Alan Dershowitz vs. the Guardian.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Sept. 20 2006 12:21 PM

An Open Letter

Alan Dershowitz vs. the Guardian.

As a criminal lawyer for the sometimes-guilty, an aggressive advocate of Israel—though not all of its policies or actions—and a zealous defender of unpopular free speech, I am certainly used to controversy. Book reviewers have sometimes been fierce with me, and sometimes their scorn seems more focused on who I am than on what I've written. I thrive on controversy and have developed a rather thick skin, having had my fair share of both negative and positive reviews.

But in the quarter of a century that I have been writing books, I've never had the experience of a reviewer claiming that I take a position in one of my books that is the exact opposite of what I have actually asserted. To make things worse, when I showed that the reviewer, Louise Christian, had turned black to white (not even to gray), the publication in question, the Guardian, refused to print my corrective letter, thus allowing a total fabrication to remain on the public record, uncorrected. Here are the facts, so that the readers may render judgment in the court of public opinion.

The book under review is Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways, in which I draw on our experiences with preventive action in several fields, and especially in criminal law, to show how we might begin to create a new "jurisprudence" of pre-emptive counterterrorism and international military action. Without a more methodical study of the consequences of preventive action, I argue, we risk acting in an ad hoc and irrational manner, creating an unacceptably high risk of both false positives (believing something is a threat when it is not) and false negatives (failing to identify a legitimate threat).

A section in my book concerns Israel. It is supportive of some, and critical of others, of Israel's pre-emptive military actions. Christian focused on this section for the majority of her article. She characterized Preemption as an attempt to "justify the Iraq war and even the actions of the state of Israel (which the author, a Harvard law professor, obsessively admires)." First, notice the "even" before Israel, showing that the author assumes the actions of Israel to be particularly indefensible. Second, she misreads the fundamental point of this chapter. I do not try to justify Israel's actions. I analyze its actions, and I conclude that some of them were justified and beneficial, while others were wrongheaded and unnecessary. Finally, had Christian read the book, she would know that I opposed the war in Iraq. She apparently assumed that because I support Israel's right to exist, I also supported America's war in Iraq. It's a telling assumption. Liberalism and Zionism are not considered mutually exclusive in America. In fact, they are complementary. The prevailing view at the Guardian is to the contrary.

Most egregiously, Ms. Christian claims that "[i]n its concluding chapter the book goes so far as to suggest that theories of 'chromosomal abnormality' should be pursued as predictive of violent crime to justify long-term detention." In fact, I say precisely the opposite. Christian is referring to an appendix in which I reproduce an article I published in 1975. The whole thrust of the article is categorically against the use of the XYY chromosome to predict violence, since I demonstrate conclusively that the XYY karyotype is not predictive and therefore creates an unacceptable risk of "false positives," which are precisely what we most fear when we engage in preventive or pre-emptive action. Here is what I write: "Nor is it likely that the XYY karyotype, even in combination of other factors, could be used to predict violence. There is simply no hard evidence establishing that any combination of factors can accurately spot a large percentage of future violent criminals without also including an unsatisfactory number and percentage of false positives." Christian confuses my strong opposition to using chromosomes as criminal predictors with support for their use, thereby reversing my position. It is hard to believe that this is a simple mistake. If it is a simple mistake, it is an egregious one, and one that merits correction by the newspaper.

This is not the only time when a newspaper owned by the Guardian's parent organization has refused to publish a letter I've written concerning an inaccurate characterization of my writing and character. The second incident concerned a column by Henry Porter in the Observer, the Guardian's weekend sister newspaper, responding to a piece I had written for the Spectator about the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11. * More than half of Porter's column was devoted to me and to a critique of my argument that new international rules must be adapted to the new realities of suicide terrorism. Along the way, Porter tellingly mischaracterized several of my points. He faults me for not understanding that any power given to government can be abused, when in fact I devote several paragraphs to precisely that point. And then, even more egregiously, he reverses my position on torture, saying that he saw me on television in 2001 supporting it and "look[ing] like Animal, the wildman drummer from The Muppet Show." First of all, I don't support torture (though I do support accountability for anyone who does employ torture), and secondly, I have been clean-shaven with short hair for a decade. Obviously, he did not see me on television as he claimed to have. But I suppose I'll always be, to people like Porter, the stereotypical hairy, wild-eyed Jew.

Arguments about differing opinions are important. But a reviewer or a columnist is expected to accurately convey the content of a book before praising or condemning it. Mark Twain is credited with instructing a young Rudyard Kipling, "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." I challenge the Guardian to defend or even explain its journalistic decision to stand by the demonstrable falsehoods and defamations made by its writers.

Correction, Oct. 2, 2006: This article originally and mistakenly stated that Henry Porter's newspaper column was published in the Guardian. In fact, it was published in the Observer. This mistake occurred because the author encountered the column on the papers' shared Web site, Guardian Unlimited. (Return to the sentence.)

Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard. His latest book is Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways.