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Can Terrorism Ever Be Justified?

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Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends. This definition was proposed by terrorist analysists in 1979, but has never been surpassed for clarity and concision. Schmidt and Youngman in their book Political Terrorism for example, cited 109 different definitions of terrorism, which they obtained in a survey of leading academics in the field. Thus, for the purpose of this paper I shall make no attempt at defining this ambiguous and elusive term but will nevertheless reveal its importance in helping to discuss the question with which this paper is concerned.

Terrorism is now a well established feature of world politics and conflict. Indeed, the literature on this particular form of political violence is seemingly endless. This paper shall take precedence with the highly contested issue of whether terrorism can ever be justified. In what follows I shall endeavour to explore a number of issues that confront academics when discussing the judgement of terrorism. Primarily, a comprehensive analysis of just war theory shall be undertaken to see if acts of terrorism can accommodate its citation. A particular focus into the discriminate principle shall be discussed, as it is widely believed that a terrorist act is often judged from within this “non-combatant immunity” concept. Secondly, this paper shall focus on the importance of defining terrorism and how the lack of agreement regarding the phenomena can often get confused with notions of revolutionary violence and national liberation. Finally, I shall conclude by exposing the need for a common definitional consensus on the term, if acts of political violence can be officially labelled as terrorism and ultimately their actions being condemned or justified.

The just war theory tradition is the basis of a long held view in the West that there can be legitimate uses of war and is usually traced back to St Augustine’s fourth-century masterwork, The City of God. Coady (1985) argues that consistency is required when discussing just war theory and that it is necessary to apply the same standards to both kinds of political violence, state and non-state. It is under this assumption that just war theory provides a valid framework from which to discuss non-state (terrorist) political violence.

Indeed, Valls (2000) proposes that if acts of terrorism can satisfy the conditions of just war theory then they would have a moral legitimacy. In his article Can Terrorism Be Justified, Valls criticises Walzer’s (1992) dismissal that terrorism may be justified and advocates that ‘on the most plausible account of the just war theory, taking into account the ultimate moral basis of its criteria, violence undertaken by non-state actors can, in principle, satisfy the requirements of a just war…. [Thus] if just war theory can justify violence committed by states, then terrorism committed by non-state actors can also, under certain circumstances, be justified as well’.

Valls endeavour is to explore the jus ad bellum criteria (concerning the justice of going to war) and the jus in bello criteria (which apply to the conduct of war) that comprise the just war theory in an attempt to show that certain terrorist acts can satisfy the criterion and thus through an interpretation of just war theory some terrorist acts can ultimately be justified.

Jus Ad Bellum

Firstly, the just cause provision of the just war theory holds ‘that the state has a right to defend itself against aggression of other states.’ Valls argues that ‘the right that is usually cited as being the ground for the state’s right to defend itself is the right to self-determination.’ Through an analysis of various commentators on secession and self-determination, Valls claims that under some circumstances, some groups other than those constituted by the state in which they live have a just cause to defend their right to self-determination. This point in hand can be
supported by the United Nations, which recognises that the ‘just cause’ as meaning the rights of peoples as well as states. Thus, ‘when a right is frustrated, such peoples… have the same just cause that states have when the self-determination of their citizens is threatened.’

A further requirement of just war theory is legitimate authority which is usually interpreted to mean that only states go to war justly. However, Valls reels in Coates (1997) literature and refuses to equate legitimate authority with state sovereignty. He argues that we must question a given state’s claim to represent the interests and rights of its people. Thus, Valls suggests that in rejecting the notion that all states are legitimate authorities, there may revel a valid claim that non-states may be legitimate authorities also. ‘If an organisation claims to act on behalf of a people and is widely seen by that people as legitimately doing so, then the rest of us should look on that organisation as the legitimate authority of the people for the purposes of assessing its entitlement to engage in violence on their behalf.’

Last resort is another criteria that must be met in order to fight a just war (have all other non-violent measures been tried a reasonable number of times, and been given a reasonable amount of time to work?). Walzer (1988) however, refers the claim of last resort as one of the “excuses” sometimes offered by terrorists. He bolsters the claim that terrorism is often the first resort and not the last. ‘One must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things), not just once… Politics is an art of repetition.’

Walzer has further problems succumbing to the idea that terrorism may be justified and questions the probability of success criteria (is there a reasonable chance of success?). He notes that ‘no nation that I know of owes its freedom to a campaign of random murder.’ Contrary to Walzer’s views, Wilkins (1992) in his Terrorism and Collective Responsibility suggests that some terrorist campaigns in Algeria and Kenya accomplished their objective of national independence. Valls believes that ‘we can not rule out that terrorism can satisfy the probability of success criterion,’ but he notes that in most cases there is little hope of success.

Valls goes on to demonstrate that terrorism can also satisfy the other Jus ad bellum critieria. Such as right intention (can a national group have a just cause?) and proportionality (whether the overall costs of violent conflict will be outweighed by the overall benefits).

Jus In Bello

The second set of criteria from which terrorism can be judged within just war theory is jus in bello. Warner and Crisp (1990) note that while proportionality (here meaning the costs of an action in relation to the benefits to be achieved) may not pose a significant challenge for justifying terrorism, it is how the terrorist acts are carried out and in particular the discrimination principle or the “non-combatant immunity” concept that generates deep disagreement within this debate.

The discrimation principle places restraints on the conduct of a justified war in terms of making a distinction between combatants and non-combatants and to maintain that only combatants may be attacked.

Walzer rejects the possibility that terrorism might sometimes be satisfied on the grounds that it involves the deliberate killing of innocents. ‘[Terrorism’s] purpose is to destroy the morale of a nation or a class, to undercut its solidarity; its method is the random murder of innocent people.’ For Walzer there is an important distinction between the conduct of war and performing terrorist acts. He argues that terrorism is based on randomness and is a civilian strategy. ‘If one wishes fear to spread and intensify over time, it is not desirable to kill specific people… Death must come by chance.’ He uses a historical analysis to show how terrorists (pre-World War II) attempted to conform to the norms of the revolutionary “code of honor”.

He reveals that the so-called terrorist made a moral distinction between people who can and cannot be killed and thus the violence they committed bore little resemblance to contemporary terrorism. Walzer continues to argue that ‘[terrorism] is infinitely threatening to whole peoples, whose individual members are systematically exposed to violent death at any and every moment in the course of their (largely innocuous) lives.’ It is precisely this nature of contemporary terrorism, ‘the random murder of innocent people,’ that prohibits Walzer from justifying a terrorist act.

A similar cord is struck by Pavlischek. He argues that ‘unlike trained and disciplined soldiers on the traditional battlefield, terrorists deliberately and intentionally attack innocent and defenceless civilians. Americans tutored in the just war tradition will denounce terrorism because such actions are morally forbidden by the “principle of discrimination” or “non-combatant immunity.”‘

The discrimination principle however, is a highly contested and an ambiguous concept. Fullinwider (1988) and Coady (1985) for example, have argued that terrorists do in fact discriminate. Fullinwider for example cites an example of the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro by the Italian Red Brigades in 1978. While Coady provides an incident in 1970 when an American diplomat in Uruguay was killed because of the support he provided to the authoritarian regime.

Walzer (1992) has noted that political violence is often defended from the same standpoint of when soldiers attack civilians. I.e. a military necessity. Machiavelli (1998) has argued that there is no alternative to terrorist activity if oppressed peoples are to be liberated. ‘Terrorism is the only means of destroying oppressive regimes and founding new nations’.

Despite Holmes’ (1989) development of a spectrum along which individuals can be placed, depending on their degree of responsibility in an aggressive war, there is no consensus concerning where the absolute line between combatants and non-combatants is to be drawn. Thus, Valls argues that we should sway away from the question of was the act discriminate, yes or no? but, rather, how discriminate was the violence? Our moral appraisal of the violence is likely to be more nuanced if we ask the latter question he argues. He further notes that ‘even if one were to grant that terrorism necessarily involves the killing of innocents, this alone does not place it beyond the scope of just war theory, for innocents may be killed in a just war. All the just war theory requires is that innocents not be targeted’ .

It is upon this discrimination principle that Lowe, in his article ‘Terrorism and Just War Theory’ argues that just war theory doesn’t provide an appropriate analytical tool from which acts of terror may be judged. ‘Acts of terrorism target the safety of innocent citizens, of non-combatants, and it is an analysis of the status of non-combatants that shows that terrorism, as we commonly understand it, is not compatible with just war theory.’ Moreover, he criticises Valls definition of terrorism for being too broad and by doing so, Valls extends the umbrella under which certain political violence can be labelled as terrorism. He argues that broad definitions readily allow cases of highly discriminate acts of political violence (such as political assassination), while more narrow definitions help us to emphasize on more indiscriminate acts of political violence, ones that harm or terrorize people independent of their level of responsibility. He argues that ‘if any examples of terrorism are going to be justified, they will have to be examples of just, proportionate, etc., highly discriminate political violence (tyrannicide, perhaps?), and it will be easier to accommodate them under a broad definition of terrorism.’

I.e Valls definition: ‘violence committed by non-state actors against persons or property for political purposes’ implies that more acts of political violence can be justified. Indeed, Lowe ops for a narrower definition that re-introduces terror back into terrorism. He draws on Held’s definition of terrorism as ‘a form of political violence to achieve political goals, where creating fear is usually high among the intended effects.’ For Lowe it is precisely the need to emphasize the fear and terror in the definition that will help aid a better understanding of what exactly terrorism (used in everyday language) is, and thus provides a basis from which to justify or condemn individual cases of political violence. Similarly, for Elshtain (2002) in her article How to Fight a Just War, the aim of terrorism is terror. It is upon this ground that she condemns the September 11 attacks in the US. ‘The aim of terrorism is terror; the terrorists did not issue a set of demands. They did not demand negotiation or else. They simply murdered.’

Indeed, terrorisms vague definitional nature lends itself to be interpreted in different ways by different peoples. Salah Khalef (Abu Iyad) is a case in hand. He was Yasser Arafat’s deputy and one of the leaders of Fatah and Black September. Moreover, he was responsible for a number of fatal attacks, including the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. However, he rationalized such actions by using the approach of confounding “terrorism” with “political violence.” He stated ‘by nature, and even on ideological grounds, I am firmly opposed to political murder and, more generally, to terrorism. Nevertheless, unlike many others, I do not confuse revolutionary violence with terrorism, or operations that constitute political acts with others that do not.” Abu Iyad attempts to present terrorism and political violence as two different and unconnected phenomena and thus the implication of his statement is that a political motive makes the activity respectable so that the end justifies the means. But for others such violent actions against innocents are likely to represent nothing more than callous murder and could never be justified.

Furthermore, there have been attempts to entangle the concept of “terrorism” with “national liberation”. Gonar (1998) for example notes that Syria’s official position is that it does not assist terrorist organizations; rather, it supports national liberation movements. President Hafez el-Assad, in a November 1986 speech to the participants in the 21st Convention of Workers Unions in Syria stated that ‘We have always opposed terrorism. But terrorism is one thing and a national struggle against occupation is another. We are against terrorism… Nevertheless, we support the struggle against occupation waged by national liberation movements.’ Again here, there is an attempt to justify the “means” (terrorism) in terms of the “end” (national liberation). From this standpoint Gonar argues that ‘regardless of the nature of the operation, when we speak of “liberation from the yoke of a foreign occupation” this will not be terrorism but a legitimate and justified activity.’ Hence the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.

George (1990) argues that ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’ are used interchangeably, and that the terms have the same denotation, but opposite moral connotations. Indeed, Senator Jackson categorically refutes the idea that terrorism can be justified in the name of national liberation. ‘The idea that one person’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter’ cannot be sanctioned. Freedom fighters or revolutionaries don’t blow up buses containing non-combatants; terrorist murderers do. Freedom fighters don’t set out to capture and slaughter schoolchildren; terrorist murderers do . . . It is a disgrace that democracies would allow the treasured word ‘freedom’ to be associated with acts of terrorists’.

George (1991) further highlights the confusion that surrounds the term. Through an analysis of Wilkinson’s (1986) book Terrorism and the Liberal State, George criticises Wilkinson for his extremely limited discussion of state sponsored terrorism by Western governments which lends the reader to interpret the terms “atrocity”, “murder” and ultimately “terror” as being reserved for western enemies. Thus, ‘once this conception is conveyed, it will be impossible for citizens of the west to attain an accurate understanding of their governments’ responsibility for substantial violence and terror in the real world.’ And us such the term terrorism conjures up notions of subjective (namely negative) meanings to the word. Westerners therefore find it difficult to acknowledge any form of terrorism as justifiable.

In short, if there are examples of terrorism permitted under just war theory, they will have to meet a number of challenging requirements. Indeed, ‘they will have to be acts of political violence that are proportionate and effective, done in support of a just cause, and not immoral in themselves. Additionally, they will have to be more, perhaps very much more, discriminate rather than less discriminate or indiscriminate in who is targeted for attack.’ It is this last criterion that often creates the greatest challenge in labelling an act of political violence as being a condemned or a justified act of terrorism.

From what was discussed above it is evident that the essence of either condemning or justifying terrorist acts lies with the definer of what exactly terrorism is and that different connotations of terrorism are likely to impinge the evaluation of political violence. Thus, the conception of terrorism is fundamental to the way certain political violence is interpreted and judged. I agree with Lowe when he states that ‘we need to craft a definition of terrorism using morally neutral language that allows us to decide on the basis of the merits of the case whether the action is moral or immoral, justified or condemned.’ Indeed, until a general consensus of rhetoric is established this sobering debate will be grappled with for many generations to come.


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