Friday, July 28, 2006

Terrorism: Always Bad?

In my latest post on the definition of terrorism, I came to the conclusion that terrorism is an action targeting civilians (whether by violence or threat of violence) with the intention of inciting fear in other civilians. The implicit assumption was that terrorism is always a bad, evil thing.

But Mister Pregunto, in his usual style, has raised an interesting question. He states
[T]he use of limited terror against citizens in pursuit of strategic aims is a time-honoured military practice. Terror doesn't always mean the wanton murder of civilians. Terror as a tool can be, and has been, employed in various ways and degrees for strategic military or political purposes. For example, threats against a people can be used to force its military to weaken its grip on that which is militarily important in order to go to the defence of the people. It also may be used with the intent to coerce the people into ending a war sooner. What else was the point of Sherman's march to the sea?

Arguably, there may be many cases where the use of terror in this way has shortened the duration of wars.

Under what circumstances is the strategic use of terror ethical?
And to that I state: Excellent question! Sherman's march to the sea is only one example. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are other examples of what could be considered terrorist actions under my definition, and yet I would approve of them.

What makes the atomic bombings good and the World Trade Center attacks bad? What is it that separates them?

An argument in favor of the atomic bombings is that theoretically it prevented far more deaths than it caused. The Japanese government and people would not have capitulated to military force very easily, and many more people may have died in a conventional war than from the two nuclear attacks. The attacks were designed to make Japan think twice about the consequences of continued war and to force a surrender. The 9/11 attacks, on the other hand, were not to end a war but rather to . . . I don't know, and I don't suppose I could ever understand what they hoped to accomplish. Could it be that they perceived they were already in a war, and that they were trying to end it?

But now you see that I'm throwing motive into the discussion, and I had previously avoided doing so. Perhaps it is unavoidable.

We can't draw the line between "good" terrorism and "bad" terrorism on any basis related to who the aggressor is. We were the aggressors in the current Iraq war, but that doesn't make it OK for people to attack and execute our civilians just because they're Americans, or British, or whoever.

So I think I'm going to have to go back to the discussion in my post on (Just?) War yet again. The analysis is a cost-benefit one. Terrorism is not necessarily evil. You need to take into account the costs and benefits of any particular terrorist attack in order to determine its desirability. I'm going to quote myself here:
No matter how just your motivations are for going to war, if you target civilians your war becomes less just. Attacking only military targets is more just. Also, any tactics that reduce the total number of casualties (on both sides) are more just.
So I'm going to have to go back on myself and state that motivation is actually important, because it's part of the calculus of determining whether the war is "just". You need to consider the alternatives as well as the motivation for the attack.

And this makes the whole situation a lot muddier.

My conclusion? If a nation (or organization) wants to be respected in the world scene, they need to keep my original definition of terrorism in mind. If they ever consider using terrorist tactics, they must first have an extremely good reason for attacking in the first place (eradication of the Jews, for example, would not be a very good one), and they must consider and discount all other possible alternatives. Terrorism is a last resort.

The problem arises, however, that terrorism is perhaps the only realistic option for certain groups that have limited resources. These groups also feel that their motivations are quite just, and in fact commanded by their god. How do you explain to them that their actions are not justified? You can't.

So, perhaps, we need to apologize profusely for any terrorist tactics that we've ever used and refrain from ever using them again in the future, no matter the cost. In this way, we set an example to follow.

Or perhaps this cost is too great.

An unsolvable dilemma.


  1. As I understand it, Japan probably would have crumbled anyway without the nuclear bombs, although that may only be obvious in hindsight. I am not particularly interested into getting into that particular discussion as I am very much in two minds about it anyway.

    You hit on the reason, later on, why some might resort to terrorist methods- because they are unable to utilise any other. Certainly the Palestinians are in this position- if they want a millitary response this is. It must be pointed out that ther was not always that level of extremism in the attacks of Palestine, it has been created by 50 years of oppression by Isreal. I do not seek to claim that such actions are moral, but they are, perhaps, comparable to that of the French resistance against the Nazis- after all, land that had been theirs for quite a long time was suddenly taken away from them. This is mostly the fault of Britain, of course, who clumsily mismanaged ethnic tensions as we always did in empire.

    I'm not entirely sure of my point here, only to say that when you start targeting civillians, no matter how noble your cause, or how down trodden your people, the waters start getting very murky.

    Unfortunately rationality is rarely introducted into the middle east- realistically Isreal is not going to cease to exist, and realistically you are no going to get rid of Hamas (or organisations similar to it) without killing every last Palestinian. I don't think anyone's quite at that point yet.

  2. I've always believed that dropping the atomic bombs on cities was unnecessary and purely for the purposes of investigating the destructive effects thereof. A burst over Tokyo Bay, with advance warning, might have been more than sufficient. (With the threat that the next one would target a city, of course.)

    I also don't buy the "no other recourse" excuse; it's morally stunted. But then children are always amused by things that go boom.

    The world seems to have forgotten the examples of Gandhi and others. Killing is wrong. Period.

  3. Most systems of ethics favor some type of procedural, prospective approach to decision-making. In other words, guidance on how to act is provided in terms of how to make a particular decision while looking forward with the information you have now.

    Hindsight analysis is always 20/20. One can easily look back and find benefits of a particular bad or unethical act, but that doesn't make it ethical, in no small part because at the time the decision was made, there outcome couldn't have been known. Dropping an atom bomb on Japan may have saved more lives than it took, but that's of little consolation to those who died or suffered for years with radiation burns, scars and cancer. I highly doubt they would agree that having that decision foisted upon them involved a net gain, even if it saved lives. They did not choose to make that sacrifice.

    So, it is very difficult to ignore the perspective dependence and the value laden attributes of such a question. The conclusion changes with the perspective, and their is no global, objective, supreme perspective from which to conduct an analysis.