Monday, August 11, 2008

Pavlov and the Terrorists (Golden Oldie)

As my four year blogoversary approaches, I continue to look for interesting older articles that most of you haven't seen. (In fact, three years ago this blog had not yet hit 10,000 total visitors.)

Here is one of my better old postings, from July 25, 2005:

Pavlov and the Terrorists

Why do Palestinian leaders and press lie? Why did Palestinians switch from hijacking airplanes to package bombs to suicide bombs? Why did they seem to accept Camp David and then turn around and start the second intifada?

In short, why do Palestinian terrorists act so seemingly irrationally?

This question has been asked in various ways thousands of times over the decades. And in many cases, I have looked at these questions from a goal-oriented approach: if the Palestinian goal is to have an independent Palestinian state, none of the actions make sense. If the goal is the destruction of Israel, then all of their actions are consistent.

But one can also look at the problem, especially some of the specifics, with a behavioral approach. In short, actions that are rewarded tend to be repeated, while actions that cost more than their rewards tend to be abandoned.

As has been noted, Palestinian spokespeople and press lie continuously. Just to give two examples from the past week: they described the two murdered grandparents as "settlers" and they claimed that "witnesses" saw Gaza settlers kill a 12-year old Palestinian boy when it was later proved that it was Palestinians themselves who killed him.

If Israel's spokespeople lied, you can be sure that the world media would not hesitate to call them on it - and rightfully so. Israel's government and army have volumes of information on their websites and even a single purposeful error would make them useless.

But Palestinian media, even their English websites, are so full of holes that they are a joke. Their spokespeople have lied so often that they are completely unreliable. Yet the Western press continues to quote them seriously, without so much as a single caveat that they are known to have made up facts out of thin air in the past.

In short, lying works for Palestinians. It is rewarded with news stories that either never get retracted or get corrected so silently that the damage can never be undone. When a behavior is rewarded, it gets repeated; this is simple behavioral psychology.

On the flip side of the coin, Palestinian terrorists first made headlines with their famous series of airplane hijackings in the 1970s. For a while it got them rewarded with world press, and free publicity for their cause of destroying Israel. But soon, the reward turned into a punishment as the world governments who they wanted sympathy from turned against them. So they started their diplomatic offensive and abandoned explicit international terror, because the rewards had dried up.

For a while there, Israel could claim to have won the intifada war against Palestinian terrorists - Israel's building of the fence combined with pro-active targeted killings against terror leaders curtailed terror attacks dramatically. Terror leaders were in hiding and even the Palestinian people were turning against them in some circumstances.

But now, Israel has turned a punishment into a reward. The retreat from Gaza is the biggest reward that Palestinians could have asked for - it directly gives them a piece of what they always wanted, control over land that Jews had control over. No amount of doubletalk can deny that the Palestinian terrorists perceive that they are now being rewarded for terror. And as in countless other situations, the reward ensures that the behavior that caused the reward will continue.

The only way to stop terror, whether in Tel Aviv or London or Egypt, is to ensure that the cost is higher than the reward. "Proportional" and "measured"responses do not punish terror, it needs to be disproportionate and immediate.

This is how you train a dog, and this is how you train terrorists.