Can Love Be an Answer to Terrorism?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Fourteen years ago in The Atlantic, and three months after the September 11 attacks, Bruce Hoffman wrote on terrorism and love. He tells the story of a former senior commander of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, tasked with dismantling the Black September terrorist group. The commander’s tactic? Marriage:

They traveled to Palestinian refugee camps, to PLO offices and associated organizations, and to the capitals of all Middle Eastern countries with large Palestinian communities. Systematically identifying the most attractive young Palestinian women they could find, they put before these women what they hoped would be an irresistible proposition: Your fatherland needs you. Will you accept a critical mission of the utmost importance to the Palestinian people? Will you come to Beirut, for a reason to be disclosed upon your arrival, but one decreed by no higher authority than Chairman Arafat himself? How could a true patriot refuse?

So approximately a hundred of these beautiful young women were brought to Beirut.

There, in a sort of PLO version of a college mixer, boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy would, it was hoped, marry girl. There was an additional incentive, designed to facilitate not just amorous connections but long-lasting relationships. The hundred or so Black Septemberists were told that if they married these women, they would be paid $3,000; given an apartment in Beirut with a gas stove, a refrigerator, and a television; and employed by the PLO in some nonviolent capacity. Any of these couples that had a baby within a year would be rewarded with an additional $5,000.

It worked: “As the general recounted, without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family.”
There are very visible notions of sexism here—marrying off women to quell the violence of men, what it says about perceptions of women, what it meant for those specific women. Still, the power of love as a solution to terrorism is arresting. And echoed 14 years later by Theo Padnos, a journalist kidnapped in Syria and tortured for 22 months by the al-Nusra Front. At the Washington Ideas Forum last week, when Padnos was asked how the U.S. should respond to groups like al-Nusra, he replied:

I think we should send them aid. We should send them chocolates and blankets and—I think we have to be nicer to them. We can keep killing these people, but more will come. I remember Stanley McChrystal’s insurgent math—if you have 10, and you kill two, you don’t get eight, you get 20. This is truer in Syria. The bombs, I think, spread the hatred. The bombs that were dropping now, the bombs that Putin is dropping now, they only spread the hatred and they create more.