6 Criterias for Comparing Anti-terrorist Policies. 2 Basic Ways Used as Deterrence Against Terrorism.
One straightforward definition of terrorism is: ‘The deliberate and systematic
murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends’.
For practical purposes, the following elements are crucial: the perpetrators:
● use force on civilians;
● act in an unofficial capacity. In particular, they are not part of
the national army and do not wear national uniform;
● want to attain political goals;
● intend to have far-reaching effects beyond the immediate
victims, particularly through the media.
Deterrence Against Terrorism
Governments may react to terrorism in two basic ways:
1. Using the ‘stick’: This coercive approach works with using negative
sanctions, mostly by employing military and police enforcement.
Persons undertaking terrorist acts are severely punished
either by killing them or by putting them in prison, possibly after
torturing them. This response is based on immediate and strong
retribution and addresses the most urgent problems created by a
terrorist attack. The response is ‘re-active’ in so far as it is incident-
related, dealing with terrorist attacks that have already
2. Using the ‘carrot’: Actual and potential terrorists are given positive
incentives to desist from their violent activities by providing
them with superior alternatives, but also by reducing the benefits
they derive from terrorist acts. This approach seeks to address the
root causes of terrorism. It considers reforms addressing the grievances
of the terrorists and is directed at prevention or long-term
reform. It is ‘pro-active’, in so far as it identifies newly emerging
political conflicts possibly leading to terrorism.
Comparing Anti-terrorist Policies
CRITERIA FOR ANTI-TERRORIST POLICIES
In the following, the anti-terrorist policies discussed will be evaluated
according to six different criteria: the time required, effectiveness,
cost, efficiency, legal and moral acceptability. No complete classification of
the policies with respect to the six criteria is intended.Rather, only the
major aspects are considered as to how the three anti-terrorist policies
proposed here – polycentricity, positive incentives to renounce
terrorism and dispersing media attention – and the conventional
deterrence policy fare, when looked at from various points of view.
A major advantage of a punitive approach is that it can quickly be
put into effect. Most countries affected by terrorist acts have sufficiently
large police and military forces to strike back within a short
time – though it is not always clear whether actual terrorists or innocent
persons are hit. Results in terms of the number of persons killed,
and installations destroyed, are immediately visible. The reaction of
the Israeli government to Palestinian terrorists and suicide bombers
is a good example. Almost overnight, the villages and camps from
which the terrorists are presumed to originate, as well as the homes of
their presumed relatives, are demolished.
Most positive approaches, in contrast, take considerable time to be
put into action and to show results. In the case of the polycentric
policy, the time frame is large. It takes years to arrange for economic,
political and social decision-making to be shared by many persons,
and to be widely distributed over space. It also cannot be expected
that offering incentives to potential and actual terrorists to give up
violent action will show any quick results. To overcome mutual mistrust
takes considerable time and does not proceed at a steady rate.
An anti-terrorist policy able to significantly reduce terrorist violence
can be called effective. Previous chapters have argued and proposed
evidence that all three of the positive anti-terrorist policies are effective
in this sense. The more polycentric a country is, the less vulnerable
it is. The potential terrorists find it difficult, if not impossible, to
find a worthwhile target with which they can terrorise the chosen
enemy. Indeed, decentralisation has proved to be so effective that terrorists
have copied it. Al Qaeda, for example, has the character of a
virtual organisation. Its individual parts work independently to a
large extent, and are ignorant (and therefore cannot reveal any information
if captured) as to who the other parts are and what they do.
Such decentralisation on the part of terrorists makes it much more
difficult for the police and army to act effectively against them. A
decentralised method of financing the activities typical for modern
terrorist organisations makes it nearly impossible to intercept the flow
of resources used for terrorist purposes.
Offering positive incentives to terrorists to desist from their activities
opens up new opportunities for them. It also undermines the
coherence of the terrorist groups. Refusing to attribute a violent act
to a particular terrorist group robs them of one of the crucial prizes
of terrorism, unique media attention.
Reliance on deterrence policy has been tried very often but has, in
many cases, yielded disappointing results. The use of punishment and
retribution is unlikely to solve the problems underlying terrorist activities.
Deterrence policy may even lead to counterproductive results.
Violent action against actual or presumed terrorists tends to induce
new persons to join, or at least support, terrorist groups. Already
established terrorists see no valuable alternatives for themselves; they
are locked in. Both well-established and new terrorists often seek
revenge for the casualties suffered by their family, relatives and friends.
Another reason for a possible counterproductive effect lies in
increased political centralisation combined with deterrence policy. A
policy based on negative sanctions seems to yield impressive results, as
terrorists and their supporters (but also innocent people) are indeed
killed and incarcerated. But the consequences induced in most cases
do not lead to a reduction of terrorism. The very high punishments
cited in the US anti-terrorist laws, instituted by President Reagan in
1984 (Public Law 98–473 and 98–553), is an example. Individuals
taking US hostages, inside or outside the United States, face life
imprisonment. The penalties for placing bombs aboard a plane or
destroying an aircraft were also drastically increased. These laws
proved, however, to have ‘no statistical effect whatsoever against USdirected
Anti-terrorist policies require the use of all kinds of resources. They
may be material or immaterial, such as the attention and effort
required by the government politicians to devise and implement specific
Deterrence policy requires substantial material resources. Potential
and actual terrorists must be convinced that undertaking violent acts
will carry a heavy penalty. The probability of being caught, and the
punishment imposed, must be so high that terrorists find it preferable
to desist or to undertake violent acts elsewhere. In the latter case, terrorism
is exported rather than curbed. A threat never put into practice
is not credible. A deterrence policy therefore involves the use of
police and military forces to actually punish terrorists. The resources
needed for these purposes are no longer available for other, more
peaceful uses. These opportunity costs are often high. This holds particularly
for poor countries, where a substantial part of GNP, and a
high percentage of young men conscripted into the military service,
are used for that purpose.
Different groups face quite different opportunity costs for engaging
in deterrence policy. Politicians in government must consider the
budgetary costs involved when fighting the terrorists. To finance
deterrence policy, they must resort to unpopular tax increases, raise
the public debt (with future burdens in the form of interest payments),
or print additional money (thereby raising future inflation).
The situation is quite different for the members of the police and military
forces, especially for its officers and commanders. Their importance
in society, and vis-à-vis the government, increases when they are
given the task of fighting terrorists. They not only receive more
material and human resources, but also directly gain by pay increases.
In an ‘all out war’ against terrorism, they receive more competencies,
often beyond the rule of law. Not surprisingly, the officers and commanders
of the police and the military forces normally welcome a
strong deterrence policy. Only when they realise over the course of
time that they are unable to win against the terrorists do they tend to
become more careful. They may sometimes even change sides if they
expect that the (former) terrorists will become their new bosses.
Positive policies also carry costs. This is most obviously seen when
rewarding actual and potential terrorists for renouncing violent acts.
Such rewards are only effective if they are of sufficient magnitude. A
policy of compensation involves substantial budgetary costs, whose
costs are attributed to the government. But the terrorists may also be
compensated for desisting from violent acts by giving them nonmaterial
rewards. In many cases, a successful policy has been to let
them participate in political decision-making, offering them seats in
parliament or even in government. The politicians in government incur
costs because they then have to share power with the former terrorists.
The other two positive policies have comparatively low costs.
Polycentricity involves a reduction in power of the former decision makers
in the centre. But it is likely to revitalise the economy and
society by furthering competition and enabling more innovative
enterprises. As the economic theory of federalism, and more generally
market theory, has long argued, political and economic decentralisation
further the growth of income and reduce unemployment.
Even if decentralisation is undertaken as part of anti-terrorist policy,
the beneficial effects can still be reaped. Dispersing media attention,
by offering more information in case of a terrorist act, carries low
costs. The police and secret service can easily name a number of possible
Welfare maximising and rational political decision-makers would
consider both the effectiveness and the cost of various anti-terrorist
policies. They favour policies with high effectiveness and low cost and
reject those with low effectiveness and high cost. None of the four
policies considered here uniquely qualifies for one of these categories.
It follows that each of the policies may be efficient under certain conditions.
For instance, when police and military forces already exist,
and terrorists are pursuing a cause without much support from the
people, and the danger of further terrorist acts is imminent, a sanctioning
policy may be best. If, on the other hand, terrorists exploit
existing grievous social conditions, and have the active or passive
support of a sizeable part of the people, a positive policy is far more
In reality, of course, governments are neither welfare maximising
nor fully rational. They therefore only partially consider effectiveness
and the overall economic and social cost of anti-terrorist policies.
Rather, they evaluate effectiveness and costs with regard to how they
affect their own utility, in particular their re-election chances. As
Public Choice theory has established, this leads to serious deviations
from effectiveness. Moreover, not all costs to the members of society
as a whole also represent costs for the government. This is, for
instance, not the case when government anti-terror expenditures lead
to revenue for firms and other actors supporting the government
undertaking these expenditures.
Anti-terrorist policies may violate national laws and constitutional
provisions, as well as internationally agreed human rights and laws on
war. The danger of such an eventuality is endemic in the case of deterrence
policy. Often, it is undertaken without regard to such legal constraints.
It is argued that the danger of terrorism is so great that these
rules must be violated for the sake of protecting the state. It is
obvious, however, that legal rules are often broken, because it is in the
personal interests of government politicians, as well as the police and
The situation is quite different for an anti-terrorist policy based on
strengthening polycentricity. Such a policy is compatible with both
national and international law. To disperse media attention is not
illegal. Indeed, the government and the police break the law by attributing
a violent attack to a particular terrorist group. In a liberal
society, following the rule of law, as long as the courts have not established
responsibility, even suspected perpetrators must be given the
benefit of the doubt. To point out that a number of different groups
may be responsible for a terrorist act therefore fully corresponds to
desirable policy in a liberal society.
Offering compensation to terrorists for giving up future violent
action, instead of punishing them for their past deeds, may appear to
be illegal. But, in most countries, the heads of the state, or the courts,
have the power to absolve persons for having broken the law. Not
punishing terrorists is legal and legitimate, if such action reduces
further harm and if it can safely be expected that they will be reintegrated
back into society.
What is taken to be ‘moral’ differs from one person to another. Some
persons believe it to be moral to punish terrorists and therefore advocate
a strict sanctioning policy. Others believe it to be moral to forgive
past ‘sins’, even if they had deadly consequences. They therefore
support policies helping to reintegrate terrorists back into normal life
by offering rewards. Others believe that it is the duty of government
and police to indicate which terrorist group has most probably committed
a particular violent act. They therefore reject a policy of
naming various groups as possible perpetrators. Others are convinced
that it is deeply immoral to give terrorists so much media attention,
and therefore prefer a policy of not pinpointing a particular group.
This discussion suggests that it is not possible to decide on the basis
of moral considerations which anti-terrorist policy is morally defensible;
it all depends on a person’s underlying fundamental ideology.
This does not mean that morals should play no role when deciding
how to tackle terrorism. But each person has to decide for him- or
herself; there is no overriding ‘social moral’ pointing in the right