Commentary Magazine

Thinking About Terrorism

For a decade or more, the United States government, like the governments of most Western powers, was largely silent on the question of Soviet complicity in international terrorism. German and Italian officials preferred to change the subject; the Central Intelligence Agency denied that Italy’s Red Brigades had any foreign ties. When terrorism was discussed at all, it was to deplore the violence, to observe that no political faction had a monopoly on such tactics, and to urge that the underlying social causes of this “unrest” be removed and that the political “issues” be brought to the conference table.

Beginning in about 1979, and culminating in 1981 with the publication of Claire Sterling’s book, The Terror Network,1 the evidence that the Soviet Union had provided, at a minimum, substantial supplies of arms and training facilities to a broad spectrum of terrorist organizations became so compelling that it was difficult (though, as we shall see, not impossible) to deny it. A new administration came to power and announced that it was going to take terrorism seriously; Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr., accused the Soviet Union of “training, funding, and equipping” international terrorists. A Senate subcommittee began hearings on terrorism.

One might suppose that this change in mood would have encouraged investigative journalists to pursue with full vigor the tantalizing leads they had so long ignored. Court transcripts, newspaper interviews, police records in a half-dozen nations, the published biographies of admitted terrorists, the testimony of various defectors—all were available in great abundance. If so many sources had been available at the time of Watergate, we would never have heard of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein because the story would have been pieced together, in about a week and a half, by some stringer for the Associated Press.

But the reaction of our leading newspaper, the New York Times, has been quite the opposite. Philip Taubman, in a front-page story on May 3, criticized Haig for “not defining terrorism” and for not offering any evidence of a Soviet connection. Taubman noted that the Central Intelligence Agency, when asked by Director William J. Casey for a review of what we know about terrorism, was unable, in its first attempt, to provide evidence that would support the Haig charge. Taubman laced his story with quotations from various scholars criticizing Haig for “overstating” his case.

On May 5, Tom Wicker wrote a column in which he suggested that the Senate hearings on terrorism, chaired by Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, gave him a “queasy feeling” because they brought to mind the Joseph McCarthy era of the 1950’s. Congressman Don Edwards (D, California) wrote to the Wall Street Journal on April 20 to complain of its favorable review of the Sterling book and to object to the Reagan administration’s policy as simplistic, one-sided, and neglectful of the “indigenous economic, religious, political, and historical tensions of the victimized society.” We should not forget, he added, Soviet charges of American sponsorship of right-wing terrorism in Chile, El Salvador, Korea, and Israel. Terrorism will end when the “political situation” is settled in places such as Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and Puerto Rico.

But these were the moderate reactions to Sterling. Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway, writing in the Village Voice, set the tone for the serious assault on her by referring to the “calculated misrepresentations of reality” she and others had produced. Sterling was described as one of the “notorious exponents” of the problem of “‘terrorism.’” Note the use of quotation marks: Cockburn and Ridgeway, like many other writers on the Left, regularly refer to “terrorism,” never simply to terrorism. The intent, apparently, is to suggest that terrorism does not really exist, or exists in forms other than those implied by Sterling, or is a code-word employed by Sterling to suggest something else. I readily grant the difficulty of defining the term and of sorting out the various ways in which terrorism may be practiced—by the Right as well as the Left, by governments as well as conspirators—but it is hard to understand why anyone should imply that terrorist acts ought to be called something else when terrorists themselves regularly call their own actions terrorism and write about the virtues of terror. Let us quote from the widely circulated underground textbook of terrorists—the Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, by Carlos Marighella: “Terrorism is an arm the revolutionary can never relinquish.”

The most remarkable review, however, was supplied by Aryeh Neier in the Nation (Neier is former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union). He rejects the central argument of the Sterling book—namely, that the Soviet Union has been deeply implicated in terrorist activities—by claiming that she “shows nothing” to support the charge except “vapors.” As I hope to make clear, this claim is so utterly at odds with the facts that Neier’s review can only be described as a piece of systematic misrepresentation. Instead of taking up the factual assertions Sterling supplies and either criticizing the evidence behind them or supplying alternative interpretations of that evidence, Neier resorts to a set of debater’s tricks that will deceive only somebody who has not read the book and who wants desperately to believe it is false. He accuses Sterling of bad writing, and supports this by listing thirty-nine adjectives she employs that he finds objectionable. (For the curious, Neier does not think it proper to refer to a villa as “magnificent,” a confrontation as “momentous,” or a death as “mysterious.”)

But when it comes time to deal with the sources on which Sterling relies for some of her assertions, Neier resorts to—guess what?—adjectives. Rather than criticizing the writings of Brian Crozier, Robert Moss, John Barron, and Michael Ledeen, Neier dismisses them with a single phrase: they are “apostles of the new cold war.” It is a bit harder to dismiss the testimony of General Jan Sejna of Czechoslovakia who defected to the West after serving in a high military post and who confirms many of Sterling’s statements. What Neier can do, and does, is to raise an eyebrow because Sejna, who defected in 1968, did not make known his evidence about Soviet involvement in terrorist training camps until much later. (Imagine what Neier would have written had Sejna said all this in 1968, fresh from Prague. The sneer would then probably have taken this form: “Sejna, who could not wait to trumpet his accusations, rushed into print with. . . .”)

Apart from the adjective count and the crude attempt at character assassination, the essence of the Neier critique is to create a straw man and then slay it. His summary of the Sterling book is as follows: “The Soviet Union calls all the shots.” This is very different from what she in fact says. Her argument is best summarized in her own words: “In effect, the Soviet Union had simply laid a loaded gun on the table, leaving others to get on with it.” The Kremlin did not call all the shots, it simply made it easier for terrorists to get the training and equipment to do the shooting.



Since Neier distorts the argument beyond recognition, it is important to be clear just what Sterling is saying and what, for so long, the West was denying. Soviet complicity could range from simply allowing suspected terrorists to come and go in its satellite states to directing from some central headquarters each and every hijacking, bombing, and kidnapping. Sterling does not assert the “Moscow Mastermind” version of world terrorism; she asserts only that Moscow, directly or through such clients as Cuba and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, provided the weapons, the training, the sanctuaries, and the right introductions to a wide, fragmented, but increasingly interconnected set of terrorist groups.

This aspect of the debate reminds me of arguments we used to have about the Mafia. You could easily prove it did not exist simply by assuming that what was meant by a “Mafia” was a centrally directed, national criminal conspiracy that operated with the same precision and hierarchical controls that one might find in, say, AT&T; since it was ludicrous to suppose that any such criminal organization could exist and no evidence that anything like it did exist, one could dismiss the Mafia as a myth, the product of overheated police imagination. This line of argument spared one the necessity of investigating the possibility that certain groups of criminals in certain localities were able, by means of political corruption, physical extortion, and familial ties, to create and maintain, for certain limited purposes, moderate-size criminal organizations with loose ties to similar organizations in other places. As countless investigative reports and trial records show, organized crime in this sense is very real indeed.

One can also symphathize with the fear of any revival of a domestic witch hunt; I recall the McCarthy era quite well, and it was an appalling episode. But scarcely anyone—certainly not Claire Sterling, and not Secretary Haig—is calling for anything like this. They are talking of international terrorism and of the support it has received from the Soviet Union and Soviet satellites, and suggesting that we should take this more seriously than we have done. And FBI Director William H. Webster has made it clear that he is not asking for his organization to be “unleashed,” nor does he believe that we currently have a major domestic security problem.

But if no responsible person is propounding the Moscow Mastermind hypothesis or calling for a domestic crackdown on political dissidents, why does a leading newspaper, the chairman of a congressional subcommittee, a well-known columnist, and a spokesman for civil-liberties groups react with such disbelief and distaste to the suggestion that the Soviet Union has been implicated in terrorism in ways that have made its consequences—its bloody human cost—far worse than anything that would have resulted from the mere expression of “indigenous tensions”?

We have here, I think, the double standard of political morality once again. Such a double standard is by no means the monopoly of liberals—I recall otherwise respectable Southern conservatives denying that the Ku Klux Klan had an organized terrorist component, and otherwise intelligent government officials viewing with studied skepticism the evidence for the Holocaust—but in this case it is being applied almost exclusively by liberals.

Claire Sterling begins her book by admitting to the influence of the double standard on her own thinking, and, having admitted it, overcome it: “It would have been easier for me to write about Black (i.e., fascist) terrorists, always a virtuous pursuit—and now, once again, becoming a singularly urgent one. Writing about left-wing Red terrorists did not make me feel virtuous: it saddened me.” The reason for the sadness is clear: “Few of us, in my generation or my children’s, can easily shake off the belief that Left is always and necessarily good. The feeling is particularly strong in situations where Right is so obviously bad.” The book ends where it begins—with the observation that there are no good or bad killers, there are only killers.

Sentence by sentence, the book is easy to read; taken as a whole, however, it is hard to follow. It is repetitious, poorly organized, and lacking in the clarity one would want in a legal brief or formal indictment. But it is totally compelling; indeed, the very repetition, as events unfold and hidden connections become palpable, seems to recapitulate in a convincing manner the author’s own struggle to accept the bits and pieces of evidence as they come to her through the gory haze of murder and mayhem. Because it lacks the structure of a formal argument, readers who do not want to believe its message can find reason for dismissing it as a collection of rumors, hearsay, and supposition. That would be a great mistake.



Suppose you wished to reject the hypothesis that the Soviet Union, either directly or through its satellite regimes, was deeply involved in a variety of terrorist enterprises. Suppose further that you were skeptical of the claims of unnamed “Western intelligence sources.” You would still have to explain, or explain away, the following facts:

  • When the wealthy Italian publisher and financial patron of the red underground, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, was killed by a bomb he was trying to affix to a high-tension pylon near Milan, the police discovered that he had a false passport showing that he had made, under an assumed name, at least twenty-two visits to Czechoslovakia.
  • When General Jan Sejna, military counselor to the Central Committee of the Czech Communist party, defected to the West in 1968, he brought with him a list of thirteen Italians, including Feltrinelli, who had attended a KGB school for terrorists set up in Karlovy Mar.
  • After the Italian police began to crack the Red Brigades, a key leader, Patrizio Peci, confessed, stating, among other things, that Red Brigade members had attended training schools in Czechoslovakia throughout the 1970’s and had received Czech-made arms, shipped from Prague by way of Hungary and Austria.
  • When the Israeli police arrested a Dutch terrorist, Ludwina Janssen, she confessed that she had been trained by Cuban instructors at camps in South Yemen, a Soviet satellite regime, and that there were also in attendance at these camps students from the Provisional Wing of the IRA, the German Revolutionary Cells, and other terrorist groups in Japan, Latin America, and the Middle East. All this was subsequently confirmed by a German terrorist who defected and who had actually taught at a camp in Aden.
  • When the Irish navy seized the S.S. Claudia in 1973, it was carrying Soviet-bloc arms consigned to the IRA and accompanied by an IRA member. Four years later, another ship was seized off Antwerp—the S.S. Towerstream—and it was also loaded with Soviet-bloc weapons destined for the IRA. In 1971, the Dutch police seized a shipment of Czech arms, ordered by the IRA from Omnipol, an arms factory in Prague, at the Schiphol airport. An IRA member was later to write that they ordered the weapons from an illustrated catalogue supplied them in Prague.
  • When Viktor Sakharov defected from the KGB, he described being trained in the South Yemen camps for his assignment—to work in Kuwait on plans to mount terrorist campaigns in Arab nations and in Turkey.
  • After several dozen fedayeen were arrested in Israel, they admitted—both to the Israeli police and later to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter—that they had been trained in Soviet camps located near the Black Sea.
  • Terrorist training camps in Yemen and Libya were staffed by, among others, Cuban instructors long after Cuba had become totally dependent on the Soviet Union and the Cuban Intelligence Service (DGI) had become an adjunct of the KGB.



In the light of all this, it is a bit hard to understand why Secretary Haig’s statement about Soviet complicity should have been the occasion for so much journalistic tongue-clucking. Imagine, if you will, what the attitude of the press would be if comparable facts had come to light about United States involvement in terrorist—or even counter-terrorist—activities in Latin America. Imagine, that is, where the burden of proof would be assumed to lie if William F. Buckley, Jr. had been found traveling to Chile under a false passport, if a defector revealed that he had learned terrorist tactics in a South African training camp staffed with Puerto Rican instructors, or if a Panamanian ship loaded with American weapons had been seized en route to guerrilla forces operating against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Let us be clear about what we do not know. We do not know the extent, if any, to which the Soviets direct any terrorist organization. Moscow seems to have had great influence over the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) but less over other factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Most of the money for many terrorist groups probably comes, not from the Soviet Union, but from wealthy Arab nations and from criminal activities.

Moreover, right-wing terrorism is on the rise: there have been bombings of a French synagogue, an Italian railroad station, and a German festival that have been the work, apparently, of various fascist groups. It ought to be possible to condemn terrorism no matter who commits it, but what passes for an intellectual discussion of the matter today seems not to allow of that possibility. Instead of proposing a definition of terrorism and then attempting to deal with it in all its ugly manifestations, we seem locked into the familiar rhetorical tactic of answering a charge by leveling a charge. The key to this is the speed and facility with which one can employ the phrase, “But what about. . . ,” followed by some atrocity allegedly committed by your opponent:

The Soviet Union murdered its own citizens in the Gulag.

But what about the Indians at Wounded Knee?

The IRA Provos kill innocent persons in Belfast.

But what about the torture of Jacobo Timerman by the Argentine police?

The Soviet Union is supporting world terrorism.

—But what about the CIA in Chile?

The tactic is not confined to foreign affairs. When I speak about the problem of urban street crime to a college audience, the first rejoinder is usually, “But what about pollution?” (or poorly designed Pintos, or the Lockheed loan, or Watergate).

The purpose of such tactics, obviously, is to avoid the discussion of an issue by changing the subject in a manner that implies the moral inferiority of your opponent. Since there is always more than one evil loose in the world, this method means that no single evil can ever be discussed without discussing all evils simultaneously. And since one cannot, even in principle, discuss all things at once, nothing can be discussed. Moreover, the “but-what-about?” rejoinder implies that the counter-example is precisely analogous to the original example and, thus, that no distinctions among cases can be made. Since the essence of intelligent discussion is the willingness and capacity to make useful distinctions, the “what-about” gambit renders discussion impossible.

An especially deplorable, but by no means unusual, example of this kind of intellectual obfuscation can be found in a review of the Sterling book by Jonathan Marshall. Writing in Inquiry, Marshall asserts that Israel is a client state of the United States much as Cuba is a client of the Soviet Union. Having implied that the two cases are analogous, Marshall can accuse Sterling of practicing a double standard by failing to condemn the “regular practice of terrorism” by Israel, an American “surrogate.”

I had not thought that anyone’s capacity to make distinctions had atrophied to the point of being unable to find differences between the two instances. The Soviets control the DGI; the Americans, at best, can only envy the Mossad. Israel is a free society with a vociferous opposition; Cuba is a closed society with an imprisoned or émigré opposition. Cuban instructors teach terrorists from a score of nations how to kill in order not to defend Cuba but to “destabilize” the rest of the world; Israel launches reprisals against those who have attacked it. There are few simple rules by which to evaluate the actions of a beleaguered democracy—no doubt some of Israel’s acts deserve condemnation—but it is not hard to know what to think of a totalitarian regime that has sold itself, lock, stock, and barrel, to an imperialist power.



Let us try to clear away this thicket of rhetorical tricks and offer a definition of terrorism. Though perhaps it can be improved upon, I would begin with that adopted by a conference on international terrorism held in Jerusalem in 1979: terrorism is the “deliberate, systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends.”2

Whatever its deficiencies, this definition at least permits one to distinguish between pure terrorism (e.g., random murder in Turkey) and guerrilla warfare directed at the political or military arms of an occupying power. It also suggests a difference between force used to disrupt a particular political or military order and force used to make impossible the maintenance of any form of order under any auspices. Moreover, the definition implies that one must judge any killing by the extent to which other, less violent means exist to achieve political ends. If terror is practiced in a society with free elections, open courts, and a legitimate opposition it is more despicable than when terror, even defined as the killing of innocent persons, occurs in a society where no alternative means of change exists.

Such a definition can be applied to terror of the Right as well as of the Left, terror practiced by a government as well as terror practiced by those who oppose a government. If there is one thing wrong with the definition, however, it is the implication that there are known “political ends” toward which terror is customarily directed. Sometimes there are: the aims of terror in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany were plain enough—to maintain the position of those in power. But just as often there are not: who can describe in anything more than empty generalities the political aims of the IRA Provos or the Red Brigades? For many of their members, the purpose of terrorism is simply to terrorize. The modern terrorist employs it, not as a last resort, but as a preferred method; as Paul Johnson has written, the terrorist exalts violence over other forms of political activity. This leads in turn to the suppression of the natural moral instincts so that it is no longer easy—perhaps no longer possible—for members of such conspiracies to distinguish between the political zealot and the psychopathic killer. The routinization of violence, the melding of the true believer and the bloodthirsty killer, leads to the final irony. As Johnson has pointed out, terrorism assists in the spread of the totalitarian state.

Not all political violence we see in the world about us deserves to be called terrorism, but enough of it does to make one wonder why some of us strain to call it something else. A favorite intellectual device is to remark that what to one person is a terrorist is to another person a revolutionary hero, as if it were not possible to distinguish between terrorists and heroes. This kind of moral relativism, applied to ordinary shootings, would make it impossible to describe a common criminal. Does anyone really think it especially helpful, or even decent, to remark that one person’s mass murderer is another person’s “role model”?

We are more inclined to confound terrorists with heroes than we are to confuse psychotic killers with decent people because the former claim a political justification, and we tend to accept political justifications for acts that are otherwise unjustifiable. That acceptance might be defensible—if not persuasive—if we examined with care the justification, but usually we do not. We simply note that a person claims a political motive, that he employs some conventional bits of ideological bluster, and then assume that this must indicate the existence of some well-reasoned political argument that, had we the time and opportunity, we could discover. On the contrary, there is typically less to the matter than meets the ear.

Consider the Provisional Wing of the IRA. The recent suicides of some imprisoned IRA members, in the name of acquiring the status of “political prisoner”—none, of course, was imprisoned for his political views; all are in jail for having broken the criminal law—have led many Americans to assume that the IRA Provos are in fact making political claims and that therefore there exists, at least in principle, a “political solution.” Some observers may even think that what is wanted is simply for the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland, or the Catholics to win more rights, or the country to be unified.

But listen to the words of the Provos: “We see no future in power-sharing.” The IRA is as opposed to the regularly elected, democratic government of Ireland as it is to the Protestant leaders of the North or to the British army. The Provos want a “democratic socialist republic” to replace not merely the rulers of Ulster but the “Quisling regime” of Ireland as a whole. All existing governments, South and North, must be “demolished.” It is of course precisely because they speak this language that they have been able to attract funds from Libya and arms from Czechoslovakia. If you ask them to be a bit clearer about just what they have in mind, and how they justify it, you are not likely to get an answer.



There are essentially two ways of thinking about terrorism. One is to assume that terrorists are but an extreme expression of underlying social injustices and political tensions and that this symptom cannot be treated without first treating the underlying causes. This view is half right: terrorism rarely exists for long where there is neither freedom nor injustice. The error in this view is the assumption that if the underlying causes can be addressed, the extremist symptoms will disappear.

This is an error because it overlooks the second way of thinking about terrorism—the way Claire Sterling makes so vivid for us. It is that, whatever the root causes of terrorism and the underground political culture that gives it nurture, the terrorists quickly and inevitably develop a stake in opposing solutions to the problems. They will do whatever they can, make whatever alliances are necessary (including alliances with common criminals and homicidal maniacs), to prevent any “political solution” short of the destruction of the state itself. They will thus direct their attacks chiefly against groups desirous of constructive change. The Red Brigades, after all, killed Aldo Moro, a center-liberal politician, and not some monarchist fanatic. The aim of the true terrorist is not to hasten progress, but to provoke a fascist reaction. The most encouraging thing to know about the terrorist network is that in the West, after a dozen years of trying, and endless bloodshed, it has failed.



This suggests why it is important to recognize that the Soviet Union has aided parts of the terrorist enterprise. It is not because we can get them to stop it (for all I know, they may have stopped already), or because being aware of the facts of Soviet involvement makes it easier to cope with terrorism from a law-enforcement point of view. The most important reason is that it tells us something about the nature of terrorism itself and puts us on our guard against assuming that it is the natural result of social inequity. If we judge, as we have tended to do, the quality of a society or a regime by the amount of terrorism directed at it, assuming that the level of violence is a measure of the degree of injustice, then we may be making a very great error. For to the extent other nations abet and support terrorism, the correlation, otherwise perhaps natural, between the level of injustice and the level of violence in a democratic society is distorted. So long as we think terrorism natural or inevitable, or wholly the product of underlying causes, we cannot be prepared for what in fact happens. Once West Germany was sufficiently aroused, it was able to destroy the Baader-Meinhof gang without destroying German democracy. After Aldo Moro was murdered, the Italian police broke the back of the Red Brigades. Society did not change; terrorism changed.

Unfortunately, the story does not always have a happy ending. The Tupamaro terrorists did not manage to take over Uruguay, but they did manage to destroy what once had been a model Latin American democracy. The terrorists of Spain are attempting to block the first careful, encouraging, but incomplete steps of that country back toward democratic rule. The terrorists of Turkey have precipitated a military takeover. Spain and Turkey are the test cases; we can only hope they do not become the next Uruguay.


1 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 357 pp., $13.95.

2 International Terrorism: Challenge and Response, Proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism (The Jonathan Institute, Jerusalem, 1980), p. 361.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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