Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Assassination and Terrorism

by Adam Johnson

In Chapter 12 of Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer addresses several of the issues surrounding terrorism. Numerous times in this discourse on terrorism, the concept of assassination is also discussed. Though he flirts dangerously close to conflating these two categories of actions at times, Walzer eventually settles on drawing a somewhat odd and particularly blurred lined between the moral standing of terrorists and that of assassins of political figures. This peculiar stance can be seen by his conclusion on the young Russian assassin of the Grand Duke and the Stern Gang assassins of Lord Moyne. All three of these assassins were executed for their actions, and Walzer states “The treatment to me seems appropriate, even if we share the political judgments of the men involved and defend their resort to violence.” (201) This position stands out as bizarre as it borderline nonsensical in terms of moral philosophy – here Walzer claiming it is appropriate for us to punish individuals for engaging in behavior we have justified ideologically and pragmatically. Not being satisfied with this one direction of thought, Walzer also provides this: “On the other hand, even if we do not share their judgments, these men are entitled to a kind of moral respect…because they set limits to their actions.” (201) Again, this is a rather boggling position to take, as to respect those who enact morally reprehensible sequences, even if it is limited, is absolutely contrary to intuition. Indeed, it seems to imply one ought to commend a rapist if he only assaults adults and refrains from molesting minors. Now despite my harsh criticism of Walzer here, I think he is on the right track in separating terrorists and assassins and can be salvaged to some extent. Thusly, the purpose of this paper will be to present in clearer terms this rift between terrorism and assassinations as well as the rule utilitarian implications derived from this separation.

Before drawing a precise line between terrorism and assassination, it is necessary to first establish a working definition of what constitutes a terrorist act. The UN International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings declares that detonating a lethal device in a public place with the intent of causing serious bodily harm or extensive destruction of the facility constitutes terrorism. It is not clear to me how this distinguishes from acts of war typically regarded as legitimate such as artillery or air support for ground forces, who themselves may be in violation of this convention by their own personal armaments such as hand grenades or rocket launchers. This is one area where I feel Walzer has succeeded for the most part, so I will turn to his definition (with a few minor tweaks) rather that of the above mentioned UN Convention. In general, Walzer pins modern day terrorism as “the totalitarian form of war and politics.” (203) Earlier in the chapter he is more specific and states that terrorism is an extreme form of indirect war that has the purpose undermining the morale and spreading fear throughout the general populace typically by means of random murder of the innocent and noncombatants (197). There are two important qualifications that must be taken from this definition – motive and methodology. That the motive must be essentially to strike fear into the average citizen of the state (or ethnic group) is easy enough to buy into simply virtue that the word is terrorism. The methodology clause on the other hand, has some interesting implications that I do not think Walzer covered directly enough. He is correct in asserting that terrorism is typically and effectively carried out via the random slaughter of noncombatants. However, this skims over the particular aspect of this method that actually strikes fear into the populace – the threat of such slaughter occurring again in the future. From this it can be drawn that political rhetoric warning of a false threat or greatly exaggerating a real threat can be construed to a certain extent as terrorism.

With this definition of terrorism in terms of motive and methodology it becomes quite clear that this is a much different sort of thing altogether than assassinations of political figures. The purpose of an assassination is not to inspire fear in the general masses, but rather instead to cut the head off the snake that is the enemy with which you are at war. Traditionally, politicos are viewed as noncombatant targets which leads to a comparison between assassins and terrorists as both directly attack nonmilitary targets. However, it is unfair in most cases to conflate common citizens (even if they approve of the actions of the government) to those in leadership positions in a government – the difference in the amount of control between these two groups in terms of what the government or organization chooses to do is obvious enough. This is especially true in nation-states governed by totalitarian dictatorships in which the citizens have effectively no control in the workings of the government. Indeed, it is hard to ignore the hand political leaders play in waging a war, and it seems to revoke the noncombatant status they enjoy. However, this is not to say all politicians are immediately to be regarded as combatants and thus assassinated. Walzer issues this caveat as such: “Assuming that the regime is in fact oppressive, one should look for agents of oppression and not simply for government agents.” (202) This again serves to illustrate perhaps the most prominent distinction between assassination and terrorism – methodology. The concept of assassination is concerned with the precise elimination of offenders whilst sparing innocents and noncombatants, while the terrorist philosophy preys randomly and widely on this classification of individuals. Indeed, assassination and terrorism are quintessential opposites where methodology is concerned.

All of this has very specific implications when evaluating terrorism and assassination in terms of rule utilitarianism. In short – terrorism is out and assassination can be in. Even assuming terrorism to have good intentions, the methodology is so poor that utility will never be maximized by an act of terror. Even ignoring the pain caused directly by the random slaughter of innocents, the widespread panic and fear inspired by these acts of terrorism (which effectively constitute total war) generates far too much pain for the means to be justified. Assassination in the proper context, however, is effectively derived from utilitarian thought. The motive is specifically to reduce unnecessary pain and suffering by killing the individual most responsible for oppression or unjust wars rather than engaging in a war that will certainly result in the loss of innocents and noncombatants.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I'm really just going to point to my post on SG's paper, below. Assassination is another approach to terrorism (not in all cases, mind you). There are times, say when an actual government has another government's head-honcho offed that does fall in line with what you are talking about. However, when non-national groups start doing this sort of thing, it is to convey a specific message about their ability to kill who they want, when they want. Look up Indira Gandhi some time (that particular assassination was for both revenge and a message that the Sikhs were capable of exacting that revenge).

10:46 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

i disagree, i think that when one evaluates the situation then come to ones own conclusion. this is a good, essay the topic is very contriversal and i comend you for your views. Yes Non national affilated groups send out a different message then lets say, one specific person. Overall this is an intresting topic and i liked your essay

12:31 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Adam says- From this it can be drawn that political rhetoric warning of a false threat or greatly exaggerating a real threat can be construed to a certain extent as terrorism.

Does this include global warming rhetoric/exaggerations? Or the dire threat of Social Security reform? Terrorism? No. Why? Because they are not randomly slaughtering the people they are trying to convince.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

I do agree that assassination is different from terrorism, and I also agree that political figures are possible targets during a war due to their status and their involvement in the start of a war. I think that they are valid targets of assassination, but I agree with Mitch in the fact that I think the assassination has to be done or ordered done by a nation rather than a non-national group.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

Assassination can be used as terrorism, and I would say that no matter what your intention, it will send out the idea that your organization can kill whoever they want when they want (as Mitch has said). Regardless of whether or not you meant it to do that, or whether you really are trying to kill some insane dictator...

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

Assisinations must be linked to nation states, or they would wind up being considered terrorism. As I see it, only a nation state can wage a just war. I hesitate to say that terrorism will never maximize utility....but I'd be lying if I could give an example.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

I'm torn between the two ideals here. On the one hand assassination and terrorism do seem to be separate but I also think that, depending on the situation, assassination could probably be used as a form of terrorism. If a soldier should be aware that his life is in danger because of his job, shouldn't a government official be aware of the same thing? The president especially. And also, isn't it an act of terrorism to attack a government building? (such as the attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City) If it is true, then couldn't the assassination of a government official be viewed in the same way? But then again, the mailman is a government employee. I don't really know if the assassination of the mailman would constitute as an act of terrorism. Assassination and terrorism, separate but equal? Hmmm...we all know how that phrase works (or doesn't).

10:54 AM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

Mitch - I looked up the Indira Gandhi case, and I'm not convinced the purpose was anything more than to kill the person who enacted the attack on the Golden Temple. It was not random, it was not against an innocent, and I don't interpret it to be about inspiring fear. Thusly, I do not buy it as terrorism.

To Rick - I specifically stated 'to a certain extent' so as to avoid making such a strong claim, I should've clarified that a little more, but oh well. However, consider this scenario: A man shoots and kills a couple in a city street in the process of robbing them. The media then covers this story constantly for 3 weeks, constantly sending the message that this sort of thing happens all the time to everybody, when in fact it is an extremely limited and rare circumstance. I wouldn't say either the murderer or the media are terrorists per se, but the combination seems to reek strongly of terrorism to me.

Some of you also seem to be making the move that an act being done by extra-national groups is part of it becoming terrorism. I am having trouble thinking of an example of any other action that is defined so specifically by who did it, so to make that move in this case seems to me to be a mistake.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

I wouldn't say that political rhetoric could ever be construed as terrorism because it lacks the violence necessary for an act to be a terrorist one, but I do believe that political rhetoric can aid to inflate a terrorist threat.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Nikola Jankovic said...

I can honestly say that I feel stupider for reading that wall of useless verbiage. If only I stopped reading when you compared selectively killing a political figure to selective rape.

2:38 PM  
Blogger deever said...

Hello, I had been looking for differences between terrorism and assassinations, and found the description here quite interesting. In this regard, I like to hear your views on the murder of Mahatma Gandhi: he was glaringly assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in a public gathering with a gun. Would the murderer be considered an anti-national for having killed the father of the nation? I see one of you remark on the killing of a mailman: I trust the individual value of a founding father is far greater than that of a mailman's when it comes to political affairs although by no means I discount a mailman's life ... Looking forward to hearing from one or many of you.

7:06 AM  

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