The Fiction of Life (May 7, 2003)
Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc:
Bronx Story (April 24, 2003)
A conversation with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, whose new book, Random Family, chronicles the struggles of an impoverished extended family in New York.
The Nature of Inheritance (April 11, 2003)
A conversation with Cristina García, whose new novel, Monkey Hunting, explores Cuban identity, immigrant life, and the way family history evolves.
Caught Between Places (April 2, 2003)
A conversation with John Murray, a doctor-turned-writer whose characters are often searching to reconcile their new lives with the ones they've left behind.
The Real Islam (March 20, 2003)
In The Two Faces of Islam Stephen Schwartz argues that in order to appreciate the pluralist, tolerant side of Islam, we must confront its ugly, extremist side.
Richard Brookhiser: What Makes W. Tick? (March 11, 2003)
The historian and journalist Richard Brookhiser weighs in on George W. Bush—his management style, his mean streak, his religiosity, and his recovery from alcoholism.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Atlantic Unbound | May 15, 2003
The Calculus of Terror
Bruce Hoffman, a world-renowned expert on terrorism, talks about the strategy behind the suicide bombings in Israel—and what we must learn from Israel's response
ear the end of the twentieth
century, Israel, a country whose short history has been punctuated by wars,
terrorism, and other forms of attack on its existence, finally seemed close to
achieving a state of normalcy. Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza
Strip would travel back and forth across the border to work in Israel;
terrorist attacks happened, but they were relatively rare; and Ehud Barak and
Yasir Arafat, after years of negotiations overseen by President Clinton, seemed
to be inching toward an agreement that was palatable to both sides. But then
came the failure of the Camp David talks, Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to
the Temple Mount, and, in September 2000, the start of the second intifada.
Since then the number of suicide-bombing attacks in Israel has skyrocketed,
shaping almost every aspect of daily life.
Bruce Hoffman, an expert on the subject of international
terrorism who has spent extended periods of time in Israel over the past
few decades, returned there in December on assignment for The Atlantic. Hoffman had not been to Israel since 1999, and he
found the changes there to be stark. Public spaces that used to be full of life
were empty. Restaurants were protected by armed security guards who would
frisk potential customers before allowing them to enter. People refused to ride
the bus, go to the hairdresser, or get a cup of coffee—those little
everyday things that could unwittingly place them in harm's way. In
"The Logic of Suicide Terrorism," the article that resulted from
his trip, Hoffman argues that this narrowing of daily life, this instilling of
the idea that nowhere is safe and that the government is unable to protect its
citizens, is exactly the strategy behind suicide terrorism. While such
terrorism may seem like an irrational act that is perpetrated by a disturbed individual,
most bombings are actually coldly calculated events, and many people are
involved in the planning. The bombs are inexpensive to produce, and the
materials—nuts, bolts, screws, ball bearings, metal shards, bits of
machinery—are easily attainable. Perhaps even more frightening is the
fact that whereas in the past the Palestinians needed to actively recruit
suicide bombers, these days, according to Hoffman, people are volunteering in
droves to commit the attacks.
Still, in recent months the number
of suicide bombings has dwindled, mainly due to the full-scale deployment of
the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which has
enabled Israeli authorities to collect information on potential terrorists and
keep a watchful eye on their activities. Hoffman argues that the U.S. must pay
close attention to the methods that Israel has used, both to track down
terrorists and to prevent or limit the severity of their attacks, since it is
likely that this extremely lethal and disruptive form of terrorism could
someday become a fact of life in America, too.
For democracies like Israel and the
United States, Hoffman believes, terrorism can present an especially thorny
problem—often the terrorists' goal is to provoke countries into
responding in ways that aren't consonant with the values of a pluralistic
democracy, thereby chipping away at the government's moral authority. In
his work for the RAND corporation, a think tank that advises the military and
other parts of the government on a wide range of issues; in his articles for The
Atlantic; and in his book Inside
Terrorism (1998), Hoffman has written that
the U.S. must think creatively about how to combat terrorism. At the same time, he has argued that
we must consider the lengths to which it is necessary to go, and to which we
are willing to go—two very different considerations.
We spoke by telephone on May 1.
In "Zion's Vital Signs" (November 2001 Atlantic), P. J. O'Rourke described his visit to Israel
over Passover in 2000, and argued that contrary to what the outside world might
think, terrorism had actually had little effect on daily life in Israel, at
least in Tel Aviv—cafes were full, the police presence didn't seem
especially high, and there weren't any outward signs of a place in
crisis. How different is the Israel you experienced in December from the one O'Rourke
Well, I was in Israel in March
1999, at the height of the Oslo accords, and a year or so before P. J. was.
And his description is absolutely accurate. I think that's why the collapse of
the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000 was such a crushing blow to the
Israelis. During the past decade or so Israel had really become what many
Israelis felt was a normal country. There were suicide terrorist bombings, but
there were only an average of three a year. Such attacks weren't
completely outside one's imagination, but they were by no means a regular
occurrence. When I went back in December 2002 I was surprised both by the
changes in society and by how normal it still was. Daily life—going to
restaurants, to clubs, to bus stops, to the hairdresser, has totally changed.
But what's so interesting about the Israelis is that they're constantly
redefining what normality is, and they're constantly adjusting and finding a
new level of that balance of security and fear. Many other societies would be
paralyzed with fear and almost driven into inaction. But at the same time it's
indisputable that the wave of suicide bombings over the past few years has
changed Israel. I think it's like stripping the enamel from a tooth and
exposing a raw nerve. Suicide attacks, on average, tend to kill more people
than other types of terrorism. They have a very profound psychological effect.
You make the point in your article that one of the
purposes of the suicide bomber is to make people feel as if they're not safe
Right. What suicide bombers try to
do, in essence, is to shrink the space around people and especially the space
around pluralistic multicultural democracies. In other words, they want to make
people afraid to venture from their locked apartments to socialize and do the
normal things that you do, and then from that paranoia to instill a sense of
xenophobia, to make people not just suspicious and fearful of anyone who is
different, but even hateful of them. The point was driven home to me last
February, when a friend of mine was visiting from Israel and told me the story
of his teenage son who was late coming home one night. The father started to
get worried and when he asked his son what took him so long, the son told him,
"I kept on having to get off the buses, because people that looked like
Arabs or Palestinians were getting on and I was afraid they were suicide
bombers." Clearly, the one requirement that citizens everywhere have, no
matter what kind of government they live under, is that they'll feel safe, that
they can walk the streets and not feel in danger, that they can go to a
restaurant, they can go to the local supermarket around the corner and not be
harmed. That's exactly what the
suicide terrorists have been trying to do: to make Israelis paranoid and xenophobic,
to make them feel that their government can't protect them. To deprive
Israelis, and even to an extent Americans, with the September 11 attacks, of
that space, of that freedom of movement, of that sense of well-being. In
essence, to create an environment that's amenable to terrorist exploitation.
Do you think that the Palestinians or the suicide bombers
will ever totally achieve their goal in Israel?
No. That goes back to P. J.
O'Rourke's point, which I think is correct. Israelis have an enormous
resiliency. They've been fighting terrorism in one form or another since the
state of Israel was created more than half a century ago. But the terrorists
look at the incremental changes in Israeli society and public attitudes in
response to the attacks, and they smell the scent of blood. They believe that
they've found a way to harm the Israelis and that through mercilessly
exploiting it they're going to win. But I think that in many cases such
terrorism has the opposite effect. We see it's had the opposite effect in the
overwhelming victory of Ariel Sharon in the last election. Israelis are
continually voting for people who will guarantee security and advocate a
It does seem that the Israeli army's attacks on the
Palestinians have been successful to some extent, because there have been fewer
suicide bombing attacks in recent months. Unless that's part of the suicide bomber's strategy,
too—to spur a crackdown by the Israeli Defense Forces.
You've hit the nail on the head.
Part of the suicide bombers' strategy anywhere is to provoke the
government into undertaking actions that the terrorists feel they can
manipulate for propaganda purposes, which will also portray them as the victims
rather than as the perpetrators. I think that's where the Palestinian terrorist
groups have been remarkably successful—not necessarily so much with public
opinion in the United States, but certainly in Europe. Almost for the first
time in the history of terrorism, terrorists have gotten people to sympathize
much more with the perpetrators of the violence than with the victims. The
IDF's activities in the West Bank over the past year have turned large swatches
of foreign public opinion against Israel in a way that nothing else has
in the very long and tortured dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
In fact, when I was in Israel, I talked with some members of the Knesset who
had gone to Europe as part of focus groups to hear what the attitude was
toward Israel these days. No matter what demographic profile they focused on—rich or poor, teenagers or the elderly, blue-collar or white-collar workers—everybody across the board said that although they wouldn't condone the
Palestinian use of suicide terrorism, they understood and they sympathized with
it and that in turn they felt Israel had to make concessions or fundamentally
change its policy.
What is key to understanding suicide terrorism
is that for some terrorist groups this has become an organizational imperative,
or an instrument of warfare embraced by the terrorist organizations. This is
not to suggest that genuine desperation, humiliation, and frustration do not
exist among the Palestinians. When, during this research trip, I visited the
West Bank and especially Hebron, the desperation, humiliation, and frustration
felt by the Palestinians was plain and troubling to see. My point is that
these deep-felt sentiments are being deliberately and consciously manipulated
and exploited by the terrorists. Unfortunately there are desperate,
frustrated, and humiliated people throughout the world. But they're not
resorting to suicide terrorism.
And so far the tactic seems to have been very successful.
Yes, according to the RAND
database, the average number of injuries over the past thirty years in a
terrorist act in Israel has been 3.3. For suicide bombings, it's 28.5. One
effect of this is that hospitals are literally
overwhelmed when a suicide bombing occurs. Whether in terms of emergency
response, the emergency and trauma centers at hospitals, the intensive care
units, or recovery wards, suicide attacks place a very heavy burden on
hospitals to an extent far greater than other forms of terrorist attack.
And I would think a lot of the
patients would be in critical condition
Certainly the people who are
victims of suicide terrorism have more severe trauma than other people
afflicted by violence. It affects different parts of the body, and there are
multiple penetrations from ball bearings or nuts and bolts and nails or bits of
machinery. They spend a much longer time in intensive care than other accident
victims or victims of violence or terrorism. They require longer periods of
post-operative treatment, have longer periods of adjustment. Obviously the
costs to society are enormous, even the emotional wear and tear of doctors and
nurses. In a small place like
Jerusalem, it's not at all unusual for the person on the operating table to be a
relative or a friend of someone working at the hospital, or even a colleague. Even for
a country whose doctors have had to deal with terrorism for more than half a
century, this is something of a different magnitude.
a January 2002 article for The Atlantic, David Carr argued that
"America is riddled with holes and targets," and that "righting various asymmetries merely designs—as
opposed to prevents—the next attack. When one target is shored up, nimble
transnational cells that can turn on a dime simply find new bull's-eyes."
It seems to me that according to his argument, it could be essentially impossible
to protect ourselves from Palestinian-style suicide attacks. What's your
He's not wrong, but that's the
problem that any country faces—it's impossible to hermetically seal off any
society, even a totalitarian one, from terrorism. But I don't think we're powerless
or helpless, though that's exactly what the terrorists want us to think. Suicide terrorism is attractive, because it fosters this sense of
powerlessness within the targeted society. As
part of their propaganda, suicide terrorists are trying to portray themselves
as fanatical, irrational adversaries, because they want their potential victims
to believe that there is nothing they can do against such an adversary. But there
are things we can do. I think the mere act of taking these threats seriously,
of preparing for them and discussing them, has a perhaps unquantifiable but
incalculable deterrent value, because it's demonstrating to terrorists that
we're not doing business as usual, that we're not supinely laying down and
letting them walk all over us, but rather that we're mobilizing our defenses in
whatever way we can to combat this threat.
I think the important thing,
though, is to have realistic expectations. The Israelis know that they're not
going to stop every attack, but that doesn't mean that they don't do something
about it. And that doesn't mean that what they're doing is not effective. It
certainly is effective. No matter who I spoke with in Israel—the military,
intelligence, academics, politicians, human-rights activists, journalists,
police, police, and ordinary people—they told me that the same number of
suicide attacks and attempts are being made on a daily basis. The difference is
that with the IDF deployed in the West Bank they're stopping 80 percent
of them. Now, it's a completely different dynamic in the United States. We
don't have a hostile population right across the border that provides a pool of
recruits for suicide bombing. So if suicide terrorism were to commence in the
United States, it would be different in many ways from what we see in Israel.
And also our defenses, by the same token, would have to be different. We're a
How would you judge our responses to recent terrorist attacks?
What should we learn for next time?
I think, firstly, that the most
important metric is the prevention of another 9/11-type attack, not only in the
United States, but anywhere. Obviously we've been doing well in that sense,
because there hasn't been one, and that's a towering achievement. I think,
though, that the sniper case in Washington was a very important warning bell,
because of the way that society was so easily unsettled.
You once taught a course on the difficulties that democracies
face in countering terrorism. How would you apply this idea to America's
response to September 11? How do we find the right balance between protecting
ourselves and our democratic values?
First, finding a
balance is a dynamic process, not a static one, as many people assume. The
balance itself is constantly changing, given that the threat and the level of
threat is constantly changing as well. This is a never-ending process of
striking a balance and forging a new dynamic in response to changed situations.
One of the strengths, for example, of the Northern Ireland emergency
provisions that the United Kingdom imposed in the 1970s to prevent terrorist
attacks was that they weren't adopted, locked in, and never looked at
again. They had to be annually renewed and debated and discussed. That is the most important requirement
for a democracy: to constantly strive to strike this balance through open
debate and discussion and deliberate and detailed consideration of the
situation, the circumstances, and the most appropriate response. The
second one, I think, is effective communications with the public. This is
something that is important to grasp, and that is behind the creation of the
Homeland Security Department. In essence, the whole notion of homeland security
is a new concept for us. We have a lot to learn from democracies like the
United Kingdom, Israel, and Sri Lanka, that have faced these threats but
haven't been defeated by them.
In order to effectively fight terrorism, is it necessary to use
means that are incompatible with the values of a liberal democratic state?
No. This is what I was trying to
get at in that piece I did for The Atlantic
last year on torture, in which I wanted to raise this same issue. And I
discovered that you don't get letters to the editor from people who agree with
you, but rather from people who disagree with you. For many of them, the use of
torture wasn't a subject that could be discussed or debated. But I think that's
exactly the point. I think it's much better to openly discuss and debate these
things and then come to closure on them. I wasn't advocating that governments
should depart from their core values. At the same time, though, especially in
instances of national emergencies, especially at times when we face a dramatic
and profoundly different threat, it's certainly appropriate to discuss the
various ways of dealing with terrorism. That's part of the strength of
Each day I was reading the
"portraits of grief" in The New York Times. Given this daily menu of horrible carnage, lost
lives, and broken families, I was thinking, What's going to happen
when we start to apprehend these guys? What are we going to do? That was the time to start thinking about this
issue. Once we started apprehending people it was too late to start those
discussions. We have to know our moral compass and identify our boundaries
You have been studying strategies of terrorism for more than
twenty-five years. What are some of the major changes you've seen during
that time—in terms of the types of attacks perpetrated and the reasons
behind those attacks? How has your own understanding of terrorism and
terrorists changed and deepened?
biggest changes have been the emergence and then exponential growth in
terrorism motivated by a religion and, in turn, the accompanying rise in
terrorist lethality over the past decade. In the past, it seemed that
terrorists were more interested in publicity than in killing and therefore kept
the violence they inflicted within self-imposed bounds. With the September 11
attacks, however, the conventional wisdom about terrorism—which largely
followed that line of argument—was shattered. In essence, bin Laden
wiped the slate clean, demonstrating clearly that a new era of conflict had
begun in which terrorism was now not a second tier threat, but an absolutely
primary threat given the obvious intention of at least the more formidable
terrorist movements to inflict wanton carnage and destruction. This was a
clear demonstration of the fact that terrorism itself is not a static
phenomenon, but a highly dynamic one. For that reason, if we are to defeat our
adversaries, our approaches to countering terrorism and thinking about it have
to be even more dynamic and more innovative than theirs.
What do you think? Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Katie Bacon is an editor of The Atlantic Online. Her most recent interview was with Stephen Schwartz.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.