James Q. Wilson tells us in the current City Journal. He discusses the history of terrorism, the long history of religiously-motivated terrorists, the different mentalities of Left- and Right-wing terrorists, and several other important issues. It’s worth reading in full.

I will highlight one section of the piece here, the one that most closely relates to public policy:

Given its long history, one must wonder whether terrorism accomplishes its goals. For some ideological terrorists, of course, there are scarcely any clear goals that can be accomplished. But for many assassins and religious terrorists, there are important goals, such as ending tyranny, spreading a religious doctrine, or defeating a national enemy.

By these standards, terrorism does not work. Franklin Ford concluded his long history of political murders by saying that, with one or two possible exceptions, assassinations have not produced results consonant with the aims of the doer. Walter Laqueur, in his shorter review of the matter, comes to the same conclusion: of the 50 prime ministers and heads of state killed between 1945 and 1985, it is hard to think of one whose death changed a state’s policies.

Bernard Lewis argues that the original Assassins failed: they never succeeded in overthrowing the social order or replacing Sunnis with Shiites. The most recent study of suicide terrorism from 1983 through 2001 found that, while it “has achieved modest or very limited goals, it has so far failed to compel target democracies to abandon goals central to national wealth or security.”

One reason it does not work can be found in studies of Israeli public opinion. During 1979, there were 271 terrorist incidents in Israel and the territories it administers, resulting in the deaths of 23 people and the injuring of 344 more. Public-opinion surveys clearly showed that these attacks deeply worried Israelis, but their fear, instead of leading them to endorse efforts at reconciliation, produced a toughening of attitudes and a desire to see the perpetrators dealt with harshly. The current intifada has produced exactly the same result in Israel.

But if terrorism does not change the views of the victims and their friends, then it is possible that campaigns against terrorism will not change the views of people who support it. Many social scientists have come to just this conclusion.


Islamic terrorism poses a much more difficult challenge. These terrorists live and work among people sympathetic to their cause. Those arrested will be replaced; those killed will be honored. Opinion polls in many Islamic nations show great support for anti-Israeli and anti-American terrorists. Terrorists live in a hospitable river. We may have to cope with the river.

The relentless vilification of Jews, Israel, and Zionism by much of the Muslim press and in many Muslim schools has produced a level of support for terrorism that vastly exceeds the backing that American or European terrorists ever enjoyed. Over 75 percent of all Palestinians support the current intifada and endorse the 2003 bombing of Maxim, a restaurant in Haifa. With suicide bombers regarded as martyrs, the number of new recruits has apparently increased. The river of support for anti-Israel terror is much wider and deeper than what the Baader-Meinhof gang received.


Though many people take exception to it, I think President Bush was right to condemn certain nations as being part of an “axis of evil,” putting leaders on notice that they cannot fund or encourage Hamas, al-Qaida, or Hezbollah without paying a heavy price for it. Iraq has learned how high that price can be.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anonymous says:

    “Terrorists live in a hospitable river. We may have to cope with the river.”

    Isn’t that why we are trying to cut off their funding? And now they are even cooperating in that, by bombing in Saudi Arabia of all places! And since SA got us to pull troops out of there, what’s their ‘reason’ for that?