Just Say No to Terrorism

In the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan famously urged kids to “just say no” to drugs. Although I’m no fan of the War on Drugs, she was certainly correct to point out that saying “no” is a good way of avoiding the dangers of drug use. Co-blogger Eugene Volokh makes a similar argument with respect to violence intended to pressure Western nations into suppressing “blasphemous” speech. Giving in to the terrorists incentivizes further terrorism, while refusing to do so reduces the risk of future violence. This principle applies to terrorism more broadly: An excellent way to reduce the risk of attacks is to refuse to give in to the terrorists’ demands. Over time, a government that develops a reputation for saying no to terrorists is likely to suffer fewer attacks in the first place.

I. Why Terrorists Rarely Target Dictatorships.

Most terrorist attacks are undertaken in the hopes of extracting some sort of political concession from the targeted nation. The terrorists strike because they think they have at least a reasonable chance of achieving the desired result. Governments that refuse to give in suffer fewer attacks. The most striking evidence supporting this conjecture is that terrorists rarely target dictatorships. That certainly isn’t because dictatorships are so nice that few people have grievances against them. To the contrary, they usually generate far more grievances than democracies do.

For example, it is striking that there is relatively little Muslim terrorism directed at Chinese targets, despite the Chinese governments’ brutal repression of its Muslim minority. In the days of the Soviet Union, Muslim terrorism directed against that government was very rare, despite the invasion of Afghanistan and the USSR’s harsh treatment of its own large Muslim population. Even Osama Bin Laden didn’t engage in terrorist attacks against civilians when he fought the Soviets in the 1980s. The contrast with his tactics against the US is instructive. As Russia became more democratic in the 1990s, the growing conflict in Chechnya began to generate more terrorist attacks, which in turn declined again over the last few years, as Vladimir Putin has consolidated a more authoritarian regime in Russia.

The main reason why dictatorships rarely suffer terrorist attacks is that they rarely given in to terrorists. Potential terrorists know that terrorism directed at dictatorships is unlikely to pay. Obviously, dictatorships also have harsher security policies than democracies do. But that doesn’t explain why terrorist attacks rarely target even those dictatorships that have relatively weak security services, or aim at targets associated with authoritarian governments beyond their borders (where their ability to adopt repressive security policies is much weaker than at home). Western democracies’ embassies and citizens traveling abroad get targeted far more often than those of authoritarian states, even though the latter are comparably vulnerable to attack. Muslim terrorists and rioters rarely if ever targeted Soviet embassies in the 1980s or Chinese ones today, despite the many Muslim grievances against those two governments.

II. The “Just Say No” Approach to Preventing Terrorism.

Saying no has many advantages over alternative antiterrorism policies. Unlike defensive security measures, it doesn’t require much in the way of extra government spending or violations of civil liberties. It is also less costly than offensive military action against the terrorists and creates fewer collateral risks. One can argue that avoiding actions that anger terrorists in the first place is even cheaper. But as the current round of riots at US embassies and many other incidents show, all sorts of things can anger potential terrorists. And it is impossible for a free society to even come close to avoiding all of them. Moreover, if potential terrorists realize that we are preemptively trying to avoid doing anything that might give them offense, that in itself is likely to generate additional demands backed by threats of terrorist attacks if the demands are not met.

Obviously, saying no is far from a complete substitute for these other strategies. But it can incrementally reduce the need to resort to them. In the long run, that reduction can be quite large, since saying no can greatly reduce the incentive of terrorists to target the state in the first place.

Unfortunately, democracies – including the US and Israel – often do make concessions to terrorists. Changing this pattern is not easy. The reason why democracies are more likely to give in than dictatorships is, of course, that they place a higher value on civilian life, and public opinion sometimes pressures them into making concessions in order to secure the release of hostages.

In addition, saying “no” may create genuine moral dilemmas in cases where the terrorists have at least a partially just cause. For example, Chechen terrorists have some legitimate grievances against Russia; but they have also committed horrendous atrocities against civilians. In such cases, saying “no” requires continuation of unjust policies that should never have been adopted in the first place. That creates a potentially difficult tradeoff.

That said, most terrorists are not fighting for just causes, and the genuine dilemma posed by those who are should not be allowed to obscure the virtues of saying “no” to the many who are not. And while it may be difficult for democracies to commit to a consistent policy of saying no, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize the problem and the ways in which committing to no can help solve it. The idea that giving in to terrorists breeds more terrorism is not a hard one to grasp, and even rationally ignorant voters can come to understand it over time. Hopefully, both the general public and political elites will begin to learn the lesson.

NOTE: In this post, I use “terrorism” in the commonly accepted sense of attacks deliberately targeting civilians. Thus, the fact that insurgent groups often target the military and security forces of dictatorships doesn’t count against my thesis. Defeating an authoritarian state’s military can indeed force them to give in, while harming its civilians rarely will.

UPDATE: I should perhaps add that there is a difference between a policy of saying no to terrorism and a policy of never doing anything that any terrorist might possibly want us to do. There is a difference between doing X in order to convince terrorists to stop attacking us, and doing X for unrelated reasons of our own. In some cases, unfortunately, terrorists might mistake the latter for the former. That’s one reason why cases where terrorists have a just cause create a difficult dilemma. A government that takes actions that happen to coincide with the demands of terrorists, but does so for reasons other than a desire to appease them, needs to find a way to credibly convey the reasons for its actions. How best to do that is a difficult issue that I cannot address in a post that is already too long.

UPDATE #2: I recognize, as some commenters note, that the paper I cite for evidence that dictatorships suffer fewer terrorist attacks than democracies mostly attempts to explain variation in attacks between different dictatorships. But the first part of the paper summarizes extensive previous literature showing that dictatorships experience fewer terrorist attacks than democracies. The latter part does not contest this, but merely shows that some dictatorships experience fewer attacks than others and tries to explain why. I intended to rely only on the first part of the paper, the one that summarizes the previous literature.

UPDATE #3: I suppose I should note more explicitly that there have been cases of Muslim terorism in China. However, they are far less common than attacks directed at Western democracies. More generally, the point is not that dictatorships avoid terrorist attacks entirely, but that their incidence is much lower than that of attacks directed at democracies, even though the former create far more grievances among potential terrorists. A consistent policy of saying no can’t eliminate terrorism entirely. But it can substantially reduce its incidence.