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Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. In addition to his teaching, Dershowitz is a prolific author who makes frequent media and public[…]

The myth of the hereafter, Alan Dershowitz says, is one of the worst ideas humans have ever created.

Question: Where are we?

Alan Dershowitz: Our legal system traditionally has been based on a theory of deterrents. You threaten punishment, and if somebody does a criminal act, you punish them. You do something to them that they don’t want to have happen to them. You put them in prison. You execute them in extreme cases.

The new paradigm of suicide terrorism makes our system of deterrents very hard to operate, especially when coupled with individual guilt and individual response. You could deter terrorism if you punish the families of the terrorists; but we can’t do that because we believe in individual guilt.

So the combination of the use of deterrents and the requirement of individual guilt make it impossible for us to use the traditional legal methods and legal threats against suicide terrorists.

That’s why we need to move in preemptively. That’s why we have to stop it from happening before it happens without trying to analogize humans to animals in any moral sense.

When you have a person who will not fear death, and will not stop from doing anything because of the threat of punishment, you really have to treat that person the way you would treat a wild tiger or a wild lion. You don’t reason with a lion. You don’t try to deter a lion. You stop the lion by either building a cage between you and the lion, or by disabling the lion or killing the lion. And that method has been adapted to use against suicide terrorism.

So that’s the problem. We haven’t figured out a solution to that because our usual approach to the rule of law doesn’t work. We need to create a new rule of law to govern the use of suicide terrorism.

My optimism grows out of the fact that there are people in the world today who are trying to level the playing field and give everybody a chance to be successful, and give them a stake at peace in life. The greatest dangers we face today are people who have such miserable lives, and such false promises of great depths, that they prefer the illusion of paradise to the reality and poverty of the present time.

And I think we have to shift that. We have to shift that by making life on earth much better; and by exposing the myth of the hereafter, one of the worst myths that human beings ever created in the service of religion; particularly rules that promise reward for murder in a world to come. Very hard to talk people out of that if they honestly believe in the depths of their heart that if they kill civilians, they will be rewarded by sexual fantasies, by food fantasies, by all the great things that they are deprived of in this world.

It’s perverse, it’s bizarre, but it’s a reality in many people’s lives.

Recorded On: June 12, 2007