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. I recall reading something by Isaac Asimov, a patriotic American of Russian origin, wherein he made (what I thought at the time was) a strong argument that the main reason for nuking Japan was to keep Russia from gaining a sphere of influence in Japan. It seems the Allies had an agreement that Russia would declare war on Japan once victory in Europe was achieved. Of course, their efforts would have helped speed the end of the war in the Pacific, but it would also have entitled them to have bases in Japan and to generally increase their control in the East. Meanwhile, the Americans were already beating the Japanese, and their defeat was inevitable.

    If the Americans were to avoid giving the Russians a pretext to claim a greater piece of the post-war pie, they needed a decisive victory. And fast. And spectacular. So, they chose to use the bomb. Possibly other motives played a role.

    Another factor of importance, as I recall from Asimov's article, was that the Japanese had already been making overtures of surrender prior to the bombing.

    Presumably, they would also have had more leverage in peace negotiations if the US could not demonstrate to them (the Japanese) that they were very decisively beaten. By dropping the bomb as they did (twice), they also ensured that Japan would have to surrender unconditionally.

  4. I would like to suggest the following answer to my own question ("Under what circumstances is the strategic use of terror ethical?"):


    I will simply advance my point of view as a statement, with no backup arguments.

    The problem, as I see it, is that we confuse military (or strategic) virtue with ethical (or moral) virtue.

    The two are not equivalent. There may be points at which the two seem to interesect, but such points of intersection are not representative of the whole. Although they often arise from similar aims, these two types of virtue generally diverge. What's more, military virtue makes use of moral virtue to confound the opponent--and that is in the very nature of military virtue.

    The closest that military virtue comes to ethical virtue is restraint--the self-control not to do something, if it is excessive, or if an acceptable alternative is present. Self-control at least, can be considered a strategic (and therefore military virtue).

    Whether or not it is sometimes necessary to engage in war is another matter. But once so engaged, ethical virtue ceases to be the dominant virtue, and is quite often opposed to military virtue.

    [BTW, As long as we confuse the two, military virtue can continue to make use of moral virtue to impede an opponent. We can never succeed in making moral virtue out of military virtue because moral virtue will always necessarily be a tool of military virtue.]

    When we vote to have our military go to war--even if we see it as a necessity--we should admit to ourselves that we have set aside what is morally virtuous and ethical in favor of what is militarily virtuous and strategic. And the best we can hope for is constraint in the face of excess.

    But even at that, we will likely not agree on what constitutes constraint in the face of excess.

    [BTW, I wasn't trying to be a wise guy, but the fact is, my question contains a presupposition that deserves to be challenged. But having thought about my question, here is how I see it.]

  5. 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.

  6. To build on my previous comment, I would add that there are probably only 3 basic questions one can ever ask about the ethics or morality of war:

    1) Was it necessary to take up arms in the first place?
    2) Was a particular military action, or campaign, constrained to the scope of the strategic aims?
    3) Should one have preferred to suffer a loss of advantage, or a defeat, rather than carry out a given military action?

    In essence, the first question asks whether ethical virtue is logically forced to concede the necessity of suspending the normal rules of morality. At any rate, this question risks getting bogged down immediately on the definition of necessity.

    In the second, moral virtue can only question military virtue to the extent that the military force fails to act consistently with the logic of its strategic aims.

    In the third question, morality can only ask whether military or strategic logic might see fit to commit logical suicide by abandoning its own value structure.