Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Problems with Terrorism

by Steven Grueshaber

We all know that wars are terrible things. This seems evident from Michael Walzer's constant reiteration of "War is Hell." Our goal in constructing a theory of just war should be to limit the number of wars and to limit the amount of suffering caused by those that do occur. My goal is to examine the concept of terrorism and to determine how we should treat it in our just war theory.

In order for an action to be considered an act of terrorism there are a few criteria that it must meet. Generally speaking, it must be an act of violence. When we think of terrorism we often concoct images of airplanes crashing into buildings or bombs causing large explosions. While other violent actions could be construed as terrorist in nature, the catastrophic images help to demonstrate another crucial factor in terrorism: Fear. Considering that 'terror' is the basis for the word it seems necessary that it is also an integral factor in the definition of the term. An act cannot be considered terrorism if it does not instill fear upon the target populace, whether it is fear for their life, liberty, or safety. In order for this to occur the victims must be random or seemingly random. In his discussion on terrorism, Walzer gives examples of political assassinations. These, however, cannot be considered acts of terrorism. While they are definitely violent acts, the targets are not chosen at random but are government officials. Unless the average person is a government official there will be no real fear for their own safety. The fear comes from not knowing whether or not they will be next with the distinct possibility that they could be.

One last criterion I want to mention is the requirement of an agenda. This basically rules out accidental terrorism. I'm not sure how someone could accidentally blow up a public restaurant or something, but if he did so I do not believe that you could call him a terrorist. The agenda does not necessarily have to be a bad one. For example, take Robert Fullinwider's discussion of the September 11th attack and his statements on Osama bin Laden. "'Millions of innocent children are being killed as I speak,' he [bin Laden] declared, children who are dying in Iraq as a putative consequence of the economic embargo imposed on that state by an American-led coalition. Osama bin Laden purported to act on behalf of innocence. Why should he not calculate, as [Thomas] Jefferson implied, that shedding the blood of a few now may save the lives and liberty of many others in the long run." It is entirely likely that bin Laden truly believes that he is doing the right thing. While I would never argue that the events of September 11th were morally justifiable, I will concede that there could be acts of terrorism that are justifiable. It is possible that a terrorist act would in fact produce an increase in long-term utility. Violent revolutionaries may often use this argument as a justification for their acts. While terrorism may have in fact furthered their supposedly noble agendas I doubt that it often resulted in an increase in utility, if in fact it ever has. As I've stated before, terrorism works by inspiring fear in the populace. That is a lot of displeasure involved in the pursuit of some organiziation's or individual's goals. In utilitarian terms, the ends only justify the means if they outweigh the means. For a terrorist act to be justified in utilitarian grounds the ends will have to be pretty significant. This does not refer to only the desired ends, but the actual ends as well. How likely are terrorist acts going to result in the culmination of the terrorist's goals?

Let's look at the events of September 11th as an example. This meets all of the criteria for a terrorist act. It was obviously an act of violence; planes were hijacked and flown into buildings. While the buildings that were targeted were not chosen by random, the people inside and around the buidings were. People feared for their lives and the lives of their loved ones so much that some were later willing to trade in their liberties to secure they safety. The terrorists definitely had an agenda because the operation was well planned out. What were the results of the terrorist acts? There were an obscene number of United States casualties as well as the lives of the hijackers themselves. There was a much larger amount of people that suffered as a result of grief over lost family members and friends as well from the fear inspired by the terrorist attack. While bin Laden's goals my very well have been good ones there is no way that his actions were wise or moral. As a result of his actions Americans as a whole are even more despicable of and hostile to the Iraqi people and Middle-Eastern people in general. We invaded Afghanistan as a result and it even acted as a catalyst for the current war in Iraq. Rather than improving the living conditions of people in Iraq we have a situation in which most people are worse off. This is generally how terrorism pans out. There is a lot of suffering followed by the slim chance of a gain in long-term utility when that same end-utility could possibly be reached through other means. Barring omniscience, I don't think I could be convinced that any terrorist act would be the best course of action. The rule-utilitarian in me is willing to dismiss terrorism on these grounds. Now all that is needed is to apply this to just war theory.

For those you unwilling to adhere to wise moral theories, terrorism is already pretty much ruled out by our current incarnation of just war theory. Noncombatant immunity covers this very well. Terrorism works by causing the populace to fear for their lives, liberty, and safety. If the noncombatants are unable to be harmed then they do not have much to be afraid of. Combatants, however, are viable targets in a war. Some may argue that a terrorist act could be performed against these people and cause them fear. I argue that any combatant should already be afraid for their lives by recognizing that they are already involved in a war and are legitimate targets for enemy attacks. Any attack on a combatant would not be considered an act of terrorism. However, we may end up with some sort of loophole that could still allow for some form of terrorism so adding 'no terrorism' to our jus in bello list is the logical thing to do.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I don't know just how much weight I would put behind the 'random factor.' While one of the possible methods of terrorism would be to create in the public a fear based on the possibility of an attack at any time or any place IS valid, there remains the idea that (such as was your example about government assassinations) no matter how well guarded we may think we are... we are certainly more vulnerable.

There is also the issue, worthy of consideration, that terrorism is a last-ditch effort in the face of an enemy that is (on a traditional basis) nearly invulnerable. I think of it as something like a wounded dog. It doesn't matter if you are even making an attempt to assist the mutt, it will at least try to bite you before it dies.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

all the issues you have with terrorism are valid and i have no argument with them. i think that terrorism can be planned for many years and doesnt always have to be a last resort i mean look at 9 11.
this was a good essay, and you make some good arguments here

12:34 AM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

I agree with your stance that terrorism is thrown out by just war doctrine as being a valid part of war. I do think though that terrorism does have its place and can be justifiable as you mentioned. The only problem I see with that is that in most cases the targets are civilians, so it brings up a moral dilemma for me about when exactly it is justified.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

I know I'm likely to get hit on all sides for this, but I really have a problem with stating that terrorism can be justified.

Yes, yes, I know - we can all draw a picture of the United States attacking someone like Ethopia (wow, there I go with that example again), and we would say that if we were to do something like that, Ethopia has no other way to fight back.

I cant quite point out what it is, without immediately seeing where the flaws are, but there is just something about this notion that I dont like.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I don't find the idea of terrorism being justified palatable, whatsoever. However, that has not stopped us from using such tactics in the past (think Hiroshima). But hey, that just makes us bad people. Surprise!

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

I agree that terrorism does not fit the criteria of the just war doctrine. Most specifically because of the non-combatant issue. I do have a slight problem with accepting that an act of terrorism could be justified in and of itself. Just because someone believes that they are in the right does not mean that their actions can be justified. John Wilkes Booth believed he was acting in the right when he assassinated President Lincoln but that doesn't mean his actions were/are morally jusitfiable. (I do not use this example as an act of terrorism.) Good paper.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

Yeah the idea of justified terrorism just sounds awful, but hey it wouldn't be the first time ulititarianism allowed for something we don't think should be allowed. For this reason I think the move to rule-utility and just war theory to throw it out is quite desirous.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

Utilitarian concerns can justify any action assuming the situation is right, terrorism included. I do not believe, however, that any situation ever will exist and even less so that we would be able to recognize it. Hence my banning it on rule-utilitarian grounds.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

Unfortuanately, I'm typing this after class due to "network issues," but I would say...like I said in class...Assuming the war is justifiable I cannot think of a good reason to say that terrorism is wrong...in certain circumstances.

7:39 PM  

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