Fifty years hence, puzzled historians will try to make sense of the behavior of Western governments and the media in the 1980s regarding terrorism. They will note that presidents and other leaders frequently referred to terrorism as one of the greatest dangers facing mankind. For days and weeks on end, television networks devoted most of their prime-time news to covering terrorist operations. Publicists referred to terrorism as the cancer of the modern world, growing inexorably until it poisoned and engulfed the society on which it fed.

Naturally, our future historian will expect that a danger of such enormity must have figured very highly on the agenda of our period—equal, say, to the dangers of war, starvation, overpopulation, deadly disease, debts and so on. He will assume that determined action was taken and major resources allocated to fight against this threat. But he will be no little surprised to learn that when the Swedish prime minister was killed in 1986, the Swedish government promised a reward for information leading to the apprehension of his killer that amounted to less than ten percent of the annual income of an investment banker or a popular entertainer; that the French government offered even less for its terrorists; that West Germany was only willing to pay a maximum of $50,000 "for the most dangerous" ones. The United States offered up to $500,000, again not an overwhelming sum considering the frequency of the speeches about terrorism and the intensity of the rhetoric.

Surely (our historian will expect) major investments were made in the research and development of technological means to preempt and combat the terrorists. Again, to his consternation, he will discover that the sum the United States devoted to this purpose—about $20-30 million—was considerably less than any second-rank pharmaceutical firm allocates for research and development.

His confusion will further deepen when he learns that the number of Americans killed inside the United States in 1985 as the result of terrorist attack was two, and that the total number of U.S. civilians killed abroad between 1973 and the end of 1985 was 169. In countless articles and books, our historian will read about the constantly rising number of terrorist attacks. Being a conscientious researcher he will analyze the statistics, which are bound to increase his confusion, for he will find that more American civilians were killed by terrorists in 1974 (22) than in 1984 (16).

On the basis of these and other facts, our historian will lean toward revisionism. He may well reach the conclusion that there was no terrorism, only a case of mass delusion—or that hysteria was deliberately fanned by certain vested interests such as producers of anti-terrorist equipment, perhaps, or the television networks which had established a symbiotic relationship with the terrorists, who provided them with free (or almost free) entertainment for long periods.

These are, of course, the wrong conclusions. The impact of terrorism is measured not only in the number of its victims. Terrorism is an attempt to destabilize democratic societies and to show that their governments are impotent. If this can be attained with a minimum effort, if so much publicity can be achieved on the basis of a few attacks, no greater exertion is needed. Furthermore, in the 1980s there have been ominous new developments such as the emergence of narco-terrorism and the occurrence of state-sponsored terrorism on a broader level than before. If terrorism has never been a serious threat as far as America is concerned, let alone other major powers such as the Soviet Union, China or Japan, it is also true that in certain Latin American countries, and in places like Turkey and Italy, it was for a while a real danger.

In short, there has been (and is) a terrorist menace in our time. But the historian of the future will still be right in pointing to the wide discrepancy between the strong speeches and the weak actions of those who felt threatened. And he must be forgiven if he should draw the conclusion that those living in this "age of terrorism" perhaps never quite understood the exact nature of the threat.


What is terrorism? It would be highly desirable if all discussions of terrorism, of its motives and inspiration, its specific character, its modes of operation and long-term consequences, were based on a clear, exact and comprehensive definition. Ideally, there should be agreement as to whether terrorism is violence in general or some particular form of violence; whether the emphasis should be on its political aims or its methods of combat or the extra-normal character of its strategy; whether its purposive, systematic character should be singled out or, on the contrary, its unpredictability and its symbolic aspect or perhaps the fact that so many of its victims are innocents.

Agreement on a definition, alas, does not exist, and there is no reason to assume that it will in the foreseeable future. The author of an excellent research guide to terrorism, published a few years ago, listed 109 different definitions of terrorism provided between 1936 and 1981. There have been more since; the U.S. government alone has provided half a dozen, which are by no means identical. Most experts agree that terrorism is the use or threat of violence, a method of combat or a strategy to achieve certain goals, that its aim is to induce a state of fear in the victim, that it is ruthless and does not conform to humanitarian norms, and that publicity is an essential factor in terrorist strategy.

Beyond this point definitions differ, often sharply, which is by no means surprising, be it only because the character of terrorist groups has been subject to change. There is little, if anything, in common between the Russian terrorists of the nineteenth century and Abu Nidal; a definition trying to cover both as well as others would be either very vague or very misleading. There is no such thing as terrorism pure and unadulterated, specific and unchanging, comparable to a chemical element; rather, there are a great many terrorisms. Historians and sociologists are not in full agreement on what socialism is or fascism was. It would be unrealistic to expect unanimity on a topic so close to us in time. But the absence of an exact definition does not mean that we do not know in a general way what terrorism is; it has been said that it resembles pornography, difficult to describe and define, but easy to recognize when one sees it.

According to one school of thought, "state terrorism" is the all-important issue. It is true that the number of victims and the amount of suffering caused by oppressive, tyrannical governments has been infinitely greater than that caused by small groups of rebels. A Hitler or a Stalin killed more people in one year than all terrorists throughout recorded history.

The concentration on the relatively insignificant acts of violence by small groups of people (known in professional language as "sub-state actors") is therefore denounced in the Third World and some radical circles as a political maneuver, intended to distract our attention from the truly important issues of our time. There is a view that the strategies and tactics of terrorism have recently become integral components in both the domestic and foreign political realms of the modern state. Why "recently" and why "modern state"? Has it not always been the case?

There are basic differences in motives, function and effect between oppression by the state (or society or religion) and political terrorism. To equate them, to obliterate the differences, is to spread confusion. The study of the Inquisition or the Gestapo or the Gulag is of undoubted importance, but it will shed no light whatsoever on contemporary terrorism.

If there has been a significant development during the last decade, it is not oppression by the state but state-sponsored terrorism. This latter is not, of course, a product of the 1970s; attempts to undermine the political or social order in other countries have been made by ambitious or revengeful rulers since time immemorial. The term destabilization may be new, but the use of proxies is as old as the hills. There are, however, certain new features to this old acquaintance that make it both more dangerous and more pervasive than in the past. It has become more frequent because resistance to it has been weak and uncoordinated. It has become more brazen: Mussolini, one of the chief practitioners of state-sponsored terrorism in the 1930s, would reject any imputation of responsibility with great indignation. In full uniform, shedding bitter tears, he attended the service in Rome in honor of Yugoslavia’s King Alexander, who had been assassinated at his behest. Today’s Qaddafis, on the other hand, do not stick to such proprieties, but claim the right to engage in acts of terror within the territory of other countries. Above all, there is the danger that state-sponsored terrorism will escalate into full military conflict, with the incalculable consequences of all-out war in this age.

Some of the obfuscation concerning terrorism stems from the belief in some circles that contemporary terrorism is basically revolutionary, a reaction against social and national injustice, and therefore worthy of support or at least understanding. But, in fact, terrorism is by no means the monopoly of the extreme left; quite frequently it is used by the extreme right and neo-fascists. Those trying to find mitigating circumstances for "revolutionary terrorism" find themselves sooner or later in the uncomfortable position of performing the same service for their political enemies. Terrorism is not an ideology but a strategy that can be used by people of different political convictions. Contemporary terrorism is certainly not the brainchild of Marxism-Leninism or Muslim fundamentalism, even though proponents of these creeds have made notable contributions to its spread.

Terrorism is neither identical to guerrilla warfare nor a subspecies of it. The term "urban guerrilla" is as common as it is mistaken. Terrorism is indeed urban, but not "guerrilla" in any meaningful sense; the difference is not one of semantics but of quality. A guerrilla leader aims at building up ever-growing military units and eventually an army, in order to establish liberated zones in which propaganda can be openly conducted, and eventually to set up an alternative government. All this is impossible in cities. In many instances, guerrilla movements and other insurrectional groups do have footholds in cities, but they are usually not of much consequence, because in the urban milieu there are no opportunities for guerrilla warfare. There is a world of difference between a temporary zone of control and the establishment of an alternative government.

Some Western experts, and especially the media, have great difficulty accepting the basic differences among various forms of violence. "Terrorists," "commandos," "partisans," "urban guerrillas," "gunmen," "freedom fighters," "insurgents" and half a dozen other terms are often used interchangeably, frequently as a result of genuine confusion, sometimes probably with political intent, because the guerrilla has, on the whole, a positive public relations image, which the terrorist clearly does not possess.

Soviet writers on this subject have fewer inhibitions about calling a spade by its rightful name. In a recent study, one of them noted that "urban guerrilla is a fraudulent concept, scheduled to mask ordinary terrorism." Soviet ideologists are by no means opposed to the use of revolutionary violence. On the other hand, they know that terrorism carried out by marginal groups almost always causes more harm than good to the cause it sponsors. It is easy to think of guerrilla movements that defeated the forces opposing them, but it is very difficult to remember more than a few cases in which terrorism has had any lasting effect.


How to eradicate terrorism? Moralists believe that terrorism is the natural response to injustice, oppression and persecution. Hence their seemingly obvious conclusion: remove the underlying causes and terrorism will wither away! This sounds plausible enough, for happy and content people are unlikely to commit savage acts of violence. Although this may be true as an abstract general proposition, it seldom applies in the real world, which is never quite free of conflicts.

The historical record shows that, while in the nineteenth century terrorism frequently developed in response to repression, the correlation between grievance and terrorism in our day and age is far less obvious. The record also shows that in more recent times the more severe the repression, the less terrorism tends to occur. This is an uncomfortable, shocking fact that has therefore encountered much resistance. But it is still true that terrorism in Spain gathered strength only after General Franco died, that the terrorist upsurges in West Germany, France and Turkey took place under social democratic or left-of-center governments, that the same is true with regard to Peru and Colombia, and that more such examples could easily be adduced.

Terrorism has never had a chance in an effective dictatorship, but hardly a major democratic country has entirely escaped it. There is a limit to the perfection of political institutions, and, however just and humane the social order, there will always be a few people deeply convinced that it ought to be radically changed and that it can be changed only through violent action. The murder of Sweden’s prime minister, Olof Palme, is just one illustration that shows that "objective factors" cannot account for the actions of a fringe group.

Nationalist-separatist terrorism has been doing better than that of the extreme left and right, and it is not difficult to understand why. National groups and minorities usually have grievances, and some of them may be quite justified. In some instances, they can be put right; in others assuaged, but frequently neither may be possible. In an ideal world, each group of people, however small, claiming the right of full independence and statehood, should receive it. But in some cases, given the lack of national homogeneity and the intermingling of ethnic and religious groups, no basic redress may be feasible.

Even at this late date, it may be possible for the Turks to accept responsibility for the Armenian massacres during World War I, to apologize to the descendants of the victims, and to show contrition. But an Armenian state on Turkish territory (as Asala, the Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, demands) would be an absurdity: Armenians no longer live in eastern Turkey, nor do they have any intention of settling there. Nor would a Sikh state in the Punjab be viable. The Sikhs, in any case, are not an oppressed minority in contemporary India: the president of India is a Sikh and so are most of India’s military leaders. The majority of Sikhs do not even want a state of their own.

The Basque Homeland and Liberty group (ETA) and the Corsican militants are also fighting for independent statehood. But even if these ministates would be viable, which is uncertain, these groups’ demands are by no means shared by most of their fellow countrymen, let alone by the majority populations in either the Basque region or Corsica, which are of different ethnic backgrounds (Spanish and French, respectively) from the terrorist groups.

Nor is it certain that the establishment of new, independent states would put an end to terrorism. On the contrary, there could well be an intensification of the struggle between various terrorist groups, between moderates who want to proceed with the business of statehood and radicals who claim that what has been achieved is only a beginning and that the borders of the new state should be expanded. The Tamils in Sri Lanka have been fighting with as much relish against each other as against their common enemy, and there is no reason to assume that this would stop if they were to get a state of their own.

The high tide of PLO activities both on the political and the terrorist level was in the mid-1970s. True, even then much of Middle Eastern terrorism had only a tenuous connection with Israel but was indigenous to the region. Since then this trend has become even more pronounced: some of the terrorist groups, such as Abu Nidal’s or Abu Mussa’s, serve the highest bidder among the Arab governments. They have killed considerably more Arabs than Israelis. As for Shi‘ite terrorism, this never had much to do with Israel except at times when the Israelis happened to get in the Shi‘ites’ way.

No effort should be spared to pursue the peace process between Arabs and Israelis. But few serious students of this conflict argue that if a Palestinian state were to come into existence in the foreseeable future, terrorism would decrease. No settlement that recognizes Israel would be to the liking of Palestinian radicals. This does not make the search for a solution of the conflict undesirable or unnecessary, but there should be no illusions with regard to its likely consequences so far as the persistence of terrorism is concerned.


It is frequently argued that there is no defense against extremists willing to sacrifice their lives and that arresting or shooting terrorists cannot solve the problem because the "blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Historical experience does not confirm such wisdom.

The number of potential terrorists inside every country is limited. On the basis of a painstaking analysis, a recent study reaches the obvious conclusion that "the more terrorists in prison, the lower the violence level." This does not, of course, apply to a mass insurrection supported by the overwhelming majority of the population, but it is true with regard to terrorist groups.

Shi‘ite propensity to engage in terrorist suicide attacks has been very much exaggerated. True, there have been a few cases, but not more than four or five of such operations. Furthermore, this readiness to commit suicide can be found at all times and for many reasons. Ten members of the Irish Republican Army starved themselves to death—despite the express ban of the Catholic church against suicide; members of Baader-Meinhof also killed themselves, not to mention the mass suicide in Jonestown. When the Japanese authorities asked for kamikaze candidates during the last year of the war, many thousands volunteered and some 4,600 were killed. It is not so much a matter of a specific religion but of fanaticism, and a psychological predisposition. What Voltaire wrote about the subject seems still relevant today: the entire species (of fanatics) is divided into two classes—the first does nought but pray and die, the second wants to reign and massacre.

Terrorism has been stamped out with great ease not only by modern dictatorships; it has been defeated also by governments that are anything but modern. In 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini’s former allies from the left, the mujahedeen and some other groups, turned against the new rulers of Iran. They were many and experienced; within three months they succeeded in killing the prime minister, many chiefs of police, half the government and the executive committee of the ruling party, not to mention dozens of members of parliament. Perhaps never before had a terrorist onslaught been so massive and so successful. Yet within another three months, the terrorists either were dead or had escaped abroad. The government acted with great brutality; it killed without discrimination; it extracted information by means of torture; it refused as a matter of principle to extend medical help to injured terrorists. And it broke the back of the terrorist movement.

The Turkish authorities liquidated terrorism with much less violence. During the year preceding the declaration of martial law in September 1980, some 3,000 Turks of both the left and the right, and not a few innocent bystanders, had been killed. Mass arrests and a few dozen executions of convicted murderers were sufficient to cause the collapse of terrorism within a matter of days. Argentina suppressed the Montoneros and the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army) with great inhumanity, whereas Uruguay succeeded vis-à-vis the Tupamaros with a minimum of violence.

The power of the state is infinitely greater than that of terrorists, and it will always prevail, provided there is the determination or the ruthlessness to do so. But can a democratic society subdue terrorism without surrendering the values central to the system? Again, experience shows that it can be done without great difficulty. The Italian authorities defeated the Red Brigades, while acting strictly within the law, by a mixture of overdue political reform, penetration of the terrorist ranks, and the promise of substantial reduction in prison terms to the penitents. Terrorist movements do not have an unlimited life span. If terrorists realize after a few years that the murder of a few politicians (and many innocents) has not brought them any nearer their goals, their resolve weakens.

The nationalist-separatist terrorists hold out longer, for their basis of support is stronger and they may have assistance from foreign countries. But even in Northern Ireland and the Basque region of Spain, the level of violence is lower now than eight or ten years ago, and the Armenian Asala has all but disappeared.

A dialectical process seems to dictate the policy of democratic societies toward terrorists. As long as terrorism is no more than a nuisance, a democracy will rightly resist any attempt to curtail its traditional freedoms. Once terrorism becomes more than a nuisance, once the normal functioning of society is affected, there will be overwhelming pressure on the government to defeat the threat by all available means. Hence the paradoxical conclusion that the more successful the terrorists, the nearer their ultimate defeat. There are exceptions to every rule, but in this case they are few and far between.


State-sponsored terrorism is mainly the instrument of dictators with ambitions far in excess of their power base. The chief protagonist of this kind of terrorism between the two world wars was not Hitler but Mussolini, who used various groups of Balkan terrorists to destabilize neighboring countries such as Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union was also active in the field, but its operations were mainly limited to the assassination of emigré political leaders such as Trotsky. Today’s mini-Mussolinis in the Middle East and in Central America rule small or relatively weak countries. Libya is an extreme example: but for its investment in terrorism, it would be not much more important than Mauritania or the Yemens. Libyan sponsorship of terrorism has been largely the initiative of one man, Muammar al-Qaddafi. But the balance sheet of a decade of such sponsorship is not impressive: publicity has not resulted in political clout. Qaddafi is still only a minor troublemaker, isolated among the Arabs, distrusted and kept at a distance even by those who support him at the United Nations or take his money. The Syrian and Iranian sponsors of terrorism have been more discriminating in their targets and therefore, within limits, more successful.

The attitude of the Soviet bloc has been ambiguous. It has used terrorism as a weapon to destabilize certain countries, but only as a minor instrument in its general arsenal of political warfare, and this for two reasons. The Soviets will never extend support openly; it has to be carefully laundered through a series of subcontractors and middlemen. But this also means that they cannot have full control over the terrorists; the gunmen may land them in situations that were not planned, and which may be politically harmful. To engage in international terrorism is to play with a fire that is difficult to control.

Mention has already been made of the other reason: Marxist-Leninists believe in mass action rather than individual terror, and past experience tends to show that they are by and large correct. Far from weakening a society, terrorism has quite frequently had the opposite, immunizing effect, bringing about greater internal cohesion. The effect of the murder of the Italian leader Aldo Moro is one example; the consequences of terrorism on the internal situation in Israel is another. Far from diverting resources from national defense, the terrorist threat strengthens the feeling that more ought to be done for national security, which plays into the hands of the forces of law and order. Seen in a wider perspective, systematic terrorism is a mixed blessing from the Soviet point of view. It may cause friction between the United States and its allies, many of which have been taking a softer line vis-à-vis international terrorism. But such a rift is not about matters of principle—no one in Europe actually likes international terrorism. Even Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou wants it to go away—at least to a neighboring country. It is an embarrassment, bad for the image of the country affected; tourism suffers, and there are all kinds of other negative consequences.

For these consequences the governments of Western Europe to a large extent have to blame themselves. For years they have permitted themselves to be blackmailed, beginning with the establishment of Libyan people’s bureaus, which replaced legations and embassies in open contravention of diplomatic practice. Yet the European governments more often than not preferred to close their eyes, as they did when Libyan emigrés and their own nationals were gunned down in broad daylight in their cities.

Appeasement is not reprehensible per se; at one stage or another all countries have made concessions to terrorists. If appeasement had worked, a good case could be made in its favor: why endanger the lives of European nationals in the Middle East; why sacrifice trade and goodwill just because of a few isolated incidents? But appeasement has had no beneficial results; the fact that former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and Papandreou were nice to Qaddafi and that France and Italy had a special relationship with various Middle Eastern terrorist groups did not give them immunity from terrorist attack. The contrary happened, and the reasons seem obvious. Israel is a difficult target, and the terrorists rightly assume that Americans would react violently if they carried their operations to America’s shores. Given the circumstances, it was only natural that terrorists would prefer soft targets in Europe. But there is a limit to the patience of European governments, which are willing to put up with isolated incidents but not with systematic campaigns. If the French, Spanish and other governments have adopted of late sterner measures against the sponsors of international terrorism, this was not so much for love of America but because their own interests were affected—and because domestic pressure was growing.


As internal terrorism has declined in the Western world after the last decade and as international terrorism has become more frequent, the need for full international cooperation against terrorism has been invoked a great many times. It is a hopeless undertaking, however, as long as some states sponsor, finance, equip and train terrorists and provide sanctuaries for them. Spokesmen for democratic societies will continue to proclaim that terrorism is abhorred and condemned by the whole civilized world. But the civilized world does not extend that far these days, and proceedings in the United Nations have shown that it is very difficult to have terrorism condemned even on paper, unless some of the leading communist or Third World countries just happen to be on the receiving end of terrorist operations—which helps to clear their minds but, unfortunately, not for very long.

These debates will no doubt go on for many years; it may be wrong to pay too much attention to them. International terrorism is an extra-legal activity, and thus the contribution of our legal experts is bound to have a limited effect. Specific bilateral agreements or pacts among several countries may be of certain value; the exchange of information between NATO countries and others has improved during the last decade, and as a result some terrorist attacks have been prevented. Under certain conditions quiet diplomacy, such as issuing unpublicized warnings, has been of help; in other circumstances preemptive publicity has helped. Most sponsors of state terrorism do not want their involvement to become known. They will, at the very least, temporarily scale down their involvement once they realize that what was meant to be a high-value, low-risk undertaking might escalate into an armed conflict in which the risks are high and the value is at best uncertain.

But truly effective concerted action against terrorism is possible only on the basis of the strategy first advocated by the nineteenth-century Russian terrorists. This is "hitting the center," meaning those rulers of countries who are sponsors of international terrorism. But hitting the center may not be easy for a variety of reasons. The responsibility for a certain terrorist action or campaign cannot always be easily proved. The aggrieved party may find it difficult to provide sufficient hard evidence. Smoking guns are seldom left at the scene of the crime in this kind of business. Even if there is evidence, to reveal it would often mean giving away the identity of well-placed intelligence sources in the terrorist hierarchy, of which there are probably not many.

For a country or a group of countries subject to attacks by international terrorism, there are, broadly speaking, three ways to react. Given the natural inertia of democratic governments and the difficulties involved, the obvious reaction is to condemn the attack but to refrain from any physical act of retaliation. As long as these attacks occur relatively rarely and inasmuch as they do not result in many victims, this is a feasible policy. But lack of reaction is usually interpreted as a sign of weakness, in which case the attacks will become more frequent and murderous. The sponsors of international terrorism resemble in many respects children trying to find out by trial and error how far they can go in provoking the adults until punishment will be meted out to them.

If an escalation in international terrorist attacks does take place, the obvious way to retaliate is to pay back the sponsors in their own coin. As General George Grivas, head of the EOKA (the National Organization of Cypriot Combatants) in Cyprus and a man of great experience in the field, once put it: to catch a mouse, one uses a cat, not a tank (or an aircraft carrier). But democratic countries may not have cats, meaning a truly effective covert action capability, or "active measures," to use the well-known Soviet term. Even if they have a capability of this kind, they may find it difficult to use, be it because terrorist acts are much easier to carry out in open societies than in dictatorships or because those who engage in covert action on behalf of a democratic country are not normally permitted to kill enemy leaders. In the United States there is an absolute prohibition by presidential order.

What alternatives exist? In some cases diplomatic action may have some success; on other occasions economic sanctions may have a certain impact, but only if there is agreement between the major Western countries. Otherwise, in the absence of "cats," retaliation takes the form of military action. Such escalation involves risks: innocent people are likely to get killed, and those who retaliate will be blamed for creating a new dangerous situation. This has been the fate of the Israelis, who for a long time combined covert action with surgical air strikes (which, on occasion, hit the wrong target). It was also the fate of the United States after the strike against Libya in April 1986: those who retaliate become attackers, and there will be a great deal of handwringing and dire warnings. No government will lightly take such a course of action. It will only do so if it has good reason to believe that the alternative—refraining from counteraction—would have fateful consequences, and if public opinion at home is so strongly in favor of retaliation that it cannot safely be ignored. This is particularly true with regard to a superpower, whose freedom of action is by necessity more restrained than that of a small country. The more powerful a country, the stronger the constraints to act cautiously, for everything a major power does is important; it may turn a local incident into an international conflict.


Thus the inclination will still be to wait and see. Terrorism may not outgrow the nuisance stage, but if it does, a one-time, limited application of military force may be sufficient to drive the lesson home. There is a tendency to magnify the importance of terrorism in modern society: society is vulnerable to attack, but it is also astonishingly resilient. Terrorism makes a great noise, but so far it has not been very destructive. Our media resemble the Bedouin warriors described by Lawrence of Arabia, who were sturdy fighters except for their mistaken belief that weapons were dangerous in proportion to the noise they created.

But what if terrorism does outgrow the nuisance stage, and what if the one-time lesson administered is not sufficient? In theory, the state sponsors of terrorism should never let this come to pass. For once they succeed in provoking the superpower, the political calculus changes, and they are bound to lose in a confrontation with a much more powerful nation. Only gross miscalculation can lead them into such a course of action. Unfortunately, it is not certain that rational behavior will always prevail on their part. In this case the victims of state-sponsored terrorism must act. They could bring back General Grivas’ cats, which is difficult in a democratic society and perhaps undesirable. Or they can choose deliberate escalation, hitting back with military force against elusive terrorist targets. If there is at the present time a terrorist threat, it is not the one usually adduced, that of destroying societies from within. It is the danger of terrorist provocation leading well beyond the confines of mere terrorism and counterterrorism. This danger cannot be reduced without Soviet cooperation. The Qaddafis and Assads will act much more cautiously when they know that they cannot count on automatic Soviet help, once their transgressions lead to retribution. Terrorism, in other words, may not be very important, but like some minor diseases, it can have unpleasant and even dangerous consequences if neglected.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Walter Laqueur is chairman of the research council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, author of Guerrilla, first published in 1976, and Terrorism, 1977, and editor of the Guerrilla Reader and the Terrorism Reader.
  • More By Walter Laqueur