Terrorism and the Law

Courtesy Reuters

Terrorism poses important political and diplomatic challenges. It is designed to call attention, through the use of violence, to the causes espoused by terrorists, and to bring about changes in policy favorable to those causes. The United States and its allies—and all other affected nations—must deal with this threat to civilized order with all appropriate measures, ranging from diplomatic to military.

One potential means for dealing with terrorism is law. Americans are particularly attracted to the law as a means for repressing violence, and are committed domestically and internationally to using law to control criminal conduct and to resolve disputes. They invoke the law almost instinctively, and repeatedly, assuming that it regulates international conduct and, in particular, provides a system for bringing terrorists to justice.

Recent terrorist incidents have led to many efforts to use the law, virtually all of which have failed. The law has a poor record in dealing with international terrorism. Some terrorists are killed or captured during the course of their crimes, but few of those who evade these consequences are afterward found and arrested. The terrorist who is prosecuted is likely to be released far earlier than his sentence should require, often in exchange for hostages taken in a subsequent terrorist episode.

The time has come to ask, frankly and honestly, why international terrorism is so loudly condemned, and yet so prevalent. What good is the law in fighting international terrorism? Why has it failed?


One reason for the law’s ineffectiveness is that terrorism, in essence, is criminal activity. In applying law domestically, governments seek to punish and deter crime as effectively as possible. But they recognize that law cannot eliminate crime. They can expect even less of the law in dealing with international terrorism. The world has no international police force or judicial system.

The stock response to complaints about the law’s failure to deal effectively with terrorism is that more laws are needed. That is a misleading answer. Important

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