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My aim in this essay is to clarify the concept of terrorism and the
moral status of terrorist acts. A lack of clarity about the nature of terrorism
permits the word terrorism to be used in an inflammatory way, one that is an
obstacle to both intellectual understanding and intelligent action. Likewise,
a lack of clarity about the basis of moral criticisms of terrorism results in
moral judgments that are widely seen as hypocritical and self-serving. Instead
of reinforcing important values, moral condemnations of terrorism often
generate moral cynicism and increased hostility between groups.
Since the days of Socrates, philosophers have sought clarity not just for its
own sake but because its absence makes the rational interpretation of events
and the sound assessment of policies impossible. Since 9/11, it has become
urgent to escape the ill effects of confusions in thought and feeling about terrorism
and other acts of violence.
Can terrorism be morally justified? Even asking this question can seem
like an insult-both to the victims of terrorist actions and to moral common
sense.Victims have suffered injury and death for actions and policies for
which they were not responsible, and moral common sense resoundingly
condemns terrorist acts as paradigms of immorality. One wants to say: if the
murder of innocent people by terrorists is not clearly wrong, what is?
It is easy to condemn terrorism, and presumably any moral person will do
so. Nonetheless, difficulties emerge when we broaden our focus and consider
some of the other beliefs of people who issue such condemnations.
While condemning terrorism is neither morally nor philosophically problematic
for people who condemn all violence, very few of us take this view.
Most of us believe that some acts of killing and injuring people are morally
justified. Moreover, most of us think that war is sometimes morally justified,
even though we know that many people, both civilians as well as soldiers,
are killed and injured in warfare. So, most of us think that even the killing of
innocent people-though it is surely regrettable-is sometimes morally
It is this fact that makes the condemnation of terrorism morally problematic.
Can people who support wars in which civilians are killed consistently
condemn terrorism? Or are such condemnations hypocritical and self-serving?
Judgments about terrorism frequently lead to hypocrisy for two reasons.
Sometimes they presuppose self-serving definitions that make it analytically
true that the acts committed by one's own country or group and its allies cannot
be instances of terrorism. Sometimes they are based on biased, uneven
applications of moral principles to the actions of friends and foes.
In order to avoid hypocrisy, we need two things. The first is a definition of
terrorism that is neutral and does not prejudge the morality of terrorist acts
by including the party or group who commits them as a defining condition.
The second is a consistent application of moral criteria that apply to a broad
range of actions that includes but is not limited to terrorist actions. Any serious
inquiry on this subject, then, must begin with the right sort of definition
and must apply moral principles in an evenhanded way. (For other philosophical
discussions of the nature and morality of terrorism, see Primoratz
1990, 1997; Khatchadourian 1988; and Coady 1985, 2002.)
PART 1: WHAT IS TERRORISM?
Misconceptions and Confusions
We can see why a neutral definition and impartial application of principles
are necessary by considering popular thinking about terrorism. Popular
thinking appears to be dominated by two contrasting views of terrorism. The
first view is a form of essentialism. It sees terrorism as a distinctive form of
violence that is especially immoral. This view has been evident in remarks
made by President George W. Bush and members of his administration since
9/11. Their assumption that terrorism forms a distinctive class of especially
hateful actions underlies their view that combating terrorism must take
priority over efforts to combat other evils.
A contrasting view is expressed in the cliche "one man's terrorist is another
man's freedom fighter." This slogan challenges the first view by denying
that there is a distinctive class of terrorist acts. Rather, it says, people
call violent acts that they approve of "freedom fighting" and those that
they condemn "terrorism." According to this view, there is no distinctive
set or category of terrorist acts. Instead, the designation is subjective. The
same actions will be labeled as terrorist acts by some people and not by
These two views share the assumption that terrorism is a negative term.
The first view explicitly labels terrorism as vile and immoral. The second
notes the selective way in which people apply the term terrorist only to acts
that they disapprove of. Both views, then, see the term as negative.
Before trying to define terrorism, it will be useful to consider why both of
these views are flawed.
"One Man's Terrorist ..."
The most evident feature of the cliche "One man's terrorist is another man's
freedom fighter" is that the very same actions can count as terrorism or freedom
fighting. If we focus only on the relativity of this view, however, we miss
another crucial feature-the positive connotations of the expression freedom
fighting. An important feature of this designation is that it specifies a goal of
the actions in question-the goal of freedom. Since freedom is a lofty, valued
goal, the actions in question are raised in value by attributing to them
the attainment of this goal. What looks like a purely relativist view depends
in part on the plausibility of attributing objective value to freedom.
The slogan suggests that if people are freedom fighters, then their activities
are justifiable. This reasoning, however, is flawed because it assumes
that one can justify an act simply by citing the goal that it is supposed to
achieve. Actions, however, can be morally wrong even if their goals are lofty
and valuable. It is a central part of commonsense morality that the end does
not always justify the means. There are morally illegitimate ways of trying to
achieve valuable goals.
This same point is reflected in just-war theory, which contains two sets of
criteria: one for determining the jus ad bellum (the justice of entering into a
war) and a second set for determining the jus in bello (the justice of the
means one uses in fighting). The jus ad bellum criteria focus in part on the
goals of war. Aggression for territorial gain, for example, is ruled out as illegitimate,
while the defense of one's own territory against attack counts as a
The jus in bello criteria remind us that we must attend not only to goals
but also to the means that we use to attain them. Even if one meets the just-war
criteria for entering into a war, actions taken in the war can still be immoral.
For example, a country that is fighting in self-defense may still act
wrongly if it commits atrocities in the course of defending itself.
For these reasons, if we want to evaluate an action, it is not enough to
know that it has been performed in pursuit of the goal of freedom. One can
pursue freedom and still act wrongly. The "one man's terrorist ..." slogan
assumes that terrorist and freedom fighter are mutually exclusive, but people
can be both. A person can strive for the legitimate goal of freedom while
using means that qualify as terrorist tactics.
Virtually all of the plausible definitions of terrorism focus on means-i.e.,
actions taken-and not just on goals. Typical definitions of a terrorist action
require that it be deliberate, violent, and harmful to innocent people. In
addition, definitions often include the idea that terrorist actions have two
targets: the people directly harmed and some broader audience or set
of officials whom the terrorists are trying to influence (Khatchadourian
While some freedom fighters use the kinds of means associated with terrorism,
others avoid them. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, abstained not only
from terrorist actions in his pursuit of Indian independence but from all acts
of violence. The minutemen of the American Revolution fought directly
against the British army. The means used by freedom fighters vary considerably,
and whether a freedom fighter is a terrorist or not depends on these
The slogan "one man's terrorist ..." rests on two distinct mistakes. First,
it assumes that an individual or group cannot be both terrorist and freedom
fighter. Second, it assumes that whether someone is a terrorist depends on
that person's goals, whereas terrorism involves the means employed by a
person or group. Both of these errors must be avoided if we are to reach an
adequate definition of terrorism.
The Special Immorality of Terrorism
What about the essentialist view that terrorist acts are a distinctive class of
acts that are especially heinous? This view is partly correct, but it
oversimplifies important issues and thus encourages errors of both
classification and morality. It encourages errors of classification by denying
that the concept of terrorism is complex and unclear. It encourages distorted
moral judgments as well. We need to remember that, as terrible as terrorism
is, many nonterrorist actions are equally or more vile. If we forget this fact,
we can lose our moral bearings and let the evil nature of terrorism blind us
to the possible evils of counterterrorist responses.
A typical feature of terrorist acts is that they target some people in order
to influence others. Hostages are taken, for example, in order to force
officials to release prisoners. An airplane is bombed in order to convey to a
larger audience the views, needs, or rights of a group that feels oppressed.
Some citizens are killed in order to express hatred toward their country or its
politics. Such acts use violence against a limited number of people to
frighten or change the behavior of other people, who may be a large group or
To put the wrongness of terrorism in perspective, imagine a case in which
attackers kill random members of a particular group in order to terrorize the
whole group and cause them to depart from a particular area. In this case,
terrorist attacks would be an instrument of ethnic cleansing, a way to expel a
group from a territory. These acts are a form of terrorism according to most
definitions and are surely worthy of moral condemnation.
Imagine a second case in which ethnic cleansing is achieved by massacring
all the members of a group. In this case, the communicative aspect of
terrorism-its tactic of harming some in order to send a message to others-would
be lacking. There is no attempt to harm a small group in order to
influence the decisions of others. Instead, the whole group is attacked directly,
and the territory is emptied simply by killing them all. By most
definitions, this would not be an act of terrorism, but it would certainly be a
great evil and would be condemned by most people as worse than terrorism.
After all, horrible as it is, the terrorist strategy described above kills a
smaller number of people and at least allows others the option to flee and
build a new life elsewhere. It is less destructive than outright massacre.
Or consider a case of nuclear retaliation that is aimed at enemy military
installations; because of the proximity of some cities to military installations,
this response might cause millions of civilian victims. Surely the magnitude
of damage and the horror of the results of such an attack would be
much greater than that of all the terrorist acts that have yet occurred. The
fact that such an attack would not constitute terrorism per se does not mean
that it would be less dreadful than terrorist acts or less important to prevent.
My point is not to put terrorism in a favorable light. Rather, it is to remind
us that terrorist actions are not the only terrible deeds; nor are they necessarily
the worst. This is important to keep in mind as people formulate strategies
to combat terrorism. Those who seek to prevent terrorism can fall into
a trap like the one we saw in the terrorist/freedom fighter issue. If terrorism
is a genuine evil, then the goal of combating terrorism is a worthwhile goal.
But it does not follow that any and all means of combating terrorism are morally
permissible. If we take the just-war theory's in bello criteria seriously,
we will want to make sure that our means of combating terrorism do not create
an amount of harm disproportionate to the good we aim to achieve and
that they follow the principle of discrimination, which requires that we aim
to avoid harm to innocent civilians.
As the discussion so far makes clear, the attempt to define terrorism leads to
a mix of contentious issues, both moral and classificatory. We can approach
these issues through some remarks made by Conor Cruise O'Brien, who
skillfully formulates a view that might be held by defenders of terrorism.
Those who are described as terrorists, and who reject the title for themselves,
make the uncomfortable point that national armed forces, fully supported
by democratic opinion, have in fact employed violence and terror on
a far vaster scale than what liberation movements have as yet been able to
attain. The "freedom fighters" see themselves as fighting a just war. Why
should they not be entitled to kill, burn and destroy as national armies, navies
and air forces do, and why should the label "terrorist" be applied to
them and not the national militaries? (Quoted in Kegley 1990, 12-13)
The passage expresses frustration that governments can get away with destructive
activities while nongovernmental groups are labeled as terrorists
and condemned for the very same kinds of actions. If governments can be
justified in using force and violence, then so can nongovernmental groups.
O'Brien presents this argument in a forceful and appealing way. But what
does the argument actually show? The intended conclusion appears to be
that nongovernmental fighters have a right to commit terrorist actions because
the same actions are carried out with impunity by governmental
forces. As an argument for this view, it fails. At most, it shows that liberation
movements are as entitled to commit terrorist acts as governmental armies
are. This conclusion, however, is compatible with the view that no one, neither
governmental armies nor liberation movements, has a right to commit
terrorist acts. If the aim was to show that terrorist actions are permissible for
"freedom fighters," this has not been shown at all.
Excerpted from The Politics of TERROR
Copyright © 2004 by William Crotty.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Prerequisites for Morally Credible Condemnations of Terrorism (Steven Nathanson, Northeastern University)
The Public Response: Democratic Values, Patriotism, and Citizenship
Terrorism and the Remaking of American Politics (John Kenneth White, Catholic University of America)
The War on Terrorism and the New Patriotism (Scott L. McLean, Quinnipiac University)
America's Wartime Presidents: Politics, National Security, and Civil Liberties (Jerome M. Mileur and Ron Story, both University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
Civil Liberties and the Judiciary in the Aftermath of September 11th (Daniel Krislov, University of New Hampshire)
Security vs. Liberty: 9/11 and the American Public (Lynn M. Kuzma, University of Southern Maine)
Institutions and Public Policy
On the Home Front: Institutional Mobilization to Fight the Threat of International Terrorism (William J. Crotty, Northeastern University)
Are We Safer Today? Organizational Responses to Terrorism (B. Guy Peters, University of Pittsburgh)
The Presidency Responds: The Implications of 9/11 for the Bush Administration's Policy Agenda (Richard Powell, University of Maine)