15 Oct

Terrorism: what is it? Can it be morally justified?

Posted By Politybooks

2010ss_primoratzSince the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001 and those that came in their aftermath in London, Madrid, Bali, and elsewhere, terrorism has been in the focus of a worldwide public debate. The debate has involved a wide array of participants, from political scientists and historians to politicians and common citizens.

Yet there is little agreement on any of the main questions raised by terrorism, whether conceptual, moral, or political. The debate has often been hampered by lack of clarity about what its subject is: Who is a terrorist? What is terrorism?

It has often been affected, and indeed informed, by all manner of emotions, passions, and interests. It has been plagued by double standards and moral relativism.  Unsurprisingly, it has often led to talking at cross purposes.

In such cases, philosophy can be of help at two levels of debate: conceptual and moral. It can display the confusions and double standards. It can help overcome the relativism captured by the cliché “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” and offer a definition of terrorism that does not beg the moral and political questions. It can bring some order into the wide array of moral arguments for and against terrorism, and help us decide which of the positions on offer best accords with our moral values and basic political commitments.

This is what I seek to do in Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation. I argue that, if we are to define terrorism in a way helpful in the moral and political debate, we should put aside both the identity of those resorting to it and their ultimate aims.

We should rather understand terrorism in terms of just what is done and what the proximate aims of doing it are. Such a definition should be morally and politically neutral, and thus enable, rather than pre-empt, a well-focused moral debate.

Since it is agent-neutral, such a definition wouldn’t rule out state terrorism – a phenomenon well known in modern history, yet curiously ignored, and often defined out of existence, in contemporary public debate. One of the central aims of the book is to redress this and highlight the fact that the state is, historically, the greatest terrorist – and for this and other reasons also the worst.

In the central chapters of the book, I examine the main positions on the morality of terrorism. One is consequentialism, which tells us that terrorism, like everything else, must be judged solely by its consequences. When its rationally expected consequences are good on balance, it will be morally justified. As Trotsky famously said, given a paramount end, the question of the means becomes one of expediency rather than principle.

Yet, surely it can’t be right that life and limb of ordinary citizens should be fair game whenever it is expedient that it should be so. Here, as elsewhere, consequentialism proves much too permissive with regard to questionable and even downright repugnant means. Terrorism can’t be judged solely by its consequences; first and foremost, it is wrong intrinsically, because of what it is.  

Among those who reject consequentialism, many find absolute prohibition of intentional killing and maiming of some ordinary citizens in order to terrorize others intuitively compelling – as obvious a moral truth as any. However, it proves difficult to support this intuition by convincing argument, for the benefit of those who don’t share the intuition.

Moreover, it becomes ever more difficult to uphold the absolutist position, as the critic constructs ever more catastrophic scenarios that can be averted only by resort to terrorism. Surely we shouldn’t insist on rights and justice even if the heavens fall?

Should we, then, try for a middle-of-the-road view? Terrorism is wrong in itself, because it violates some of our most important rights and constitutes a grave injustice. But recourse to it may yet be morally permissible, if a people, or a political community, finds itself in extremis, and terrorism is the only way out.

But then, just when is a people or a polity in extremis? An influential version of this view, Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, introduces the notion of “supreme emergency”: a situation where deliberate attacks on innocent civilians or ordinary citizens are the only way of staving off an imminent threat to the survival and freedom of a political community.

I argue that this is vague and overly permissive, and go on to construct a position that is structurally similar, but much more restrictive. Terrorism is almost absolutely wrong, and resort to it may be considered only in the face of a “moral disaster,” understood in a special, highly restrictive sense.

In addition to presenting an original position on both the question of definition and that of moral justification of terrorism, the book also adverts to the oft-neglected question whether terrorism is morally special: not necessarily more evil than mass murder, torture, or ethnic cleansing, but evil in a different, and indeed unique way.

In particular, is it significantly morally different from killing and maiming innocent civilians without intent, but with foresight, as “collateral damage” caused by attacks on legitimate targets? A civilian killed incidentally, without intent, is just as dead as a civilian killed intentionally. The right to life of the former is just as violated as the right to life of the latter.

What, then, is the moral difference? And if there is no such difference, what does that tell us about terrorism and war?

The discussion of terrorism in general, which makes the bulk of the book, is complemented with two case studies of systematic, large-scale use of terrorism: the terror-bombing of German cities in WWII, and the use of terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The specific conclusions reached in both studies will perhaps be found controversial by some readers. The more general lesson to be drawn from both, though, is just how extremely difficult it is to provide a convincing moral justification of an actual act or campaign of terrorism. For terrorism is, after all, almost absolutely wrong.   

Igor Primoratz is emeritus professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and professorial fellow at Charles Sturt University, Canberra.