means will further these professed political ends.

The second and related consequence of Bell’s and Schreiber’s reticence regarding moral argument is even more troubling. Because they do not know why terrorism is wrong or how to distinguish it from justifiable revolution, they seem to believe that we should be detached and even-handed, even magnanimous, in the approach we take to terrorists. “What terrorists do is appalling and should be stopped, but at the same time they should be listened to: they have something to say.” After all, Schreiber concludes further on, should the economic decline of the West continue, we shall be the “terrorists of tomorrow.” In the same vein, Bell argues that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

The assumptions of such superficial moral relativism are worth examining closely. Like Hobbes, both authors understand man to be a calculating mechanism serving his own material interests, which they see as underlying what Bell calls “dearly held beliefs,” “desired futures,” or, more quaintly, “cherished responses.” These are “rationally” pursued—even by terrorists—and are acquired as a matter of routine in some subtle but automatic process of social experience and indoctrination. The moral sense of ordinary citizens is thus not vastly different from that of terrorists once we see that the views of both are largely determined for them by the societies (nations, classes, etc.) in which they live.

Our contempt for terrorist activity, Schreiber cautions us, should be calmed by the professional social scientist’s cool: “Positions which at first appear highly moral have a way of coming down to issues of basic prejudice or personal or national ideology.” Terrorists reflect the social conditions that produced them much as we social scientists are influenced by our own backgrounds. And since it is we who are studying them, we must especially resist “shaping analysis into advocacy”—an unfortunate tendency, Bell notes, of the academic mind.

Armed with these Hobbesian methods and sentiments, Bell and Schreiber predictably extend their “use of reason” to “commonwealths.” They define the “state” as a monopoly of violence, itself potentially “terroristic,” which protects those who self-interestedly “subscribe to it”—to its predisposing but finally incidental moral principles. The state “allows” its citizens only those freedoms that are consistent with its own survival. “States,” Schreiber observes, “may be tempered by democracy.” But this is essentially irrelevant to their origin in the embattled human impulse “to acquire basic needs” in “safety.” As with Hobbes, the sovereign’s power derives from our reciprocal vulnerability.


Bell is never quite as explicit as Schreiber about libertarian political constitutions but, if we may extrapolate from his views on international affairs, he believes that “habits of law” develop according to the “balance of terror and the logic of greed.” Nowhere do Schreiber or Bell find that democratic ethics or democratic states have any special moral value. In fact, they insist only that terrorism is a particular technical problem for democracies, in which the means of repression—secret police, administrative detention measures, etc.—are necessarily weaker than under authoritarian regimes.

In the political realm, then, men are mechanically self-interested, striving for scarce resources and for public “recognition,” also in short supply. Laws and states assure these for some classes of men—i.e., the “establishment”—but not all can benefit equally. Thus, the rich believe in private property, the poor and their advocates in radical leveling. The moral ideologies of revolutionaries, Schreiber assures us, boil down to convenient claims of “exploitation,” and emerge spontaneously from incidental social and economic conditions. When men cannot earn satisfactory means and “recognition” from these conditions they turn to revolution and, when frustrated, to terror.

Having analyzed the motives of terrorists as a matter of Hobbesian behaviorism, Bell and Schreiber proceed to fill chapter after chapter with second- and third-hand reports of terrorist operations and government reactions. These stories are often intricate, and we are apparently expected to be particularly fascinated by “hijacking odysseys.” The chapters are headed and subheaded with slick titles devised to imply their authors’ expertise in the art of crisis management, e.g., “Strategies of the Threatened” (Bell) and “Fear and Trembling: The Hostage Game” (Schreiber).

How are the crises to be managed? We are told, for example, that the “hard line” sometimes helps (as when the French police bloodlessly forced the capitulation of Croat nationalists who had hijacked a TWA lane to Paris), sometimes not (as when US diplomats tried and failed to make a deal with the PFLP members who invaded the US embassy in the Sudan). The apparent willingness of state authorities to negotiate is sometimes a good cover for eventual raids (Israel vs. PFLP in Entebbe), sometimes not (Germany vs. Fatah in Munich). Capitulation to all demands will sometimes save hostages (Austria vs. Fatah in Schönau), while the satisfaction of some demands will sometimes save some hostages (Canada vs. FLQ in Montreal). Storming the schoolhouse will sometimes succeed (Holland vs. South Moluccans in Assen) and sometimes it will not (Israel vs. PDFLP in Ma’alot).

This advice is accompanied by bits of applied popular psychology: hostage-taking only works if officials are convinced that the captors will kill the captives. Terrorists are unlikely to kill hostages they grow to like. Terrorists are most nervous immediately after abducting hostages but should always be made to feel respected, and so on. Schreiber even volunteers a variation of the terrorism expert’s riddle—a terrorist cannot kill the last of many hostages without assuring his own capture, so how can he kill the next to last (etc.)—which he proudly solves, and dismisses as a “nice academic joke.”

At least some of their counsel is less obviously gratuitous. Schreiber and Bell are openly hostile to the stated policies of, say, Israel and Canada, which flatly4 reject negotiations in principle. “Success means saving lives,” Schreiber lectures, “not the obliteration of the terrorist.” Similarly, Bell cryptically warns against “Pavlovian shootouts” which endanger lives that bargaining can save. Of course, Bell continues, “there is not yet agreement how much bargaining should be done, how many—if any—concessions should be made and how long the process should take.” But we must consider the hostages’ welfare as paramount until, presumably, other scientists can provide these missing links.

This kind of science and humanitarianism will not do justice to the real and terrible decisions that confront leaders of democratic governments when terrorists strike. The rules for crisis management they offer cannot deal with psychological complexities which, as they show but do not acknowledge, arise in a different form in each case. How can government officials know whether their acquiescence in formal negotiation will not cause terrorists to raise their demands as the SLA did in San Francisco? Do conciliatory responses encourage further provocation later: did the Schönau affair, for example, invite the Vienna raid on OPEC? Is it more risky to storm the terrorists than to allow them to repair with their hostages to renegade states such as Libya or Uganda,5 states which ignore the international conventions that Schreiber painstakingly reproduces?

Bell and Schreiber show much concern with superficial tactical solutions to crises that are each inherently unique because they prefer to avoid the radical moral challenge posed by terrorism. The choice, of course, is not simply between saving hostages and killing terrorists; it is, as the English political writer Rosalyn Higgins recently observed,6 between possibly saving hostages and probably subverting democratic practice. The leaders of democratic states might be more consistent in the face of terrorist blackmail if, instead of becoming preoccupied with their managers’ efforts to psyche out the culprits, they recognized that the preservation of abstract laws can be no less urgent than saving lives.

What makes terrorists bad is not merely that they resort to violence, but also that they use violence against forms of political life that have been devised to abolish violent intellectual and moral repression. I believe it can be wrong for elected governments inflexibly to risk the deaths of ordinary citizens for the sake of democratic ethics. Some compromises may be required; and if it would have saved my own cousins who were, in 1974, killed by Palestinian terrorists, I would have wanted to let the democratic rule of law be hanged. Still, this was not my reaction to the entreaties of the Moro family. In both cases it was probably best that the families were not taking the decisions.

But for Bell and Schreiber the conflict in such cases is between the morally unexceptional state on the one hand and, on the other, its morally unexceptional opponents. “Innocents”—or as Schreiber prefers, “noncombatants”—are simply caught in the crossfire. He and Bell want us to save them at all costs not so much from compassion, but because they have so limited a conception of costs.

Nevertheless, Bell and Schreiber profess to be concerned about “open societies,” the origins and virtues of which they never explore, but which they admire—mainly, it would seem, because they have been living in them themselves. Both warn somewhat hysterically about the threats to “open societies” which are posed, not so much by terrorists, but by the paternalistic sovereigns eager to war with them.

Their argument, briefly, goes like this: since some “have-not” groups turn to revolution and finally to terror to get power—and defend their actions with claims for justice that are as good as any others—Western “have” societies are bound to come under attack. The governments which preside over these technologically advanced and functionally “open” societies are particularly vulnerable to terrorists for two reasons. First, “postindustrial” society presupposes such technological interdependence that a single terrorist act can affect many thousands. The stakes are dramatically higher when so many vital “nodes” of urban life depend on so many others, where nuclear terror is possible, etc.

Second, the sensation-hungry press and television in such postindustrial states give instant celebrity to terrorists and their messages. This, Bell and Schreiber explain, complements perfectly the terrorist’s need for “recognition.” Terrorist “theater” excites attention and spreads a new ideological vocabulary among the impressionable and the relatively disadvantaged masses; it may, Bell and Schreiber suppose, win new adherents or at least a dangerous degree of tolerance unless the state acts to destroy it.

And here, for these authors, is the difficulty. When the state suppresses terror it reveals its own paternalistic violence and invariably “allows” fewer of the civil liberties which had hitherto helped it to maintain its popularity. Like Italy and Germany, the state is damned if it is flabby and damns itself when it is not.7 The inference we are to draw from all of this is sobering: “Terrorism works.” And because it works it will always be with us in “open,” “postindustrial” societies.

Another inference is also plain: we must be vigilant against those who would “close down open societies to make them safe.” And the best way to keep alert is to adopt these authors’ stoicism, that is, to remind ourselves that terrorism is finally to be seen as a natural catastrophe—“less deadly than hurricanes”—set in motion by the material conditions of history and grounded in man’s widespread capacity “to do harm to his fellow man.” This capacity, Schreiber consoles us, “is not merely latent in the human species.” Hobbes also noticed, not without relief, that the natural condition of man was no worse than that of “Lyons, Bears and Wolves.”

The entire thesis deserves attention because it is at once so popular, so anachronistic, and so dangerous. Hobbes haunts our politics through the medium of the Rand Corporation (to whose authority Bell and Schreiber often defer); and, as Hannah Arendt warned, this brand of behaviorism can still take over political thinking even if it cannot be right.

It is of particular interest that behavioral scientists concerned with terrorism should share so many methodological assumptions with the revolutionaries they study. That Bell and Schreiber describe terrorists in much the same language as the latter describe themselves is evident in the recent interview with the German terrorist Michael “Bommi” Baumann, in Encounter, September 1978. Here too we find the paternal state, the cavalier attitude to democratic ethics, the lure of press and television attention, the simple-minded view of “exploitation,” etc. Given such shared premises, it is not surprising that Bell and Schreiber should conclude that terrorism works.

If these social scientists were not, like terrorists, so intent on ignoring the processes of thinking behind political action, they might realize that to kill in cold blood and to presume that such actions will be vindicated by “science” and “history” is not to act by reflex from social conditions: terrorists view the rest of us as mechanically produced and so we can be random targets; they view history as preprogrammed, hence capable of being manipulated by their own special violence, which they view as inevitable. Such views are not derived from common sense.

Moreover, behind terrorists’ (and, I dare say, Bell’s and Schreiber’s) apparent indifference to argued analyses of right and wrong—and necessary to that indifference—is in fact an argument about right and wrong, namely, that what has come to seem necessary, in view of the frequency or intensity of its occurrence, action, etc., also has claims to be right. Whatever their pretensions to acting merely by response to history’s stimulus, terrorists could not have begun to speak their “scientific” language without having absorbed moral and epistemological views that have a long history.

This becomes clearer when we inspect terrorists’ statements and backgrounds. The Red Brigades’ leader, Renato Curcio, called the killing of Aldo Moro “the highest act of humanity possible in a class-divided society”—not an offhand remark. Walter Laqueur reminds us, sardonically, that the Tupamaros were said to require a PhD from prospective members.8 This is not to say that terrorists are smart; but we should realize that their actions cannot be explained by theories about unreflecting drives for power, competition, and aggression born of “desperation.” In fact, most terrorists are the products of the middle class, with university backgrounds, and have developed imaginative and elaborate schemes to “free” us from the “oppression” maintained through “capitalist” and “imperialist” violence by counterviolence.

Terrorists, as we have often heard, may also be deeply disturbed by their frustrated searches for specialized employment, by bureaucratic corruption and persistent social poverty. Particularly in countries like Italy and Germany, they may be driven by repressed shame for the murderous regimes that they identify with their parents. In creating their own subterranean international network, they appear to have had various kinds of help from the Middle East, as well as from Cuba and Czechoslovakia.9 It is also likely that the rigors of underground life drive them to a bloody-minded paranoia. But although they would now deny us this privilege, terrorists are above all erstwhile participants in endless arguments about the nature of mankind and its future. We have little hope of talking students out of their totalitarian philosophic and historical premises once they have become disciplined, nervous murderers. But Western universities have, for two generations, been filling up with teachers like Schreiber and Bell who did not know how to do so when they had the chance.

Nor have such social scientists been able to teach us very much about the virtues of democracy for all their assumptions about the superiority of “open societies.” No democracy that I know of is the happy accident of the “balance of terror and the logic of greed.” Democratic institutions aim to provide what Mill called the moral and psychological climate for exerting our highly individual capacities in art, science, moral philosophy, and production. Hobbes’s sovereign would guarantee only our consumers’ rights to property. And if we cannot distinguish Mill’s principles from those that simply want to maximize power in the market or maintain the security of property, we shall have little with which to reproach Renato Curcio.

If they are to be successfully supported, democratic institutions must be understood as having been established by opposition to the kings, Whigs, and tyrants who willingly provided security for the pursuit of market power.10 Such institutions derive their strength from commonly held ideas of personal rights and the public good; they are not now so fragile that they cannot be defended without being destroyed, as Bell and Schreiber suggest. Warring against men of violence is, Michael Walzer implies,11 an irony but not a paradox.

Bell and Schreiber seem helpless and even resigned when they point out, quite rightly, that the fight against terrorism may endanger civil liberties: Italy has recently enacted laws permitting emergency search, seizure, and detention; Canada’s RCMP has apparently practiced illegal surveillance of the Parti Québecois since the War Measures Act lapsed in 1971; and Germany and Israel have established secret anti-terror squads whose practices should be chilling to civil libertarians. But few civil liberties would survive the abuses of government officials if they were not vigilantly protected. The “SWAT-teams” set up to fight terror do not present challenges to citizens of democratic society that are different in kind from the ones citizens face in controlling arrogant police and intelligence officers, high-handed bureaucrats, and megalomaniac leaders.

Nor does the claim by these authors that terrorism works well now because modern societies are technologically interdependent seem relevant to the moral dilemma facing democratic governments. The choices are the same whether the hostages or potential victims number 100 or 10,000, whether terrorists close down an airport or kidnap a judge. But the practical implications Bell and Schreiber draw from high technology seem to me wrong in any case. The cost and sophistication of high technology can be of advantage to democratic states in dealing with terrorists. They are in a better position to use it for their own defense than are terrorists to use it for attack; no El Al flight has ever been successfully hijacked. The terrorist’s threat to knock out one power station in a “grid” can hardly seem as terrifying to us as the poisoning of a village well did to medieval peasants.

Bell and Schreiber are, finally, in awe before the power of television. Terrorism works, they think, because it can always get attention on television—now the key, they seem to believe, to all political action. Were it not for television how many would have learned of Croatians or South Moluccans, or even Palestinians? But while it is true that terrorists are encouraged by their publicity, how much in fact do viewers learn about them or their struggles, and to what effect? Here the authors could use Susan Sontag’s insight into modern image-making, that it may convey nothing more than a momentary shock, or an illusion of knowingness, lacking in historical perspective and having no coherent result. I doubt that television is an effective political weapon even for those terrorists who make it to Barbara Walters’s interviews.

Nor have journalists always pandered to those terrorists whose demands or actions seriously threaten democratic practice. In Quebec during the October crisis and in Italy during the Moro affair, television turned the public against the FLQ and the Red Brigades. Television can undermine the allure created by the rumor and mystery surrounding terrorists; it can also make suspects recognizable on every street corner. And if television does give a “high recognition factor” to some terrorists, such as “Carlos,” Curcio, and Lelia Khaled, it can also numb the public to their strident rhetoric. If you’ve heard one hijacker, the rest will offer few surprises. Flashes of publicity for violent actions are still no substitute for achieving real political power.

This last point is germane to the case of the PLO and its most recent champion, David Hirst of the British Guardian. His book surveys the Arab-Israeli conflict “from its roots” in 1921. He is concerned to deflect criticism of PLO terror by arguing that the violence of the emerging Palestinian movement was matched by the violence of Jews and Israelis. He recalls the Zionists’ part in the early riots, in the events that led to the Arab revolt, in Deir Yassin, and, more recently, in the Israeli Air Force’s brutal retaliations in southern Lebanon. What is striking is that he ignores how useless the PLO’s terror has been from the first. He does not ask how the PLO can expect bombings and massacres to obtain for them anything more than the professional attention of “experts” like Bell and Schreiber.

Hirst reluctantly accepts the permanence of Israel as a majority Jewish state and endorses a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But he fails to draw the conclusion that PLO terror will prevent such a state from emerging rather than establish it. The only purpose such terror can achieve is a general, ruinous war, one that will have no victors. Israelis are not pieds noirs who will be driven by terror from historic Palestine as the colonists were from Algeria. Israelis have too many roots in their land and their language for that; and they carry a vivid image of their collective vulnerability. As the Camp David agreements suggest, the PLO will not gain in thirty years at underground war what Sadat accomplished in thirty minutes at Yad Vashem—Israel’s memorial to Europe’s Jews.

Instead of continuing to sabotage the Camp David agreements, the Palestinians would have much to gain by formally recognizing Israel and working to gain real autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. Chaim Weizmann and the Labor Zionists pursued a similar policy for thirty years before they achieved a Jewish state, and they did so under less propitious conditions than those now facing the Palestinians. By withholding recognition of Israel, and refusing to renounce terror, the PLO leaders and intellectuals are not withholding crucial bargaining chips. On the contrary, recognition and commitment to peaceful methods are far more likely to bring the Palestinians into a position where they can bargain strongly over repatriation of refugees, political relations with neighboring states, borders, water rights, security, etc.

For over a decade, a popular slogan of the PLO said that an enemy cannot be defeated with roses. The underlying premise, now more than ever, is false. There are moments in history when one can defeat an enemy with roses, but only after deciding not to destroy him.

This Issue

March 8, 1979