Back in August I wrote about the idea that in a democracy we all share responsibility for the actions of our government. Frank, one of my three loyal readers (and I do appreciate all of you), commented that this was a good way to rationalize to terrorism, and I agreed. Frank replied again to say that he found that to be unconscionable.
It’s an interesting issue which deserves some more thought, so I’m going to respond in a full blog posting. I think it’s very clear which conclusion we want to reach: we want to consider terrorism to be morally unacceptable. I still think that we have to keep the premise: in a democracy, we are all responsible for the actions of our government. We can’t disclaim our leaders simply because we voted for the other person. We are all part of the same society.
If our government invades another country, then I think the people in that country have a moral right to resist the invasion. Note that I’m not saying that they should resist, and I’m also not saying that our government must never invade another country. I’m just saying that they have a right to resist if they choose, just as we would have the right to resist an invasion of our country.
So if they have a right to resist, and if we all share moral responsibility for the actions of our government, then do they have the right to attack us directly, even if we are not ourselves invading, and even if we personally oppose the invasion? That is, do they have the right to launch a terrorist attack on the citizens of our country? After all, we share morally responsible for the invasion, and they have the moral right to resist that invasion.
The most obvious thing to springs to my mind here is Just War theory, which an old tradition rooted in early Christian thinkers, notably St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Just War theory discusses both when it is morally permissible to start a war, and what conduct is morally permissible during war. The best book I’ve read on the subject is Just and Unjust Wars, by Michael Walzer. He examines some interesting cases like the French partisans during World War II. Were their acts of resistance, which in many are similar to the actions of the Iraqi resistance today, justified or justifiable?
Just War theory draws a clear distinction between civilians and military personnel. During wartime, attacking military personnel is permitted. Attacking civilians is not. So Just Ware theory is clear: terrorism is absolutely immoral, even if the people you are attacking carry a moral responsibility for the war.
Is Just War theory valid? It’s difficult to say. Warfare has changed considerably since the days the theory was developed, and has become to a degree the war of all against all. Can the actions of the people who willingly grow the food which is purchased from them and shipped to the soldiers be entirely innocent of the actions of the soldiers? I’m not sure the answer is wholly clear.
Still, the distinction between soldiers and civilians makes sense, and I’m willing to stick to it for now. So terrorism is morally unacceptable. Thank goodness: we have reached the desired conclusion.
It follows that the Islamist theorists who justify terrorist bombings by arguing that every Israeli is morally responsible are wrong. They are right in saying that every Israeli is at least partially responsible; they are wrong in saying that this justifies terrorism. There is no justification for terrorism.
Of course it also follows that attacks on soldiers are morally acceptable, and it follows further that we should not use the name “terrorism” to describe such attacks. For a time the U.S. press fell into the trap of describing bombs aimed at U.S. soldiers as terrorist attacks. More recently they have been referring to those bombs correctly as armed resistance to an invasion. Similarly the attack on the U.S. Marines in 1983 in Lebanon is sometimes incorrectly referred to as terrorism; that, too, was armed resistance, not terrorism.