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Response to Prompt E: Terrorism is

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Jeremy Gormley


Response to Prompt E: “Terrorism is not a means of winning a just (or an unjust) war. Hence, it can never be justified – even by those who have no other means of achieving their (just) goals.”
Questions regarding the justifiability of terrorism seem pertinent as ever, given the state of affairs in a post-September 11th world. In 1988, Michael Walzer argued that “no one these days advocates terrorism” for the reason that it targets the innocent.i Today, it is still not common practice to defend terrorism since it continues to deliberately attack the innocent, but, unlike twenty years ago, it seems to be predominantly carried out in absence of an official declaration of war. Thus, while Walzer argues that terrorism should be resisted at all costs, he seems to neglect its practicality during times of war. In fact, it can be argued that terrorism is a means of winning a just war since it can be used to bring about a war’s end sooner, even if innocents are killed deliberately, rather than by collateral damage. When morally evaluating terrorism, however, Walzer may be right. The intentional harming of innocent lives seems to remain an inherent part of terrorism, no matter when it is employed. Therefore, even in a just war, terrorism cannot be justified for the very reason that it murders individuals whom there is no right to target. In that way, terrorism takes the killing out of the scope of the just war and becomes unjust.

Defining Terrorism

It may already be clear that the way we define terrorism influences the moral discussions surrounding it. Michael Walzer, for instance, argues that terrorism is the systematic destruction of whole populations by non-state actors with the intention to destroy morale through random acts of violence. While other aspects of his definition could also be argued against, Walzer’s inclusion of “randomness” in his definition is arguably the most controversial. If “random,” to Walzer, means any acts of violence outside a time of war (when, arguably, terrorist acts as a tactic may be expected), then it is not possible to say that terrorism could ever be a means of winning a war – the very purpose of this paper. However, Walzer most likely refers to terrorism as random since it is uncertain where or when it may occur, thus instilling fear in its targets. This may be true but the fact remains that randomness is not associated with terrorism because it is not part of its inherent nature, that being the killing of civilians which is the primary method consistently used by terrorists.

This brings up the question of whether or not terrorism is always concerned with the killing of innocents. For Andrew Valls, terrorism does not necessarily involve the death of innocent life but can include psychological damage or the destruction of property.ii This definition may make it easier to justify terrorism since it causes reparable damage. Robert Fullinwider, on the other hand, argues that not merely the killing, but the murder of individuals is what defines terrorism.iii By including “murder” in the definition, calling terrorism unjustified is far easier since murder is, first, never morally acceptable and, second, is distinguishable from the killing of innocents which could arise from collateral damage, rather than attacks purposely targeting civilians. Terrorism in this paper will only include the intended murder of innocents but, as will be demonstrated below, any killing of the innocent should in fact be classified as murder due to the very nature of the targets

Thus, terrorism will be defined here from a phenomenological or empirical perspective: terrorism murders civilians in a non-random fashion both as part of and outside of war. Also, terrorism used in war necessitates the inclusion of state actors as possible committers of terrorism as part of the definition but non-state actors are certainly not omitted. While this view of terrorism is not completely objective, as no phenomenological argument truly can be, the definition attempts to be an accurate representation of terrorism as we know it.

Terrorism as a means of winning a war

Recent acts of terrorism have been limited to ones that occur when war is not officially declared in the traditional sense. If a war is underway, however, there is the possibility that terrorism may be used as a means to winning that war. The war may be just or unjust but, in reality, whether the war is justified will not matter because as long as the war has begun, what started it will no necessarily influence whether terrorism is used as a means. Hence, the question is concerning whether terrorism is a means to winning a just or an unjust war.

Terrorism can be a means of winning a just or an unjust war for several reasons. We are assuming that the war being waged will inevitably involve the death of a considerable number of soldiers, massive destruction of infrastructure within one if not both warring countries, severe economic setbacks, and, possibly, the loss of innocent lives. Thus, we are looking at war in a rather traditional sense: it is difficult to argue that this type of war is not a horrid affair with which all involved parties want to be finished as quickly as possible so that populations have the chance to live in times of peace.

To achieve this, considerable investment in military strategy and equipment should be undertaken. A shortage of resources may implicate terrorism as the best strategy. It may be possible that terrorism can be used as an alternative and more efficient method to traditional fighting to bring about a quicker end to the war. Terrorism may be carried out after other tactics have proven to be ineffective. Or it may even be employed before any fighting has begun as long as a war has been declared and it is clear that the opposing intends to fight. This way, the war’s end can be brought about considerably quicker and with more lives saved. If war is the epitome of cruelty and evil, everything should arguably be done to bring about peace and this may include using terrorism, a tactic otherwise not traditionally acceptable in war, if it can effectively bring about a war’s end.

Predictably, there are many problems with this argument. First, if war is viewed in such a traditional manner, it should not be acceptable to use such an untraditional tactic of war. War is not assumed to be guerilla war or anything similar to what is happening in the Middle East currently where group A attacks group B, group A retreats, then group B attacks and retreats, and the sequence repeats. Terrorism then may be arguably viewed as an untraditional means since the type of warfare is untraditional and elicits it. However, even if the case above could be considered war in the untraditional sense, the international community would never regard it as legitimate warfare with the potential to be justified or employ justified means. This is because it only uses unjust military tactic. To discuss terrorism as a means requires that there is the possibility for other means to be employed and this often requires a traditional war to be in effect so that it does not seem like terrorism is the end in itself.

Another problem with classifying terrorism as a means in war is that terrorism does not abide by the standard criteria in Just War Theory. According to Jus in Bello, combatants should carry out war so that it, among other things, is directed at combatants; uses force proportional to the wrong endured; and employs the minimum amount of military force as possible. As defined above, terrorism can potentially violate all those criteria. Yet, there is a difference between practical and moral options. If abiding by Just War Theory does not bring about the military defeat of the enemy, it is likely to be abandoned. The primary goal is to end the war and if terrorism can accomplish that in violation of jus in bello, it will be undertaken as the most strategic option.

Terrorism might also not be an acceptable means for the reason that its use is just as unpredictable as other types of warfare. There may in fact be no way to know that terrorism’s use will be the most effective or most life-saving. More traditional and “safe” methods, therefore, seem more appropriate so that innocent lives are not lost in vain. The problem is that the result of all military strategies and tactics are speculative. Using terrorism is highly unpredictable but, then again, any other means are as well. Therefore, the consequences brought about by terrorism should not eliminate it as a means. Rather, it can be used as a means because it intends to bring about the end to a war in an effective manner.

The final argument against terrorism as a means of winning a war is that it will complicate the peace efforts following the war’s end. Even if it is of the utmost concern that a war be ended quickly and effectively, it may not be worth using terrorism if, once the war is over, the receiving country can either not recuperate or is so adversely affected that it may be inclined to wage war again in the future. Warring parties need to arguably regain the good-will of their enemies after the war is finished and that may not be possible when terrorism is used.

While this may be true, the fact remains that war is not a pleasant affair and it is not terrorism only that makes it abhorrent; the consequences of war are always inherently bad regardless of what tactics are used. Therefore, it should be given that either side will take the opportunity to do everything in its power to reduce its casualties and destruction so long as the war can be won and all warring parties return to peaceful relations following the war. This will likely lead to unjust war but, again, if the results of other military action remain uncertain, terrorism should be used with the intention to bring about the end of the war in an effective way. Thus, while it is not necessarily a last resort in the sense that all other means have been attempted first, terrorism is only used as a means when all other means have been ruled out because of their inferior ability to end the war.

Terrorism can be a means of winning a war and still be unjustified

Since terrorism is a means of winning a just (or an unjust) war, there are reasons to suggest that terrorism may be a justified tactic – an otherwise outlandish concept. The first argument for why terrorism may be justified as a means of winning a war is to consider its use in just wars. Traditionally, if a war is justified, tactics used to win the war are not necessarily justified even though they may bring about just ends, as outlined in jus in bello. (It seems hypocritical to be concerned about the morality of why the war is being fought but not about the tactics used in the war, especially when the tactics involve something like terrorism which in itself appears to be unjustified.) However, there may be certain types of just war that act as exceptions.

One example may be to look at a justified war whose purpose is to eliminate evil. Such an example is one Michael Walzer uses to argue why World War II was different.iv In the case that the just war is being fought to eradicate evil, using a means such as terrorism may not, in a relative sense, be so immoral when considering how awful it would be if the evil force were not defeated. Contrarily, however, it is very difficult to discern what evil is or who embodies it. Therefore, while the Nazis in World War II may have embodied enough evil to justify terroristic bomb raids in Germany, it is not always so clear who the enemy is.

Looking beyond whether the war is just or unjust, an alternative reason to why terrorism may be justified may lie in the very definitions we use to describe it. Including the murder of innocents for example may wrongly imply unjustness. Or, as shown above, terrorism may be unjustified purely because of the guidelines of Just War Theory. There is no final authority to say that one definition is superior to another or that nothing other than Just War Theory can be used to describe why terrorism is unjustified.

Furthermore, Fullinwider argues that terrorism should not be defined as something immoral but should focus on the fact that terrorists are often appealing to morality itself. A country may be at war, for instance, because its sovereignty is being violated and any use of unnecessary violence in the name of justice is often looked upon with sympathy. Looked at from this vantage, terrorism may very well be justifiable.

As was discussed earlier, terrorism is very difficult to define and, depending on the definition, it may be justified in certain ways. Nevertheless, we do not need to reference one definition or Just War Theory to know that a terrorist act is unjustified when we see it carried out: we know it for the sole reason that it uses civilians as targets.

Still, even if every definition states that terrorism targets innocent civilians, there may be different ways to view civilians so that their loss of life may not render terrorism unjustifiable. For instance, civilians are assumed to be innocent by the fact that they are not actively engaged in the war effort and do not pose a threat to the enemy. Civilians, however, may be “guilty” for several reasons. They are arguably subject to the effects of war merely by their association with a warring state. Even with a standing military, civilians who directly elect a government may be targeted justly if it is believed they are somewhat responsible for the war. Another possibility is that civilians may indirectly support the war by working in a munitions factory or medical unit, for example. These individuals are arguably not innocent and therefore can be killed as a legitimate target. However, even though innocent civilians may elect a government that started a war or indirectly support the war effort, wars are ultimately fought by the military and going outside the scope of the war, while it may be more efficient or quick, is unjust when it involves deliberate civilian casualties.

Yet Valls argues that terrorism may be justified by meeting the challenges of proportionality and discrimination required in jus in bello if the doctrine of double effect is invoked. He claims that innocents’ deaths are justified as long as they are not the direct targets of attack. However, targeting a munitions factory, for example, where civilians may be killed as a result is not a terrorist attack, according to the definition used in this paper. Targeting military sites or buildings that aid the military is still within the scope of the war since their destruction is directly affecting the warring party. Only the specific targeting of innocent life is unjustified since that is what is most commonly seen in a terrorist attack.

Similarly, it is vague whether terrorism is justified when used against soldiers who are out of uniform and acting as civilians, not in their role as fighters of the war. It may be argued that soldiers become innocent when no longer in that role. Or, on the other hand, they are still soldiers since they will inevitably take up arms again and killing them now in a terrorist attack is justified, especially since it will help win the war. Moreover, war is not like a game and “rules” do not have to be abided by – as David Rodin suggests - so any deliberate attack on these “innocent” lives is morally acceptable. Making this exception, however, then presents the question of who has the potential to become a soldier or involved in the war in some other way. All men over 18, for example, may potentially become soldiers but it is not justifiable to target and kill them. Therefore, terrorist attacks are not justified even if they attack soldiers out of uniform because they are not in their role and are thus out of the scope of the war.

An additional reason why terrorism may be justified as a means of winning a war is when it is used in self-defense. Self-defense is, arguably, one of the few means by which a war can be fought justly. The reason is because the party acting in self-defense does not commit an act of aggression – the first unjust act – and therefore its use of self-defense has to be justified as it is the only way to respond without succumbing to defeat by the aggressor.

There are many problems here. First, proportionality needs to be maintained. Terrorism, even as a form of self-defense, cannot be rightly justified if it is in response to a land assault, for instance, or another aggressive act that does not result in nearly as many innocent lives lost as a terrorist attack might. Moreover, a terrorist attack that is in self-defense to another terrorist attack is still wrong. Such an act of reprisal still harms the wrong people and the standards should not be changed to justify immoral acts solely because they have already been presented. Lastly, terrorism should not be used in self-defense because, in the case when it is used preemptively, before an aggressive tactic has taken place, it may look too much like a preventive war. Even if a preventive terrorist attack was an effective way to ensure that the attacker gained the upper hand in war, it is unjustified because (1) most preventive wars are in themselves already unjustified and (2) the same innocent individuals are being targeted which we already established as unjust. By the reasoning of (2), even a preemptive war that uses terrorism would be unjustified despite the preemptive nature of the war being justified.

It thus appears that terrorism, although used as a means in warfare, is almost never justified. A final condition to consider, however, is when terrorism is used as a means in war by a weaker state that has no other means to win the war. For example, when one state can only earn their sovereignty over an imperial power through terrorist attacks, the attacks might seem justified. On one hand, we may use Rodin’s argument again that war is not like a game so fairness need not be applied and terrorism remains always unjustified, regardless of the circumstances. In reality, however, terrorism as defined in this paper, only targets innocent civilians and does not include similar surprise attacks on military units. Thus, if a weak state engaged in war against a powerful one has the capability to use terrorism against innocent civilians, it presumably can also use similar tactics against the military. There is no reason, therefore, to justify terrorism for weaker states because it still targets the innocent ( the ones presumably not violating the weak nation’s sovereignty) and similar strategies could be employed within the scope of the conflict.

i Michael Walzer, “Terrorism: A Critique of Excuses,” in Larry May, Eric Rovie, and Steve Viner, The Morality of War: Classical and Contemporary readings (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall 2005), 297.

ii Andrew Valls, “Can Terrorism Be Justified,” in Larry May, Eric Rovie, and Steve Viner, The Morality of War: Classical and Contemporary readings (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall 2005), 317 - 318.

iii Robert Fullinwider, “Understanding Terrorism,” in Larry May, Eric Rovie, and Steve Viner, The Morality of War: Classical and Contemporary readings (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall 2005), 306 - 314.

iv Michael Walzer, “World War II: Why Was this War Different,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.2 (1971): 3 – 21.

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