The Israeli government has agreed to release hundreds of properly convicted Palestinian terrorists in exchange for one illegally kidnapped Israeli soldier. This decision, understandable as it is emotionally, dramatically illustrates why terrorism works. By agreeing to this exchange, Israel has once again shown its commitment to saving the life of even one kidnapped soldier, regardless of the cost. And the cost here is extremely high, because some of the released terrorists will almost certainly try to kill again.
Leaders of terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, fully understand this cruel arithmetic of death. As Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, put it: "We are going to win because they love life and we love death." Democratic societies that value the life of each citizen are more vulnerable to emotional blackmail than societies that are steeped in the culture of death. Terrorists understand what history has shown: that democratic societies, regardless of what they say about not negotiating with terrorists, will, in the end, submit to emotional blackmail. They will release their terrorist prisoners in order to obtain the release of their own kidnapped or hijacked citizens. Accordingly, the threat of deterrence against terrorists is weak, because every terrorist knows that regardless of the prison sentence he receives, there is a high likelihood that he will be released well before he has served it. This not only encourages more terrorism, but it also incentivizes kidnappings and hijackings that provide the terrorist with hostages to exchange for captured terrorists.
Accordingly, from a pure cost-benefit perspective, it may well be wrong to agree to such disproportionate exchanges. But democracies do not operate solely on a cost-benefit basis because the families of kidnapped or hijacked citizens have a right to present their emotional case in the court of public opinion, as Gilad Shalit's family, especially his mother, so effectively did. They can influence policy against a simple cost-benefit calculation and in favor of a more humanistic approach. Israelis know Gilad Shalit. He is everyone's son. They do not know those who may someday be killed by the released terrorists. They are faceless and nameless statistics -- at least for now. The pleas of the Shalit family resonate with every Israeli who loves their children.
Contrast the pleas of the Shalit family with the plea of Zahra Maladan. Maladan is an educated woman who edits a women's magazine in Lebanon. She is also a mother, who undoubtedly loves her son. She has ambitions for him, but they are different from those of most mothers in the West. She wants her son to become a suicide bomber. At the funeral for the assassinated Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mugniyah -- the mass murderer responsible for killing 241 marines in 1983 and more than 100 women, children, and men in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 -- Ms. Maladan was quoted in the New York Times offering the following admonition to her son: "If you're not going to follow the steps of the Islamic resistance martyrs, then I don't want you."
Nor is Ms. Maladan alone in urging her children to become suicide murderers. Umm Nidal, who ran for the Palestinian Legislative Council, "prepared all of her sons" for martyrdom. She has ten sons, one of whom already engaged in a suicide operation, which she considered "a blessing, not a tragedy." She is now preparing to "sacrifice them all."
It is impossible, of course, to generalize about cultures. There was genuine joy among many in Gaza when the deal was announced and when it became evident that their loved ones, despite their terrorist activities, would be returned. All decent people love their children and want them to live good lives. It is their leaders who prefer death (though not their own) over life and who make their followers feel guilty for not acting on that perverse preference. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, urge their citizens to act in the interests of life and who see death as a necessary evil in fighting against even greater evils.
While the preference for life over death may appear to be a weakness in the ability of democracies to fight against terrorism, in the end it is a strength. It is a strength because it signals a democracy's commitment to value the life of every single one of its citizens. Israeli and American soldiers go into battle knowing that their countries will do everything in their power to rescue them, even if it means taking extraordinary risks. Nations that are committed to such humanistic values tend to have superior armies, as the United States and Israel do.
An important goal of terrorists is to force democracies to surrender their humanistic values. Israel's values include never leaving a soldier behind, whether he is alive, as Shalit is, or dead, as have been other soldiers whose bodies have been exchanged for prisoners. Israel, by agreeing to exchange hundreds of terrorists for one soldier, has shown the world that it will not compromise on its value system which proclaims that "he who saves one human being, it is as if he has saved the world."
Alan Dershowitz's latest book is the Trials of Zion. An earlier version of this article was published in Newsmax.