Alan Dershowitz: Off the Deep End
by James M. Capozzola
September 9, 2002

Alan Dershowitz, defense attorney to the stars, or at least the most reprehensible, highest-paying, and most attention-getting thereof, apparently took advantage of the recent drought of high-publicity criminals to dash off a few thoughts about terrorism, the result being Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge.

The book gets a light once over in today's Washington Post as one of several books on the broader subject of terrorism reviewed by James Bamford, the author of Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, yet an even briefer treatment would still have revealed a mindset veering off the deep end.

Dershowitz, generally considered a champion of civil liberties, seems to be breaking new ground in the definition of that lofty concept, courtesy of instruction from Israeli civilian and military officials, including that old softie, Ariel Sharon.

Among the arsenal of tools and techniques the Harvard Law School professor advocates for use in this country are "torture warrants," collective punishment, and national identification cards. Dershowitz's stance on national ID cards is widely known and a case in favor of a limited identification and tracking system is not completely outside the bounds of rationality. But Dershowitz's advocacy of torture and collective punishment is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that deserves greater attention than it is has received so far.

Collective punishment is a concept Dershowitz learned from Israel, but he would ratchet up the intensity a notch or two. After all, its use by Israel against the Palestinians has been insufficient, even timid, he believes. "On one of his many visits to Israel, Dershowitz analyzed the Israeli government's program of collective punishment against the Palestinians – demolishing the homes of innocent relatives of those involved in suicide bombing. It is a practice outlawed under international law," writes Bamford.

"Nevertheless, Dershowitz decided to recommend a more effective policy – leveling the buildings in entire villages. 'The next time the terrorists attack,' he said, 'the village's residents would be given twenty-four hours to leave, and then Israeli troops would bulldoze the houses.'"

Here's Bamford on Dershowitz's unusual stance on torture, a position that requires a not inconsiderable about of hopscotching around the Constitution for its justification:

"Dershowitz also came up with the idea of torture while on a visit to Israel. He discovered that the Israeli government regularly used the technique, also long outlawed under international statutes, against Palestinians in custody and thought it might be useful in the United States. After all, he argues, law enforcement does it anyway, so why not legalize it and allow judges to issue 'torture warrants'? 'I think there would be less torture with a warrant requirement than without one,' he argues. Thus if a person still refuses to talk, or tell where a bomb is hidden, after the 'torture warrant' has been issued, says Dershowitz, 'he would be subjected to judicially monitored physical measures designed to cause excruciating pain without leaving any lasting damage.' One form of torture recommended by Dershowitz – 'the sterilized needle being shoved under the fingernails' – is chillingly Nazi-like."

Law enforcement "does it anyway." Less torture would occur if warrants were issued to permit it. "Judicially monitored physical measures." "Excruciating pain without leaving any lasting damage." "Sterilized needle[s]." [Emphasis added. Thanks for that, Al.] The mind reels.

Making matters worse, for all the liberal pieties, compassionate grandstanding, and self-righteous indignation that have defined his career, Dershowitz shows nothing but contempt for the Palestinians, his concern with justice obviously coming to a screeching halt at the border. Dershowitz "chastises those who seek to understand the 'root causes' of the Middle East violence, arguing that it merely plays into the hands of the terrorists," according to Bamford.

The reviewer adds, "Dershowitz, who has little sympathy for the Palestinians who struggle to survive in the squalid refugee camps and devastated villages of the Israeli occupied territories, does not believe the numerous reports of 'desperation' in those areas. 'There are reasons to be skeptical of this claim,' he warns, although he gives no indication of ever having bothered to pay a visit."

One would expect otherwise intelligent people, a group that until now would presumably include the famous professor, to apply greater critical judgment regarding these issues and to restrain from the kind of hysterical overreaction that advocates the importation and implementation of techniques of interrogation and retribution that are completely alien not only to our culture but to our Constitution. But then again, calm and rational thought doesn't sell as many books as do hysteria and panic, and that's just not the Dershowitz style.

James Cappozola is the editor of an excellent blog, the Rittenhouse Review, and one of the principals of HorowitzWatch.

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