Just Terrorism?

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.


  1. fche said,

    September 29, 2007 @ 6:10 am

    > Michael Walzer […] examines some interesting cases like the French partisans during World War II. Were their acts of resistance, which in many [ways] are similar to the actions of the Iraqi resistance today, justified or justifiable?

    They were in many ways similar? Blowing up school kids? markets full of civilians? aiming to terrorize the locals? I’d be shocked if any WW2 resistance did that sort of thing.

    > […] 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.

    From what I gather, the MNF officials do not describe attacks on their own personnel as terrorism either.

    But, regarding Iraq, your argument rests on the assumptions:

    – that there exists a state of invasion. This was undeniable back in 2003 versus Saddam, but since a democratic government in Iraq exists, and the MNF soldiers stay partly at its request, it is highly arguable.

    – that the opposition forces are waging legitimate self-defence. With the quantity of foreign control, funding, and outright perpetration of the attacks, this is highly arguable. Foreigners, or internecine fighters fomenting civil war cannot claim self-defence.

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    September 30, 2007 @ 5:50 pm

    The French partisans didn’t do anything like blowing up school kids. They were trying to attack the Germans, not other French people in general, so that wouldn’t have made any sense. But, according to Michael Walzer, they were often quite violent, and they didn’t hesitate in killing German civilians or French civilian collaborators. World War II was in any case hardly a walk in the park, and both sides of the war routinely killed civilians (this is of course a problem with Just War theory–the theory is not of much use if nobody follows it).

    Your point about the democratic government in Iraq is reasonable. On the other hand, the legitimacy of the government still seems somewhat suspect to me. The Sunni population boycotted the election, and were only brought into the government in a back room deal. I’m not sure how much legitimacy most Iraqis give to the government. Certainly there is very strong evidence that Shiite death squads, killing Sunnis, are in fact working directly for the Ministry of the Interior. Still, it’s a good point.

    As far as foreign control goes, though, I don’t see much evidence of that today. Al Queda in Mesopotamia is somewhat foreign controlled, in that it was founded by a Jordanian, but it also seems to have very little influence–even the Sunnis in Anbar province seem to be fighting against it now. The other major forces in Iraq seem to be entirely home grown. The most dangerous man in Iraq at the moment is probably Moktada al Sadr, and he is from a prominent Iraqi family. The U.S. has argued that Iran is supplying the insurgents, but the evidence presented publically so far doesn’t seem too strong, and they haven’t presented any evidence at all that it isn’t just Iranian forces opportunistically selling supplies for cash.

  3. solnul said,

    October 1, 2007 @ 9:40 pm

    Warfare has changed considerably since the days the theory was developed, and has become to a degree the war of all against all.

    I don’t think there’s a cause and effect relationship between total war and terrorism. However, they’re both responses to the same cause: greater availability of technology and communications in a population.

    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.

    IIRC civilized, polite, idealized warfare dodges this by drawing a line based on how directly, not whether, civilians suffer from military action.

    I.E., during wartime attakcs on farms and such would target property damage and lead to civilian deaths mostly when civilians got in the way. For whatever reason, bombing areas with lots of civilians is perceived differently from terrorism (not saying there aren’t differences–just an observation).

    After wartime, of course, one or both sides would go after civilians more directly, but using civilian means: courts, or monetary/property reparations. Interestingly, in many wars, two (or more) sides punished the other(s) this way.

  4. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 1, 2007 @ 9:58 pm

    Thanks for the note.

    One can of course draw a distinction between bombing and terrorism if the bombing is aimed at military targets; in that case the civilians are hurt as collateral damage, which is bad, but not as bad as directly targeting civilians. But of course the Germans in the Battle of Britain directly targeted civilians, and later England bombed Germany at night without little control over where their bombs landed, thus effectively targeting civilians even if they didn’t really say so. And the attacks on Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were not aimed at military targets.

    I suppose another distinction between bombing and terrorism is that one rarely uses the word terrorism to describe the actions of a state at war.

  5. ncm said,

    October 8, 2007 @ 9:53 am

    Distinguishing “terrorism” from “military action” based only on whether it is performed by a state is what we call “dishonesty”. Is a water treatment plant a “military target” if a military force carries out an attack on it, and are the (civilian) victims inside then “collateral damage” or simply (formerly) mobile targets?

    Inventing or re-deploying euphemisms is an effective way to tie yourself and your interlocutors in knots, and to prevent understanding. The only way I know to advance understanding is to eliminate euphemisms. Killing is killing. People are people. Some of those people killed may be in uniform, but they have mothers, wives, and children too, and often had no more choice in the matter than would a civilian. If you’re going to choose to kill people, your victims deserve at least to be treated honestly.

    Some muddiness is unavoidable: are the people killed in an explosion in town the target of the attack, or are the targets really their relatives who now live in fear, and may come to behave more to someone’s liking? If Americans behave with irrational fear in response to announcements by their own government, are they then its true target?

  6. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 8, 2007 @ 10:05 pm

    While I’m sympathetic to your point of view, I don’t agree with it in general. I agree that states can commit terrorism. But there is still a difference between an action by a state at war aimed at disabling the enemy’s ability to make war, and an action by terrorists aimed at scaring the population. Certainly it’s true that people are people, and so forth. But a country which is invaded has a right to strike back, and striking back may indeed cause civilian casualties in the other country, and that is regrettable but it is more morally acceptable than a terrorist attack. I think that the goal of the action really does matter. I can’t deny that the effects also matter. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally questionable. But I believe the 9/11 attack was morally worse.

  7. ncm said,

    October 9, 2007 @ 4:43 pm

    How does deliberately setting out to get people addicted to nicotine compare to 9/11?

  8. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 9, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

    I don’t know how to answer that. They are obviously both bad, but I’m not sure they are really commensurable. One would have to construct some sort of analysis based on people killed suddenly, on average at a younger age, vs. more people killed slowly at an older age. I’m not sure what we would learn by doing that analysis.

    I also don’t think one can neglect the historical dimension. Tobacco use was an established habit long before anybody thought it was unusually dangerous. That doesn’t make it OK to push tobacco on people who do not know the facts, but it’s not irrelevant.

    I have to admit that I’ve missed the connection to my post.

  9. ncm said,

    October 10, 2007 @ 1:47 pm

    The U.S. State Department has enforced economic sanctions against countries instituting programs to discourage tobacco use, and interfering with (e.g.) sale to minors. Failure of these programs results in many more civilian deaths in those countries than were killed on 9/11, albeit stretched out over a longer period. Is there any fundamental difference between that and a conventional “act of war”?

    Tobacco executives walk about freely in New York, while bin Laden and his followers (purportedly) huddle in caves, with bombs dropped anywhere he’s thought to visit.

    The question was meant to elicit discussion of what it supposed to be fundamentally different about a lot of people dying in one place and one minute, vs. stretched out over a city and year. (The number of people killed in the WTC on 9/11 is similar to the number who died of lung cancer in New York City the same year.) One case was used to justify a trillion dollars in military spasmodics, while the instigators of the other, commensurate mass killing (and the previous and subsequent killings in other years) are handed the best of everything our society has to offer.

    I’m raising the question of what makes an attack that justifies a counter-attack. It’s customary in this sort of discussion to make a wide variety of artificial distinctions that, when you trace them down, don’t amount to a real difference.

  10. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 10, 2007 @ 7:47 pm

    I feel that those distinctions to amount to a real difference. Context matters.

    Obviously I’m opposed to economic sanctions against programs to prevent tobacco use. That’s a no-brainer. On the other hand, it would be absurd to attribute all tobacco deaths in those countries to the sanctions. We do have those programs in this country, and we still have lots of tobacco deaths.

    And selling tobacco is not and (I believe) should not be illegal. It should be illegal for a company selling tobacco to lie about its effects, and some companies were punished for that, though unfortunately not in very useful ways. But it should not be illegal for the company to sell tobacco.

    So I really do see a lot of differences between tobacco executives and bin Laden.

  11. ncm said,

    October 11, 2007 @ 2:16 am

    I see a large difference between selling tobacco to addicts — they’ll get it somehow, as addicts do — and seducing teenagers into addiction. I don’t, though, find much difference between the latter and mowing them down with a machine gun. Do you?

  12. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 11, 2007 @ 7:08 pm

    Do I see a difference between trying to convince a teenager to smoke a cigarette and shooting them? Yes, I do.

    When considering policy, we should in general only consider effects. That is why we make it illegal to market cigarettes to teenagers.

    When considering morality, we should also consider intention. That is a core argument of just war theory. It is also true of Catholic dogma in general–I think it was George Carlin who joked that if you thought about doing something bad, you might as well go ahead and do it, since just the thought was a sin.

    Since we consider intention, we do not penalize people who break the law about marketing cigarettes to teenagers in the same way that we penalize people who commit murder.

  13. ncm said,

    October 12, 2007 @ 12:54 am

    It may seem a fine point, but I was not talking about marketing of cigarettes to kids, but rather actually succeeding in getting them addicted. An actuarially known fraction of those will die horribly after an actuarially known interval.

    Somebody firing a machine gun into a crowd isn’t gunning for anybody in particular. Most likely only a fraction of those present will be killed or maimed. The gunner doesn’t expect to do them all in; he’s just deriving twisted satisfaction from the act. The tobacco marketing exec, likewise, doesn’t know the kids he succeeds in tricking into addiction and, eventually, cancer, and doesn’t care; he just collects his bonus checks. (BTW, there’s no law against marketing tobacco to kids; it’s only for actually selling it to them, which the exec doesn’t do. Cf. Joe Camel.)
    The gunner isn’t committing murder; he doesn’t know who will die, and neither does the exec.

    How are they different, objectively, other than the immediacy? (How, then, about a pharmacist who taints pills with radium?) Is it that the kids think they’re getting something out of smoking, even after they’ve become addicted? Or that they know lots of people die of cancer, even though they don’t understand addiction?

    I’m distrustful of reasoning about intention. People lie about their intentions, both to others and often to themselves; almost everybody’s the hero of his own movie. Just about any action can be justified given enough falsehoods, and even without deception what seems to one person like good intentions may look to me like pure evil. I can offer lots of examples. (Inculcating kids into a religion may be one.)

    I don’t argue that killing is always wrong. I have argued for execution of public officials and corporate executives who abuse the power of their office to lethal effect. I just want to see honest evaluation without mixing in super-irrational (TM) considerations via euphemisms and artificial distinctions. If you say two acts of killing differ morally or ethically, I think you should be ready to identify how, without appealing to euphemisms or to historically arbitrary social conventions.

  14. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 12, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

    I don’t think I’m using euphemisms or historically arbitrary social conventions. I’m trying to say what I think, and I don’t think the social conventions are historically arbitrary. I think that social conventions are rooted deeply in what we believe to be right or wrong.

    Certainly reasoning about intentions is difficult and error-prone, but that doesn’t mean that we can disregard them when judging the morality of an action. When murderers believe that they were obeying the orders of a voice nobody else could hear, we don’t put them in jail; we put them in an asylum.

    You explicitly disregard the immediacy, but the immediacy does actually matter. It is worse for me to kill today than to kill you twenty years from now, just as it is better for me to give you $100 today than $1000 in twenty years.

    Addiction is not certain death. It merely significantly increases the chances of death. Addiction to smoking can be beaten. Giving a teenager a fast sports car also significantly increases the chance of death; we frown on that, but we don’t forbid it.

    Obviously, I’m not saying that getting teenagers addicted is right. I think it is wrong. (Since you bring up Joe Camel, don’t forget that that character was banned and is no longer used.) I’m just saying that I don’t believe that addicting teenagers to cigarettes is as wrong as shooting into a crowd.

    I understand that you may not accept the bases of my arguments, but they do exist. I’m not reasoning arbitrarily, I’m not using euphemisms, and I’m not relying on invalid historical information. I’m saying that context matters, that intentions matter, that we can’t judge morality purely on ends.

  15. ncm said,

    October 16, 2007 @ 11:03 pm

    I’m really not trying to be a pest. The rights and wrongs of terrorism and invasion need sincere exploration. It’s just that it seems to me one reason such explorations always seem to fail is the muddy reasoning that comes with muddy terminology.

    Does it make sense to talk about the rights of a state? The people it is supposed to represent are accorded rights, including that of having a state act on their behalf, defending them against attacks by, if necessary, killing the attackers. In that case, though, the state is acting on a responsibility, not a right. If the state doesn’t actually represent the people, does it even have that?

    Marketing doesn’t produce certain addiction, and addiction doesn’t produce certain death. However, forty years on, on the day those thousands who rolled snake-eyes do suffer agonizing deaths, the people who chose to seduce the teenagers they had been are still alive and still walking around loose. Is it worse to set off a bomb with a 30-second fuse than to set a 12-hour timer?

  16. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 17, 2007 @ 7:43 pm

    Does it make sense to talk about the rights of a state? I suppose that I would say: only as a proxy for the state acting on behalf of its citizens. I agree that in a dictatorship the state has very limited rights.

    If you tell people about the bomb (or if somebody else does), then, yes, it is worse to use a 30-second fuse than a 12-hour timer. If the bomb is a secret, then it doesn’t really matter.

    I do agree that people who lie about cigarettes are acting immorally and deserve jail time. So they aren’t necessarily walking around loose forty years on.

  17. ncm said,

    October 17, 2007 @ 10:14 pm

    Did anybody go to jail over the Joe Camel campaign? It first ran in 1988, so by now we should be seeing the first wave of cancers from addictions it instigated. It wasn’t taken down until 1997.

    Has anybody really ever gone to jail for lying to kids about cigarettes, or are you speaking of what would happen if you got to choose?

  18. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 18, 2007 @ 7:38 am

    I’m speaking of what would happen if I got to choose. Our society has chosen to punish the tobacco companies which knowingly lied with fines. I think it would have been appropriate to also put many of the people involved in jail.

  19. ncm said,

    October 18, 2007 @ 3:50 pm

    I really do want to get back to the original topic.

    First, people inclined to terrorism will rationalize it no matter what reasoning we express, so there’s no point in muzzling ourselves.

    Second, if we want to establish that terrorism (against ourselves, presumably) is morally unacceptable (and thus, presumably, worthy of worldwide support for exterminating terrorists involved, along with anybody who’s ever spoken on the phone with one), the first and most important step seems to me not to engage in it ourselves. In recent years that has proven difficult, what with U.S forces finding themselves bombing wedding parties, mowing down civilians at checkpoints, blowing up water treatment plants, and the like.

    What might make terrorism against Americans, in the face of such provocations, as immoral as the provocations, is that more half of us voted (or tried to vote) against offering the opportunity to commit those provocations to the individuals directly responsible. In fact, a large majority of the victims of your typical NYC terrorist attack probably voted against them. It might demand too much to expect us to rise up in arms against them, even though that is exactly what was demanded of the Iraqi people before the invasion.

    I’m not always prepared to make a hard distinction between soldiers and civilians. Killing a draftee, in particular, is hardly different from killing a civilian. If the draftee is actively shooting at you, killing him might be necessary, but that’s the same for a civilian.

    It seems an important distinction whether you’re shooting at someone so that, having been shot, they can’t shoot at you any more, vs. shooting at someone so that, having been shot, their relatives and friends will be afraid and will do what you want. I think the former cannot be terrorism (despite how their family might feel about the event) while the latter certainly is. Again, uniforms don’t really make a difference.

    The problem with reasoning clearly on matters like this is that if you are honest you end up accusing people on “our side” of terrorism, mass manslaughter, and worse. Often “our side” will be found to have engaged in far worse atrocities than “them”. That doesn’t excuse “them” (except insofar as what “they” do can rationally be calculated to make us, or persuade us to, stop doing it), but it does mean we are criminally remiss if we fail to prosecute those responsible on “our side”. If we do so fail, then we don’t deserve anybody’s support.

    That seems to be how Germany and France see matters, and no wonder.

  20. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 18, 2007 @ 8:32 pm

    The uniforms matter at least a bit, because putting on a uniform implies agreement with the Geneva conventions. It may sound silly to have rules for war, but we do. I imagine it sounds less silly to POWs–at least to POWs held by countries which respect the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. used to be one of those countries, but, sadly, no longer is.

    I don’t agree that people inclined to terrorism will rationalize it no matter what. Terrorism is a means of what is now called asymmetric warfare. If you would like to gather your army and invade another country, but you are not so fortunate as to actually have an army, then you resort to terrorism. If you don’t have any motive to attack another country, then you don’t have any reason to engage in terrorism.

    We will always have crazy people who shoot strangers at schools. We will not always have terrorists.

  21. ncm said,

    October 22, 2007 @ 12:30 pm

    We will always have crazy people who shoot strangers at schools. We will not always have terrorists.

    Funny, I would have said the opposite. We have always had terrorists (and even been them, at times) but shootings at schools seem a recent phenomenon.

    If somebody has a motive to attack another country, our choice to discuss such motives won’t affect their choice whether to proceed. I insist we should feel free to discuss any aspect, no matter how repugnant its implications, if it leads to better understanding.

    Getting back to the original topic, the saints A. knew no Geneva conventions. Designating soldiers as always fair game for wholesale slaughter can only be a purely practical choice, not a moral one. Anybody who argued against wholesale slaughter of uniformed soldiers would lose all chance of being taken seriously, but that’s a practical argument, not an honest moral one. War would be more complicated if you had to decide every time you were about to blow somebody up whether it was really called for, but why shouldn’t war be complicated?

    Sure, that makes things easier for the bad guys, but (again!) that’s a practical matter. We get nowhere if we’re not honest about that.

  22. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    October 22, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

    I think we’ve always had people who snap and start attacking those around them. School shootings specifically are recent because easy access to firearms is recent. I could be certainly wrong about this; it could be societal.

    I’m not sure where you’re going with the rest of your comment. It seems to be directed at somebody else, or else I am misreading it.

  23. Airs - Ian Lance Taylor » Just More War said,

    October 22, 2007 @ 10:00 pm

    […] Nathan made a long series of comments on my earlier post on terrorism and Just War theory. I’m going to try to reset a bit. […]

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