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Topic: Terrorism
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Guest: Picture of Alan Dershowitz
Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard University
What is it? We like to think that terrorism is always wrong. But what if the cause is just? Do the ends ever justify the means? And how do we define "terrorism" anyway?

About the Guest

Alan Dershowitz is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University. His publications include

  • Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age (Little Brown, 2002)
  • Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (Yale University Press, 2002)
  • Supreme Injustice (Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Letters to a Young Lawyer (Basic Books, 2001)
  • The Genesis of Justice (Warner Books, March 2000)
  • Just Revenge (Warner Books, 1999)
  • Sexual McCarthyism (Basic Books, 1998)
  • The Vanishing American Jew (Little, Brown, 1997)
  • Reasonable Doubts (Simon & Schuster, 1996)
  • The Abuse Excuse (Little, Brown, 1994)
  • The Advocate's Devil (Warner Books, 1994)
  • Contrary to Popular Opinion (Pharos Books, 1992)
  • Chutzpah (Little, Brown, 1991)
  • The Best Defense (Random House, 1982)


Listening Notes


What is terrorism? As used in modern journalism, it requires three things: non-state actors, a political agenda, and innocents must be killed intentionally. How are civilian deaths in terrorism different from collateral damage in, say, war? Ken introduces Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard. Is terrorism ever morally justifiable? Dershowitz explains why state sponsored warfare and is not as bad as terrorism. Dershowitz explains why he thinks that terrorism is not always wrong.


What philosophical views are useful for thinking about terrorism? Dershowitz answers that he would not want a single ethical view to dominate thinking about ethical matters. Is torture justified if it means that you can find a ticking time bomb by torturing a suspect? Dershowitz thinks that it can be justified in certain circumstances. John explains how Dershowitz's utilitarian views play into his philosophy. Dershowitz explains why he thinks that the distinction between civilian and military should be changed to a continuum of civilianness. Have there been any successful uses of terrorism? Is terrorism rational? Ken and Dershowitz both think that it is rational, although it is not the only rational course of action.


Should state-sponsored actions be included in the definition of terrorism? Dershowitz thinks it should, as a lot of terrorism has historically been state-sponsored. Ken says that the notion of state-sponsorship has changed. Now groups are hosted by a state without being sponsored and they can use new communication technology to organize. Is “terrorist” just a negative version of “freedom fighter”? Dershowitz distinguishes between groups that fight against occupying armies and groups that kill civilians. Dershowitz and Ken introduce the principle of double effect to explain the morality of killing a terrorist on a plane.

  • Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 04:48): Amy interviews Bill Ayers, a founder of the political activist group, Weather Underground, about the use of violence in political protest.


  • Ian Shoales the Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:40): Ian Shoales summarizes the history of terrorism, from the to the assassins to the zealots, from the French Revolution to World War 1.


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