Terrorism pp 112-144 | Cite as

Can Terrorism Ever Be Morally Justified?

  • J. Angelo Corlett
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 101)

Abstract

It is disappointing that much of what has been written that purports to deal with terrorism ends up not pertaining to terrorism at all, but only to particular forms of violent activity-either state or individual. Perhaps this is due at least in part to writers not devoting sufficient attention to the exploration of the definitional conditions of terrorism. For example, in Leon Trotsky’s work, Terrorism and Communism? “terrorism” is not defined. Nor is terrorist activity contrasted with other significant forms of violence such as revolution, assassination, etc. Although Trotsky argues that the communist revolution does not “logically” require the revolutionaries’ employment of terrorism, it does require that any means necessary are to be used to secure revolutionary power, even by terrorism. Terrorism, for Trotsky, is a form of justified violence when it is a matter of self-defense and is an act of intimidation by revolutionary forces against an oppressive state:

If human life in general is sacred and inviolable, we must deny ourselves not only the use of terror, not only war, but also revolution itself. … As long as human labor power, and, consequently, life itself, remain articles of sale and purchase, of exploitation and robbery, the principle of the “sacredness of human life” remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.

Keywords

Cocaine Explosive Assure Arena Defend 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    For an interesting and informative discussion of state terrorism, see Jonathan Glover, “State Terrorism,” in R. G. Frey and Christopher Morris, Editors, Violence, Terrorism, and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 256–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961). This work was originally published in the United States as Dictatorship vs. Democracy and in Great Britain as The Defence of Terrorism. Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Even though Trotsky, in his 1935 Preface to the Second English Edition, admits that it was the Editor’s idea to include “terrorism” in the book’s title, and that Trotsky’s own concern is “not at all the defence of ‘terrorism’ as such,” it leads to much confusion when he devotes an entire chapter to terrorism without either defining it or providing its justification (moral or otherwise).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, p. pp58; Walter Laqueur, Terrorism (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), pp. 67–8.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, pp. 58–9.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, p. 62.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, p. 58.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, pp. 62–3.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Laqueur, Terrorism, p. 7.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Laqueur, Terrorism, p. 6.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Walter Laqueur, A History of Terrorism (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002), p. 5.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    There is some recognition that the questions of the definition of “terrorism” and its justification need to be considered separately. For example, Virginia Held states that the definitional question is often confused with the matter of the legal justification of terrorism as a practice of political change [Virginia Held, “Terrorism, Rights, and Political Goals,” in R. G. Frey and Christopher Morris, Editors, Violence, Terrorism, and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 59]. But this is not the same as pointing to the conflating of the questions of the definition of “terrorism” and its moral justification, as I argue. Moreover, R. G Frey and Christopher Morris recognize that there exist two such separate questions, but they state that “they are hard to separate” (Frey and Morris, Violence, Terrorism, and Justice, p. 1). They do not, however, insist that the two questions be separated as a matter of analyzing terrorism, as I do. Finally, Terrence L. Moore argues that if we construe “terrorism” as by definition immoral, then inevitable disagreements about the morality of terrorism will surely lead to disagreements about what in fact terrorism amounts to [Terrence L. Moore, “The Nature and Evaluation of Terrorism,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1987, p. 59]. My point, of course, is not simply that sneaking the harming of non-combatants or innocents into the definition of “terrorism” leads to further disagreements in discussing terrorism, but that doing so begs the moral question against terrorism. This point is recognized by G. Wallace. However, while Wallace attempts to avoid the problem of conflating the nature and justification of terrorism by “doing without a formal definition of terrorism,” [G. Wallace, “Terrorism and the Argument From Analogy,” Internationaljournal of Moral and Social Issues, 6 (1991), p. 150], I set forth and explicate a definition of “terrorism” in distinguishing the questions of the nature, moral justification, and possible role of terrorism.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    C. A. J. Coady, “The Morality of Terrorism,” Philosophy, 60 (1985), p. 65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Igor Primoratz, “What is Terrorism?” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 7 (1990), p. 133. It is noteworthy that in his critique of Igor Primoratz’s definition of “terrorism,” Walter Sinnott-Armstrong does not challenge Primoratz’s idea that targeting the innocent is essential to terrorism [Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “On Primoratz’s Definition of Terrorism,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 8 (1991), pp. 115–120]. For another critique of Primoratz’s definition of “terrorism,” see Tony Dardis, “Primoratz on Terrorism,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 9 (1992), pp. 93–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980), p. 145. Held argues that not only has ordinary language use wreaked havoc in defining the nature of terrorism, but it has also tended to build into such definitions of terrorism a moral (prejudgment against it. Such biases make it impossible to even question, philosophically, whether or not terrorism can ever be morally justified. Even thinkers as well respected as Michael Walzer have assumed that terrorism is morally wrong without offering arguments against its immorality (See Held, “Terrorism, Rights, and Political Goals,” p. 65).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Another position against the moral justification of terrorism is articulated in Haig Khatchadourian, “Terrorism and Morality,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 5 (1988), pp. 131–45; The Morality of Terrorism (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998), Chapters 2–4. It is noteworthy, however, that even if intentionally harming innocent persons turns out to be essential to terrorism, it is not obvious that terrorism would always be morally unjustified, as is argued in Gerry Wallace, “Area Bombing, Terrorism and the Death of Innocents,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 6 (1989), pp. 3–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Coady, “The Morality of Terrorism,” p. 52. Another of those who seeks to conflate the two questions of the definition of “terrorism” and the moral justification of terrorism is Martin Hughes, “Terrorism and National Security,” Philosophy, 57 (1982), p. 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Loren Lomasky, “The Political Significance of Terrorism,” in R.G. Frey and Christopher Morris, Editors, Violence, Terrorism, and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 100, 104.Google Scholar
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    Jan Narveson, “Terrorism and Morality,” in R. G. Frey and Christopher Morris, Editors, Violence, Terrorism, and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 119.Google Scholar
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    Carl Wellman, “On Terrorism Itself,” in Joe P. White, Editor, Assent/Dissent (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 254–5.Google Scholar
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    Noam Chomsky, 9/11 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001), p. 57.Google Scholar
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    Furthermore, Chomsky’s definition of “terrorism” wrongly ignores the fact that terrorism can be aimed at military targets, such as the cases of the 11 September 2001 attack on the U.S. Pentagon Building, the Jewish resistance (terrorist) attacks on the Nazi military during World War II, or even Native American terrorist attacks on the U.S. military during the U.S. military anti-Indian campaigns during the 19th Century.Google Scholar
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    Burleigh Taylor Wilkins, Terrorism and Collective Responsibility (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 6. Coady agrees that one of the distinctive points of terrorism is to destabilize social relations (Coady, “The Morality of Terrorism,” p. 53). However, Coady sees this as a matter of the sociology of terrorism, rather than as a point about the definition of “terrorism.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Gordon Graham argues that “terrorists are enemies of the established state” and are “aimed against the state” [Gordon Graham, “Terrorism and Freedom Fighters,” Philosophy and Social Action, 11 (1985), p. 46]. However, as Bat-Ami Bar On states concerning the etymology of “terrorism,” ‘terrorism’ as a negative term was coined in 1795 by the French Directory to refer specifically to the repressive measures practiced by Robespierre’s government. It was later used to describe the activities of nineteenth-century clandestine oppositional groups in Russia. Not surprisingly, because these groups were considered revolutionary, ‘terrorism’ retained its negative connotations in the dictionaries of the time even though these groups were different from the French revolutionaries, and their ends differed also [Bat-Ami Bar On, “Why Terrorism is Morally Problematic,” in Claudia Card, Editor, Feminist Ethics (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1991), pp. 109–110].Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Compare this definition of “terrorism” to Jenny Teichman’s: Terrorism consists of violent actions carried out for political or other social purposes, including some large-scale mercenary purposes, by individuals or groups, having an aim which might be good or bad, but carried out by means of either or both of the following: 1, attacks on innocent or neutral or randomly chosen people, or 2, using means which involve atrocities, e.g., torture, cruel killings, or mutilation of the living or the dead, committed against randomly or non-randomly chosen people who may be innocent or not [Jenny Teichman, “How to Define Terrorism,” Philosophy, 64 (1989), p. 513]. Note that Teichman’s definition, unlike (f), does not count certain threats of violence as terrorism. Nor does her definition allow for one party to commit an act of terrorism on behalf of another. Finally, Teichman’s definition does not allow that property can be used as an object of terrorism to address a person or set of persons as the primary target of terrorism. On Teichman’s definition of “terrorism,” then, if a political group secured a quite valuable artifact of a government (perhaps some “top-secret” documents, “national treasures,” etc.), threatening to destroy it unless that government released certain political prisoners all of whom constitute a third party to this act, this act would not be a terrorist one. Whether or not this sort of action is in the end effective, there is little question that Teichman’s definition has failed to capture some important features of the nature of terrorism. Nonetheless, (f) shares the following commonalties with Teichman’s definition of “terrorism.” First, both are what Teichman refers to as “narrow stipulative definitions” of “terrorism.” Secondly, (f) and Teichman’s definition agree that one “ought not to begin by defining terrorism as a bad thing” (Teichman, “How to Define Terrorism,” p. 507). Also note the stated goals of terrorism as being political, social, economic or religious. Such goals are discussed as possible motivations in Jessica Stern, The Ultimate Terrorists (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), Chapter 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    G. Wallace, “The Language of Terrorism,” International Journal of Moral and Social Issues, 8 (1993), p. 125.Google Scholar
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    Kai Nielsen, “Political Violence and Ideological Mystification,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 13 (1982), p. 25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  35. 35.
    Elsewhere Wellman minimizes the strength of the moral rights objection to terrorism because of related considerations. See Carl Wellman, “Terrorism and Moral Rights,” in John Howie, Editor, Ethical Principles and Practice (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), pp. 128–53.Google Scholar
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    Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, John Ladd, Translator (London: Macmillan, 1965); Jeffrie G. Murphy, “Does Kant Have a Theory of Punishment?” Columbia Law Review, 87 (1987), pp. 510–32; “Kant’s Theory of Criminal Punishment,” in Jeffrie G. Murphy, Editor, Retribution, Justice and Therapy: Essays in the Philosophy of Law (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), pp. 82–92; Kant’s Philosophy of Right (New York: St. Martin’s, 1970); J. Angelo Corlett, “Foundations of a Kantian Theory of Punishment,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 31 (1993), pp. 263–83; Responsibility and Punishment (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), Chapter 4.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    R.M. Hare, “On Terrorism,” in Joe. P. White, Editor, Assent/Dissent (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 247f. An alternative consequentialist analysis of the moral status of terrorism is found in Stephen T. Davis, “Is Terrorism Ever Morally Justified?” in Terrorism, Justice and Social Values, Creighton Peden and Y. Hudson, Editors (Lewiston: The Edwin Meilen Press, 1990), pp. 385–90.Google Scholar
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    Michael Walzer, Obligations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 67.Google Scholar
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    The analysis of morally justified terrorism provided in this section is not set forth as an analysis of certain historical cases of morally justified terrorism. One difficulty with either defending or condemning particular historical instances of terrorism is the media’s biases in presenting the “facts” of a given terrorist act or event. Much of what counts as news reports on terrorism amounts to little more than propaganda and is of little use to philosophers in their attempts to judge the moral status of such terrorist actions. Few, if any, reports of terrorism will attempt to provide information about the possibility that the action or event was a response to significant injustice, or that the terrorists were conscientious in selecting targets, and so forth. In light of these factors, then, the following analysis is set forth and defended as one pertaining to the possibility of morally justified terrorism. Its significance lies in the fact that it stands as a challenge to what Wallace calls “non-neutral” definitions of “terrorism,” ones which “either assert or recommend that moral wrongness is built into the definition of terrorism” ( Wallace, “The Language of Terrorism,” p. 127).Google Scholar
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    Wilkins, Terrorism and Collective Responsibility, p. 7. Wilkins admits that he is offering a partial analysis of morally justified terrorism.Google Scholar
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    “Terrorism is different, both conceptually and morally, from violence employed in self-defense” ( Primoratz, “What is Terrorism?” p. 133).Google Scholar
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    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 373.Google Scholar
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    This point is directed at Michael Walzer’s concern that the employment of terrorism is unjustifiable in that it fails to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants [Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, Third Edition (New York: Basic Books, 2000)].Google Scholar
  46. 48.
    Although Robert Young’s defense of the use of terrorism is, like mine, based for the most part on the “just war” tradition, our respective accounts differ in significant respects. First, I do not require that terrorism’s moral justification be a tactic of final resort, as Young’s account does. Nor does my view make use of an economic analysis of terrorism as Young’s does. Finally, my analysis of morally justified terrorism is far more dependent on the notion of a terrorist’s not harming innocents than is Young’s [Robert Young, “Revolutionary Terrorism, Crime, and Morality,” Social Theory and Practice, 4 (1977), pp. 287–302].Google Scholar
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    Hare, “On Terrorism,” p. 249. For a similar view of terrorism, see Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism and the Liberal State, Second Edition (New York: NYU Press, 1986), p. 56, where “terrorism” is defined as “the systematic use of murder and destruction, and the threat of murder and destruction, to terrorise individuals, groups, communities or governments into conceding to the terrorists’ political aims…. terroristic violence is characterized by its indiscriminateness, inhumanity, arbitrariness and barbarity.”Google Scholar
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    Primoratz, “What is Terrorism?” p. 130. Also see Jenny Teichman, “How to Define Terrorism,” p. 510: “Modern terrorism is not necessarily arbitrary in its choice of victims.” Perhaps the modern terrorist’s (sometimes) choice of specific victims is yet another sign of her sometimes rational behavior.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Angelo Corlett
    • 1
  1. 1.San Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA

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