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Terrorism: what is it and can it ever be morally justified?

Today no single issue of public concern seems to be quite as widely and hotly debated as that of terrorism. With good reason: the threat of terrorism has never been as salient and ubiquitous as it seems to be at present.

Social sciences and humanities are making an important contribution to these debates. Philosophy, too, has a contribution to make. When addressing issues of morality and of value in general, philosophers seek to do two things: to analyse and clarify the concepts involved, and to analyse, clarify and criticise arguments for and against various positions taken on those issues, as well as moral and other principles and values that ground those arguments. Whereas social sciences study the causes, varieties and effects of terrorism, and history traces the way terrorism has evolved over time, philosophy focuses on two basic questions: What is terrorism? Can it ever be morally justified?


Current usage of the word reflects considerable variation and confusion over its meaning. This makes discussing the moral and political questions to do with terrorism a difficult and often frustrating undertaking. The one thing that is clear in this usage is that terrorism is a bad thing--nothing to be proud of or to support. Virtually no one today would apply the word to oneself and one's own actions, nor to those one has sympathy with or whose actions one supports. As the hackneyed cliche has it, one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. This suggests there is a double standard at work, of the form 'us versus them'.

Another type of double standard, less obvious and therefore even more of an obstacle to understanding and judging terrorism, is the tendency to accuse insurgents who resort to violence of resorting to terrorism, without taking a closer look into the type of violence and who its victims are. This is coupled with an unwillingness to talk of terrorism in relation to the violent actions and policies of a state and, in particular, one's own state--even though what is done is the same. This indicates a double standard of the form "state versus non-state actors', and the assumption that whatever it is, terrorism is by definition something done only by insurgents and never by a state.

The debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of terrorism in that conflict provide a telling example. Both Palestinians and Israelis have been committing what many might want to call terrorism. yet both deny that they have been engaging in terrorism and both accuse the other side of doing so. What the Palestinians are saying is: ours is a just struggle for putting an end to occupation and oppression and for attaining self-determination. We are both morally and legally entitled to use violence to this end. That isn't terrorism, but rather fighting for freedom. Israelis respond by saying that the state is merely using its armed forces and security services in defence of the country and the security of its citizens against terrorist attacks. Thus Palestinians are assuming that the decisive criterion of terrorism is the ultimate goal of the agent: if it is a legitimate goal such as national liberation, it can't be terrorism. In their view, 'terrorists fighting for freedom' is a contradiction in terms. Israelis, on their part, are assuming that it is the identity of the agent that determines whether some act or policy of violence is terrorist or not. If it is a state, then it can't be terrorism but rather warfare or policing action; if it is an insurgent group, then it is terrorism. In their view, 'state terrorism' is a contradiction in terms. Additionally, both sides may well be assuming that if there is a violent conflict between two parties and one of them is guilty of terrorism, then the other party is thereby absolved of the charge of terrorism. If they are terrorists, we can't be.

In these circumstances, the debate has to be at cross-purposes. It is in such cases that philosophy might help by pointing at the sources of confusion and by offering clarification, and perhaps even a definition of the concept at issue. I won't try for a definition that captures the core meaning of 'terrorism' in ordinary usage; that is probably a hopeless task. Nor will I stipulate a definition that should be pertinent in every possible context and prove useful for every possible purpose. Mine should be helpful in the context of the debate about the rights and wrongs of terrorism, that is, one we could use both in everyday moral and political discussions of terrorism and in applied ethics--which is nothing but the same debate continued in a somewhat more careful and sustained way, informed by ethical theory.

For these purposes, I believe terrorism is best defined as the deliberate use of violence, or threat of its use, against innocent people, with the aim of intimidating some other people into a course of action they otherwise would not take. Defined in this way, terrorism is an indirect strategy. It has two targets. One person or group is attacked directly in order to get at another person or group and intimidate them into doing something they otherwise would not do. In terms of importance, the indirect target is primary and the direct target secondary. The secondary, but directly-attacked target, are innocent people. In the context of war, this is usually taken to include all except members of armed forces and security services; those who supply them with arms and ammunition; and political officials directly involved in the conflict.

What is the sense in which the direct victims of terrorism are 'innocent'? They aren't guilty of any action (or omission) terrorists could plausibly bring up as a justification of what is done to them. They aren't attacking terrorists; therefore terrorist action can't be justified in terms of self-defence. They aren't waging war on terrorists, nor on those on whose behalf they presume to act; therefore terrorists can't say that they, too, are merely fighting a war. 'Innocent people' aren't responsible--on any credible understanding of responsibility--for the (real or alleged) injustice or suffering that is being inflicted on terrorists or on those whose cause they have adopted, an injustice or suffering so grave that a violent response to it can properly be considered. Or, if they are responsible, it is unknown to the terrorists.

What are the advantages of this definition? For one thing, it distinguishes between terrorism, on the one hand, and war and political violence proper, on the other. To be sure, political violence and acts of war proper can also intimidate and coerce; but their intended victims aren't innocent people. However, the military can employ terrorism in war--indeed, that is one of the main types of state terrorism.

The definition preserves the historical connection of 'terrorism' with 'terror' and 'terrorising'. It doesn't confine terrorism to the political sphere, but makes it possible to speak of non-political terrorism, such as the criminal terrorism employed by the Mafia.

The definition is politically neutral: it covers both state and anti-state, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, left-wing and right-wing terrorism. It is also morally neutral, at least at a very basic level of discussion. I believe it captures the elements of terrorism that lead most of us to judge it as gravely wrong: the use or threat of use of violence against the innocent for the sake of intimidation and coercion. But it doesn't pre-judge the moral question of its justification in particular cases. For it entails only that terrorism is generally wrong and therefore doesn't rule out its justification under certain circumstances. Accordingly, particular acts and campaigns of terrorism still have to be examined and judged on their merits.

Yet another virtue of this definition is that it relates the issue of the moral standing of terrorism to 'just war' theory. For a central tenet of that theory, the principle of discrimination, tells us that we mustn't deliberately attack innocent civilians.

Clearly, the definition is both narrower in some respects and wider in others than common usage would warrant. Attacks of insurgents on soldiers or police officers, which the authorities and the media depict and the public perceives as terrorist, would not count as terrorism, but rather as political violence or guerrilla warfare. The bombing of German and Japanese cities in World War II, or numerous Israeli Army attacks on Lebanon and some of its current actions in the occupied territories, on the other hand, are commonly presented as acts of war, but would count as terrorism according to my definition.

Is this a damaging objection? I think not. If what we hope for is more discerning and critical moral understanding of these matters, we shouldn't be unduly bound by conventional usage. What matters is that in the former case, the targets are soldiers or police officers and not innocent people. In the latter case, innocent people are deliberately targeted with the aim of intimidation and coercion. The former case doesn't involve the four morally problematic components the definition singles out; the latter does. On the other hand, whether the bomb is planted by hand or dropped from an aircraft, or who does or does not wear a uniform, can hardly matter, morally speaking.


If this is what terrorism is, the next question to ask is whether it can ever be morally justified. The answer to this will depend on one's approach to moral issues, one's ethical theory. Now Western moral philosophy has evolved two main approaches, or two types of ethical theory: consequentialism and non-consequentialism.

Consequentialism tells us to judge human action solely in terms of its consequences. When its consequences are good (on balance), an act or policy is right; when they are bad (on balance), it is wrong. Nothing is right or wrong, obligatory or prohibited, in itself, but only in the light of its consequences. The goodness or badness of consequences is understood in terms of how they affect people. Different versions of consequentialism offer different explanations of this: whether the consequences of an action or line of action contribute to happiness or cause suffering; whether they promote people's interests or set them back; or whether they fulfil or frustrate people's preferences.

Terrorism, too, is judged solely in terms of its consequences. That means that it, too, isn't wrong in itself, but only when it has bad consequences (on balance). Of course, given what it is, it is likely to have bad consequences most of the time, so consequentialists will judge it as wrong most of the time.

Consequentialist thinkers also criticise those who resort to terrorism too quickly, without checking thoroughly whether their terrorist actions and campaigns can indeed be justified by their consequences. This is something many terrorists do and many apologists of terrorism condone. A consequentialist justification of an act or policy of terrorism must show three things: that the aim sought is good enough to justify the harm inflicted; that the aim will indeed be achieved by terrorism; and that it can't be achieved by any other, less costly means.

However, consequentialists have no case against those terrorists who do their calculation responsibly and thoroughly, and reach the conclusion that yes, given the circumstances, terrorism will have good consequences on balance. It will indeed lead to liberation from an oppressive foreign rule, which can't be achieved in any other way.

If we are not happy with this position and want a more robust critique of terrorism, a less permissive stance on its morality, we must turn to non-consequentialist ethical theories. These theories don't tell us that consequences do not matter; to say that would be quite implausible, indeed preposterous. What they tell us is that other considerations (justice or rights, for example) matter too, and that some acts or lines of action are right or wrong in themselves, independently of their consequences.

From a non-consequentialist point of view, terrorism does appear as never, or hardly ever, morally justified. To see why let's look into two central non-consequentialist objections to it. First, terrorism offends against the fundamental moral principle of respect for persons. The principle of respect for persons can be construed in (at least) two ways. Respect for persons can be understood as respect for their basic human rights. Human beings are to be respected as holders of rights, which circumscribe a certain area of freedom, thereby both acknowledging and protecting personhood. The terrorist can't show this type of respect. For if you have any basic rights at all, surely the right not to be killed or maimed for a terrorist cause is one of them.

Alternatively, showing respect for persons can be taken to mean not treating them as mere means. In attempting to capture the supreme law of morality; Kant famously enjoined us never to treat humanity, whether in our own person or in that of another, as a mere means but always also as an end. To be sure, the details and implications of Kant's account are a matter of considerable controversy. But it can be safely said that, at a minimum, his principle enjoins that the other should be able to 'share in the end' of our action towards another person, that is, to consent to it. But that is just what the terrorist's victim is in no position to do. Indeed, terrorism is often brought up as a paradigmatic example of reducing other people to mere means and thus offending against what Kant puts forward as one formulation of the supreme law of morality.

The second major non-consequentialist objection to terrorism takes us back to the distinction between responsibility and the lack of it, or between guilt and innocence. This is one of the most basic moral distinctions. We give it the pride of place in any consideration of war or violence in general from a moral and legal point of view. Its import is that hostile treatment of another human being must be justified by the fact that he or she is responsible for some wrongdoing, the gravity of which is proportionate to the gravity of our response. Those who aren't responsible for such wrongdoing shouldn't be subjected to hostile treatment and, in particular, mustn't be subjected to violence. Philosophers usually don't seek to prove this point, but rather make it their point of departure when putting forward arguments about the morality of violence, war and terrorism. They are right to do so. As Michael Walzer puts it in his book Just and Unjust Wars, 'the theoretical problem is not to describe how [this] immunity is gained, but how it is lost. We are all immune to start with; our right not to be attacked is a feature of normal human relationships.' Yet terrorists deliberately attack, kill and otherwise severely harm innocent people; this, and the aim of intimidation and coercion they seek to achieve in this way, is what makes them terrorists.

To be sure, some terrorists claim that their victims aren't innocent. But they can do so only after extending the notions of responsibility and guilt so drastically as to make it possible for them to say such things as: 'All Israelis are responsible for the policies of the Sharon government'; 'All Palestinians are implicated in terrorism'; or 'All Americans are guilty of American imperialism'. However, when the notions of responsibility or guilt are stretched to this extent, the very distinction between responsibility and the lack of it, or between guilt and innocence, no longer makes much sense, at least when we are concerned with the sort of thing terrorists do to their victims.

These objections to terrorism show it to be at odds with some of the most basic moral beliefs of many of us. Those of us who hold these beliefs will find consequentialist accounts of terrorism both much too permissive and wide of the mark, not attending to what is at issue. But do they have to say that terrorism can never be justified, whatever the circumstances?

Some want to say just this: one must never resort to terrorism and that is all there is to it. Thus Australian philosopher Tony Coady, who has done extensive research on the morality of violence, war and terrorism, argues that, 'we surely do better to condemn the resort to terrorism outright with no leeway for exemptions, be they for states, revolutionaries or religious zealots.' In general, but especially in the present worldwide terrorism alert, the moral prohibition of terrorism should be understood and endorsed as absolute.

Others (myself included) opt for a less uncompromising position. They reject the consequentialist view that terrorism is justified whenever its consequences are good (on balance), but admit that it might be justified in certain extreme and extremely rare circumstances. This position shouldn't be confused with the argument about terrorism being 'the only method available to the poor and powerless', a way of 'levelling the field', popular among apologists of terrorism. For the position I have in mind lays down two conditions: that terrorism is indeed the only method available and likely to succeed; and that what is to be prevented by its use is an evil so great that it can be termed a moral disaster.

But just what is--what counts as--a moral disaster? This question doesn't permit a single and clear-cut answer, one that would enable us to draw a line dividing what is and what isn't a moral disaster. What can be said is, first, that--contrary to what fighters against social or economic oppression, or colonial rule, or foreign occupation tend to say--evils of such magnitude that they can justify indiscriminate and wholesale killing and maiming of innocent people and all manner of destruction are extremely rare. Not every case of oppression, foreign rule, or occupation, however morally indefensible, amounts to a moral disaster in the sense I have in mind.

Second, I can still give one or two examples. If a nation is subjected to genocide, or to being 'ethnic cleansed' from its land, then it is facing a true moral disaster and may properly consider terrorism as a means of struggle against such a fate. To be sure, in such a case it will be morally justified in resorting to terrorism only if there are very good grounds for believing that terrorism will succeed where nothing else will: in preventing, or stopping, the genocide or 'ethnic cleansing'. Obviously, cases where both these conditions are met will be extremely rare; indeed, they will be virtually--but not absolutely--nonexistent.

If, at this point, we recall the distinction between state and non-state terrorism and ask which of the two is more likely to be justified in these terms, the answer would seem to be this: facing a prospect that amounts to a moral disaster, virtually every state will have options other than the use of terrorism. Thus, the first of the two conditions of the "moral disaster' justification won't be satisfied. A stateless community, on the other hand, seems to be more likely to find itself in such circumstances where it truly has no alternative. Therefore, such a community might be able to justify its resort to terrorism when facing the threat of genocide or 'ethnic cleansing'. This, indeed, is one of the reasons why I believe that, morally speaking, state terrorism is, by and large, worse than terrorism employed by sub-state groups.

Igor Primoratz is Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and principal research fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne. His publications include several papers on terrorism and the anthology Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues, which he edited for Palgrave Macmillan (in press).
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Author:Primoratz, Igor
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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