On Deterrence

There is a debate raging in the comments section of The Case for Israel about Israel’s loss of deterrence and its effects.  This debate is relevant to our discussion of America’s Secret War, especially the “Shock and Awe Strategy” going into the Iraq war.  It got me to thinking about the efficacy of deterrence in other contexts (Iran, North Korea, 2nd Amendment, death penalty, etc). But, first what is the definition of deterrence? 

de·ter·rence  // Pronunciation Key[di-turuh ns, –tuhr-, –ter-] – noun: the act or process of discouraging actions or preventing occurrences by instilling fear or doubt or anxiety  

This definition highlights the problem with deterrence which is that it is essentially a psychological situation for which there are no standards of measurement.  A deterrent is only successful in retrospect. 

Deterrent or Stimulant 

The Israeli army used to knock down a suicide bomber’s family home with the justification that it was acting “to deter future acts of terrorism”. After studying the effects the Israelis decided that the practice did not have a significant deterrent effect; indeed, home demolitions had probably acted as a stimulant for Palestinian terrorism.   

The same stimulant effect seems to be happening on the Iraqi streets where US forces drive through neighborhoods as a show of force – only to perpetuate the use of and targets for IEDs. How, after all, do you threaten someone who is already determined to die, and who has been promised extravagant rewards in an afterlife that is beyond your reach? 

Cold War 

Deterrence works best against entities with a basically materialist outlook. The reason that the American-Soviet deterrent system of “mutually assured destruction” worked as well as it did was that both nations, while differing in many other values, were fundamentally uninterested in “martyrdom”; communism and capitalism both justify their policies based on the prosperity and well-being they provide their populations, and neither system could find a way to portray a nuclear holocaust, even a “victorious” one, as a success. 

Don Radlauer argues in an article for International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT):   

In evaluating potential deterrence, it’s crucial to determine where the entity to be deterred belongs on the Soviet-Union-to-suicide-bomber scale. Syria, for example, is not at all opposed to death per se, but much prefers to see other countries doing the fighting and dying. (Dr. Boaz Ganor has suggested that Syria might be a more fruitful target for deterrence than Hezbollah itself in Israel’s attempts to solve its Lebanese problems.) Iran, on the other hand, is currently being led by a radical Shi’ite clique that appears to set a high value on “martyrdom”, even if Iran itself is the “martyr”. This is why the prospect of Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons is so scary: a country that is willing to become a nuclear wasteland in return for destroying its enemies cannot be easily deterred, even by a country with superb second-strike retaliatory capabilities. Thus the confrontation between an eventual nuclear Iran and a presumed-to-be-nuclear Israel would not have the inherent deterrence-driven stability of the American-Soviet match-up, or even of India and Pakistan. 

Gun Control and the Second Amendment 

Each year, approximately 30,000 people in the United States die as a result of gunfire and about 80,000 people are wounded.  And for every 10,000 handguns sold, 3,000 are involved in robberies and assaults and 100 in homicides (Roth and Koper, 1997). 

It’s been 68 years since the Supreme Court examined the right to keep and bear arms secured by the Second Amendment, but it has decided to revisit the topic in Parker vs. District of Columbia this spring. 

Will more concealed hand guns on the streets of Washington deter criminals?  John Lott thinks so – in his book More Guns, Less Crime, he argues: 

Criminals are deterred by higher penalties. Just as higher arrest and conviction rates deter crime, so does the risk that someone committing a crime will confront someone able to defend him or herself. There is a strong negative relationship between the number of law-abiding citizens with permits and the crime rate—as more people obtain permits there is a greater decline in violent crime rates. For each additional year that a concealed handgun law is in effect the murder rate declines by 3 percent, rape by 2 percent, and robberies by over 2 percent. 

The Death Penalty 

In the past ten years, the number of executions in the U.S. has increased while the murder rate has declined. Some commentators have maintained that the murder rate has dropped because of the increase in executions (see W. Tucker, “Yes, the Death Penalty Deters,”). However, during this decade the murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty. 


As Ami points out, deterrence may have a place in state to state relations.  But, it psychological nature doesn’t apply as well to individuals.  Like the theoretical (if elusive…see Wisdom of Crowds debate) “rational person” in economics, martyrdom, the need for a fix, will override the deterrent effect of force or even death. 


1 Response to “On Deterrence”

  1. 1 bobbyjones November 27, 2007 at 9:43 am

    ‘Uh, I’ve got a shotgun. Uh, do you want me to stop them?’ ‘Nope’

    Two burglars were undeterred by gun toting Texas neighbors:


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