Bryan Caplan  

The Terrorist Contradiction

PBR, once again... The Anti-Mandel...
After watching Carlos - a dramatization of the life of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal - I had an epiphany. 

Carlos supposedly turns to terrorism because the wicked bourgeois imperialists don't understand any language but violent resistance.  But the only reason Carlos achieves any success is that the Western democracies against whom he wages war have a long list of scruples.  At least back in the 70s:

1. They don't hold terrorist suspects without solid evidence. 

2. They respect the rights of accused terrorists. 

3. They certainly don't go after terrorists' loved ones. 

4. Above all else, the "wicked bourgeois imperialists" faint at the sight of blood.  When Carlos says, "Give us a plane and a million dollars or we kill the hostages," Western democracies give in.

It's admittedly hard to figure out what the imperialist leaders are thinking.  Maybe they're genuine humanitarians.  Maybe they're just worried that the voting public will blame leaders for the bloodbaths they see, and fail to reward leaders for the bloodbaths they deter. The point is that Carlos' terrorism only succeeds because the regimes he attacks play nice.  If they were as bad as Carlos says, they wouldn't care how many innocents he murdered, and they'd freely use torture and collective responsibility to bring a handful of terrorists to their knees.

My epiphany: terrorism suffers from a fundamental contradiction.  Terrorism is either ineffective or pointless

In countries with few scruples and little sympathy for human suffering, terrorism doesn't work.  Their governments just say "Do your worst," and start arresting and torturing suspected terrorists and everyone who knows a suspected terrorist. 

In countries with many scruples and lots of sympathy for human suffering, terrorism is pointless.  Getting in front of t.v. cameras and appealing to your oppressors' consciences is at least as effective as bombing pharmacies.  In fact, peaceful moral suasion is more effective, because you deprive your morally conflicted enemies of the excuse they need to bend their own rules to neutralize you.

The classic terrorist rebuttal is that, "Peaceful methods have already been tried and failed."  But the obvious rejoinder is, "Failed compared to what?"  Yes, peaceful methods usually take a long time, and often disappoint.  But the track record of violence resistance is even more disappointing.  Terrorism is only "quicker" in the sense that it immediately makes bad situations worse.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Foobarista writes:

From what I can tell, "successful" terrorist organizations are ones that have a sort of good-cop, bad-cop or "protection racket" strategy with the public. The IRA had a political and "militant" arm, and definitely played this game. Arafat and the PLO had a similar approach with respect to Israel. Their "sales pitch" would be to work with us politically or our bad guys will keep coming after you.

One other thing these groups had over, for example, radical left groups was relatively well-defined goals that didn't require full-blown revolutions in the "target states".

Addie writes:

You're missing one important point, the effect of terrorism on third parties. For example, Palestinians don't use terrorism to change the Israeli government. That will never work. Rather, they use terrorism to provoke reactions by the Israeli government, thereby bringing their cause into the international spotlight and turning Israel into a pariah state in the eyes of the international community. This, in turn, leads to additional sympathy for their cause and international pressure on the Israelis to make concessions that they otherwise wouldn't have made.

Aloyisius, Bluegrass Drummer writes:

You seem to also be missing probably the major point of the series, which is that Carlos was not motivated by some coherent political program but by his own ego.

Thank goodness that could never be said of the leaders of state-based organizers of violence.

Tracy W writes:

I've often thought that Al Qaeda would have been more effective if they'd blown themselves up on the steps of the Capitol or something else equally newsworthy and directed only at themselves.

Though I remember noticing that a couple of Osama Bin Laden's demands had been met a few years afterwards - American troops were out of Saudi Arabia, and sanctions against Iraq had indeed been ended.

Addie: The Palestinian terrorist attacks doesn't seem to have made life better for most Palestinians.

Jody writes:

Stated goals != actual goals.

Or in more traditional economics parlance, if someone's actions are inconsistent with their stated preferences, then you should first examine what their actions reveal about their true preferences.

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

Many insurgencies start as terrorism (Malaya, Iraq, El Salvador, etc). But the difference between terrorism that turns into an insurgency is how the government reacts to it. If the government starts arresting large numbers of people and acting wildly, it can very easily turn terrorism into an insurgency and insurgencies have a solid chance of overthrowing a government.

Likewise, a government response that turns over parts of the country to terrorists or lets them get away with anything also turns the terrorists into an insurgency because the lawlessness and violence that results attracts "bandits" who will fill the void.

There is therefore a Trilemma faced by those fighting insurgents and terrorists:

1. Force protection.
2. Hunt the terrorists/insurgents.
3. Protect the population.

Government can only do two of these at a time. It seems like western government prefer hunting the terrorists and protecting the population. Many communist government choose the first two, with the result that they either kill almost everybody or create a massive insurgency that fights them.

Brian Moore writes:
In countries with few scruples and little sympathy for human suffering, terrorism doesn't work. Their governments just say "Do your worst," and start arresting and torturing suspected terrorists and everyone who knows a suspected terrorist.

But from the terrorist's perspective, that is a success. Because now all those new people (or more likely their surviving relatives) the unscrupulous government oppresses are more likely to join in the "resistance." There are many, many historical examples of this.

Yes, that probably makes everyone, including the people the terrorist/rebel purports to support, worse off, but they don't care -- they would accept that suffering as necessary (or at least less than) the nationalistic/tribal goal of independence or autonomy, which they believe has positive benefits so vast that they outweigh the negative effects.

jc writes:

@Jody is correct, imho.

For some terrorists, especially foot soldiers, I imagine one goal is simply to hurt people you're angry at and, perhaps, feel a bit like you are a real man who has the power to affect them and get back at them for perceived wrongs (versus being a weak rag doll). You may feel like (and be perceived as) a good, loyal tribe member to boot.

Punching things makes many men feel good.

Punching those who have wronged you probably feels even better. Add in boosts to status, self esteem, sense of control, etc., and there seems to be plenty of incentive, whether your organization achieves its stated goal or not.

Regarding Carlos, @Aloyisius may be right: ego.

Money and power over the rank and file may also come into play w/ other high level terrorists. (For example, while not necessarily terrorists in the traditional sense, I remember an interview with a former head of a large white supremacist group. He said he was a manager. His job was to make money for himself. This took motivated workers. The best way to motivate them was to harness angry, tribal feelings. He said his stated cause was total garbage. There were no "true believers" at the top of the org.)

Jim Rose writes:

The tactical requirement to out-terrorise the terrorist was well known to imperial Gendarmerie

The Ottoman Empire could control entire provinces with a few janissaries and a squadron or two of cavalry. Group reprisals and the occasional massacre did the trick.

The leaders of each ethnic or religious group did their best to keep things quiet, and if they failed, they would quietly inform on any rebels before more harm was done.

German officers walked freely in the streets of France armed with no more than a side-arm because the reprisals were fierce.

Mercer writes:

"In countries with few scruples and little sympathy for human suffering, terrorism doesn't work. "

The current government of Syria has few scruples. I predict it will be overthrown within two years by terrorists.

ivvenalis writes:

1. Many terrorists are motivated by a love of violence for its own sake, or hatred for the victims, not by some rational calculation about the relative effectiveness of violent vs. non-violent methods. Terrorism just feels better, and it also "punishes" the sources of grievance in a way that peaceful change wouldn't.

2. The IRA, the Indian independence movement, the PLO, the black South Africans, the Vietnamese, and many others were all successful movements who employed terrorism. The key is that for them terrorism was only one tool available to them. The offers of a Gandhi or Mandela seem a lot more reasonable when the "alternative" are the Umkhonto we Sizwe or the Jugantar.

David P writes:

Did you watch the 3 part miniseries version or the condensed-to-a-movie version?

Dan Carroll writes:

Terrorism is usually a kind of perverted PR stunt. Rarely does a terrorist act have military or economic significance beyond the behavioral response of those attacked. Without TV or newspapers, the terrorist would have no audience, and the terrorist would be labeled a bandit or a pirate.

Terrorists are not always rational, especially those motivated by religious extremism. Al Qaeda's long term objective is a Islamic superstate governed by their vision of Islam. Other than the low probability of success, such a state, if successfully established, would implode within a generation or two. Thus, their long-term objective is a guaranteed failure.

Blackadder writes:

From what I can tell, "successful" terrorist organizations are ones that have a sort of good-cop, bad-cop or "protection racket" strategy with the public. The IRA had a political and "militant" arm, and definitely played this game. Arafat and the PLO had a similar approach with respect to Israel.

And yet, Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, and Israel still occupies the West Bank.

Les Cargill writes:

If you want the movie that best debunks terrorism, try "Joe Kidd", an old Eastwood movie. The screenplay is by Elmore Leonard. Leonard has a deft touch with this sort of thing.

When you feel like breaking a few eggs, there are few better excuses than that you want to make an omelet.

Steve Sailer writes:

Terrorism can be quite successful in persuading a government to leave a place where it doesn't particularly want to be. For example, rightwing Zionist terrorism against the British in Palestine in 1947 quickly persuaded His Majesty's Government to wash their hands of the whole place. The Zionists couldn't defeat the British Empire in open battle, but once the Brits were gone, they could defeat the Arab states, thus winning Israel's existence as a Jewish state.

Similarly, Osama bin Laden persuaded the Bush Administration to pull American military out of Saudi Arabia.

Steve Sailer writes:

Pacifist protests have a spotty record: the Dalai Lama is a wonderful man, but he has failed in freeing Tibet or even getting Tibet a high profile relative to Palestine, which is high profile news and highly subsidized by the EU due to Arafat's policy of terrorism.

Terrorism was useful in getting Europeans out of many of the other places they had settled in Asia and Africa (e.g., Rhodesia), but Zionists, and their international backers, are a tougher nut to crack than other European settlers.

Shane L writes:

I've heard the concept of terrorism prevalence being U-shaped in relation to democracy: that highly liberal democracies and brutal totalitarian states tend to experience less terrorism than transition states. Not sure how true that is.

Bryan, you may be interested in this study by RAND, finding that the vast majority of terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006 failed to achieve their goals. Most were defeated by police/intelligence agencies, or embraced peaceful politics instead of political violence.

I agree with Blackadder above: the Provisional IRA failed in their goal to create a United Ireland. Meanwhile, by abandoning violence the political party associated with the IRA, Sinn Fein, are enjoying unprecedented popularity now.

John Fast writes:

Mercer: I believe you're mistaken, and will bet $100 that you're wrong -- and I will be very happy if I lose.

If you're willing, let's agree upon specific terms, and deposit $100 with Bryan Caplan (or some other mutually-agreed-upon party).

To make it even more interesting, we can speculate as well. I'll ask you to deposit $100 worth of silver and I'll deposit $100 worth of whatever currency, commodity, or negotiable instrument you prefer.

Bryan Caplan: You state that

In countries with few scruples and little sympathy for human suffering, terrorism doesn't work. Their governments just say "Do your worst," and start arresting and torturing suspected terrorists and everyone who knows a suspected terrorist.
I assume you're familiar with Harry Turtledove's beautiful story "The Last Article," an alternate history in which Gandhi opposes the Nazis.

I would also like to direct you to an interesting article which seems to contradict the thesis of your quote above. It's called "Why Most Economists Are Hawks and Why They Might Be Wrong" and perhaps you and the author should have a debate on the topic.

Jim Rose writes:

shaneL, good points and link

the abstract says that most groups ended because of operations carried out by local police or intelligence agencies OR because they negotiated a settlement with their governments.

they negotiate settlements because governments want something the IRA or others had, which was peace.

most ended because yhey were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies (40 percent) OR they reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government (43 percent). that is good lottery odds for a small group.

power-sharing was a big change from the illiberal democracy in the six counties from 1921 to 1973.

policing and intelligence should be the backbone of the fight because it means that terrorist bring less to the negotiating table.

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