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The Ethics of Terrorism
There aren’t any! That’s part of what makes a terrorist a terrorist. However, terrorism does indeed raise some ethical questions for those who would respond to terrorism, at least if one does not want to be dragged down to the level of the terrorist. Some of what follows involves judging some very fine points. That might seem finicky, but that is what ethics is about. For example, if I take my friend on the City Council to dinner, that’s not a problem, but if I happen to have ongoing business with the city, it’s unethical for both of us, even if my friend doesn’t know about my business with the city. He or she is supposed to know.
The world is full of people with grievances, some reasonable, some not, and some in between. In the words of the song, The Merry Minuet,
The song is light-hearted, but the situations that are causing the world the most grief today are a good deal more serious. I think picking the issue apart and being finicky about the details is important because doing any less can cause one to to be wrong in one’s response to these life-or-death issues.
Defining the Difference: Terrorists and Freedom Fighters
There was a naive-sounding (but not naive, I suspect) letter in a recent Los Angeles Times about the rioting in Tibet. It read,
Indeed! Sorting things out requires some thinking and the reading of a little history. If one doesn’t know the roots of the problem or grievance, one won’t understand it and see the possible solutions. Knee-jerk reactions to violence, prodded by someone’s propaganda, will usually lead to the wrong, or at least a highly incomplete, answer. For me, the difference turns on the legitimacy of the grievances, the tactics, and the targets at whom the tactics are directed.
Railing against some group or country over ancient history usually has me filing the grievance in the illegitimate bin. The Serb objection to the independence of Kosovo because of the location of the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, which the Serbs (and other Christians) lost to the Ottomans, is a good example. If the Serbs had been nice to the Kosovars, they would probably have let Serbs visit and commemorate the location whenever they wished. The Serbs chose another path.
The Romans had no right to what’s called the “Holy Land,” but they conquered it anyway, and the Europeans had no right to fight wars over it (the Crusades) a millennium or so later, but they did. Making a grievance of it today makes no sense, unless the same folks keep up the same practices in modern times. The British and French come to mind, in that regard. Representatives of those countries made all sorts of statements and promises to people in the Middle East region and then did just what they pleased1. They divided up the region into their own areas of influence during World War I (Sykes-Picot Agreement) and then artificially partitioned it into countries after the war, without the agreement of the people who lived there.
The CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddeq government in 1953 in Iran, and replaced it with the brutal dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iranians retook their government in 1979, but have a lingering grudge against the United States. However, since they have control of their country back, taking further action hostile to the U.S. beyond the occasional insult would not seem legitimate.
I would dismiss Irish complaints about what William the Conqueror did in Ireland after 1066, except that the British have kept it up ever since and still occupy part of Ireland. That one goes right into the legitimate bin. The same thing goes for the complaint of the Palestinians. There are still some of them who can look over a wall or fence in Israel and say “I was born there.”
Trying to solve disputes peacefully is important. It is one of the things that distinguishes barbarian hordes from modern society. The rebellion of the American colonials took place after many petitions to the British crown. If the first event were Sam Adams’ Sons of Liberty burning down Governor Hutchinson’s house, they might now be known as terrorists, not as freedom fighters. However, one thing led to another after the peaceful attempts failed.
In the struggle to end the war in Vietnam, the peaceful mass demonstration was the main avenue of the effort. At the other, terrorist extreme was the Weathermen, robbing banks and planting bombs. In between were those publishing classified government papers about the war, thus breaking a law, and the people who broke into draft board offices and poured blood on the files, destroying public documents. Were they terrorist tactics merely because they broke a few laws? No one was supposed to get hurt, and no one did, so I’d say no.
The tactics used by Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers are clearly and overwhelmingly over the line into those that a terrorist would use. However, even here there are questions. Attacks on non-combatants are common in war, and were used extensively in the World Wars of the 1900s. Assassinations, small bombs, city-wide fire-bombings and nuclear weapons were all used, and those who used them did not end up in the dock at Nuremburg because of what they did. Moreover, classifying interned alleged Al Qaeda operatives as “enemy combatants” tends to put them into the same soldier category as the Allies in World War II who used such tactics against the Germans and the Japanese. Clearly, tactics alone do not make a terrorist.
Except for specific weapons like certain expanding bullets and poison gas, any kind of attack against an enemy combatant in a declared war will avoid the attachment of the label “terrorist.” Anything else is up for grabs. I’ve never heard the Vietnamese NLF attacks against U.S. soldiers, civilians, government officials or Vietnamese people collaborating with the U.S. military referred to as terrorist. Contrarily, all attacks on the Israeli occupiers of Palestine are called terrorist. What’s the difference? What if agents of the NLF or North Vietnam had hijacked airliners and steered them into the New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon while the U.S. was invading Vietnam? Would those acts have been construed differently from the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong by the U.S. Air Force, or would both be declared as similar acts of war? It would not have made me stop marching against the Vietnam War, yet I strongly condemn the same acts when they were committed by Al Qaeda.
To me, it makes a difference whether someone is attacking a perpetrator of the grievance or some non-involved third party. In the above hypothetical Vietnamese attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon, they would have been been doing nothing different from what their adversary was doing, using the means they had. Attacks by Al Qaeda on civilians in or from Western countries are in a totally different category. The grievances of those involved are:
With all of this, there can be no legitimacy for the attacks on civilians conducted by Al Qaeda and its allies.
The Envelope, Please
Behaving ethically is a part of being civilized; we shouldn’t expect it from barbarians and true terrorists and we rarely get it. It behooves us to do our part and not throw around accusations of terrorism without serious consideration first, whether by the method laid out here or by some other. It seems to me that Al Qaeda et. al. have no legitimate grievance over which to attack. The people involved in the Crusades and the partition of the Middle East are all dead. The region is full of independent countries now, and if they don’t like their borders, they can get together and change them. The fighters are not the Palestinians, so that grievance does not belong to Al Qaeda. There is no question that their tactics qualify as those of terrorists and their targets are not people involved in whatever grievances they have. Calling them terrorists is an accurate description of what they are and not just an epithet hurled by others that don’t want to understand the situation.
Things are muddier in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are outside terrorists, but there are also people fighting a civil war and a religious war (over issues of the 7th century), and others fighting foreign invaders (the armies of the U.S. and its allies and the foreign terrorists, too). Just the fact that they all use bombs doesn’t mean all are terrorists.
As for the Palestinians, they have a truly legitimate grievance: they want their country back. Any peaceful routes to their goal have long since been exhausted. They, in their enforced diaspora, have no right of return and they cannot participate in any plebiscite that will attain their goal. They are left with whatever tactics that are within their means. Except for tourists, some foreign caretakers of religious sites and a few foreign archaeologists, there are only the occupiers and the occupied in the area. As long as Palestinian fighters target only the occupiers and those knowingly and directly giving aid to the Israelis, they should not be called terrorists. It is a very sad situation; nevertheless, but for the actions of the European Zionists starting the chain of events and their descendants continuing it, the Palestinians would still have their homeland and the entire problem would not exist. However much one might dislike this or that event, the Palestinians are entirely in the right and the Israelis are entirely in the wrong.
May 19, 2008
Last Updated — April 06, 2013