Apparently Jonathan R. White, international terrorism expert and author of many books on the subject, is a big fan of P.E.L., and he contacted us a while back and agreed to come on the show and talk about some articles on philosophical issues involving terrorism with us. We recorded this on the evening of 2/19/13. Listen to the episode.
White’s selection is meant to challenge the common view that terrorism is obviously, in all cases, morally unambiguous (i.e. bad). Our central paper is J. Angelo Corlett’s “Can Terrorism be Morally Justified?” (1996), which is unfortunately not free on the web. You can buy the article here; it was also reworked into a chapter in Terrorism: A Philosophical Analysis. Like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on terrorism (which you should definitely go read), Corlett describes the two intertwined problems for philosophers talking about terrorism as “What is it?” and “Is it ever morally permissible?” Corlett claims that the definitional question is usually answered in such a way to rig the answer. If you say that terrorism is “killing innocents,” then yes, of course, by definition that’s going to be bad; you’ve put the morally charged word “innocent” right there in the definition.
To really answer the question impartially, you have to come up with a morally neutral definition. By tweaking existing ones in the literature, Corlett proposes this one:
Terrorism is the attempt to achieve (or prevent) political, social, economic, or religious change by the actual or threatened use of violence against other persons or other persons’ property; the violence (or threat thereof) employed in terrorism is aimed partly at destabilizing the existing political or social order, but mainly at publicizing the goals or cause espoused by the terrorists or by those on whose behalf the terrorists act; often, though not always, terrorism is aimed at provoking extreme counter-measures which will win public support for the terrorists and their cause.
This definition, Corlett thinks, helps to clarify the justificatory question: If it doesn’t harm “innocents,” if the fear it engenders is not morally outrageous (e.g. the fear that South African whites felt about the potential end of Apartheid), if it’s violence that does not breed violence but which actually helps change society for the better, then it could be potentially justified.
The rest of the articles selected present related arguments justifying violence from a variety of historical perspectives. All of these are available free on the web:
–Karl Heinzen’s Murder and Freedom (get it here), written in 1853 by a German-American newsman and revolutionary, defends the sort of “terror” practiced in light of the French Revolution. The rulers of his time, he claims, came to power on a wave of murder and are only kept in power that way. They are not innocent, and if you merely depose them and don’t actually kill them, then they’ll inevitably come back into power. Yes, all killing is always “unjust and barbarous,” but until we can get rid of all of it, it doesn’t make sense to prohibit it when practiced by revolutionaries against despots. “It were a crime to spare the tiger that rages among a society of defenseless persons, if any one could shoot him down.” Heinzen details the horrific acts of these despots and describes revolution as self-defense. He ends up applauding the then-new means by which small groups can even the playing field against the armies of despots: by sneaking around and blowing things (and people) up.
–Bhagat Singh’s “The Philosophy of the Bomb: A Brief Response to Gandhi” (get it here), was written in 1930 in response to Gandhi’s article (“The Cult of the Bomb”) condemning recent revolutionary acts of violence by Singh and his cohorts (it was actually written by Bhagawati Charan and Chandra Shekhar Azad). The issue was how to achieve Indian independence from Britain, and Gandhi was arguing that non-violence was the most effective (and moral) route to this goal, and that the revolutionaries’ actions did not represent the will of the Indian people. Singh argues (like Corlett) that people in power don’t just give rights to the oppressed, but that these rights must be taken, and Gandhi’s route would at best leave them with a government that, while not formally subservient to Britain, would still leave all the current oppression intact, whereas Singh thought that true freedom could only be achieved through revolution, which has terrorism as a necessary phase. He saw non-violence as an unproven strategy, not likely to succeed in gaining India “Complete Independence.”
–Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War” (get it here; we just read Part I of Book I). Clausewitz (1780-1831) studied Kant and was a Major-General in the Prussian army fighting Napoleon. He started writing “On War” in 1816, but never finished it (his wife published it in 1834). He argued that “War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means,” and so that, while taken as an abstract, ideal conflict, the goal is to achieve some political objective, and in the process totally disarm your opponent so that you can’t be prevented from achieving this, as a real part of history, war will generally fall far short of this. How much the people of the two nations hate each other, how important the goal actually is, and chance factors will all have important roles in limiting action by one side or the other. Seen through this framework, we can understand the historical progression from the “limited war” of the 18th century, to the total war mentality from Napoleon through the end of the Cold War, and the logic of terrorism as we enter a paradigm shift after World War II (i.e. “fighting under the radar” given the destructive power of the U.S. and U.S.S.R.).
–Donald Black’s “The Geometry of Terrorism” is a 2004 article (get it here) that describes terrorism as “self-help by organized civilians who covertly inflict mass violence on other civilians.” The innovation of this sociological article is describing all conflicts in terms of “social geometry.” Instead of looking at individual political motives, Black looks at the “dimensions of social space.” Terrorism occurs when there’s a great deal of social distance, where two groups see themselves as different, for reasons of culture, inequality, the fact that they don’t participate in the same circles (e.g. economic exchanges or social gatherings), and/or that one has political control over the other. These differences have always been there, but now transportation and communications technologies have reduced effective physical distance; you only get terrorism when these socially distant groups are in physical proximity (as in Israel-Palestine or England-Ireland), and so actions like 9/11 just couldn’t happen before air travel between the U.S. and the Middle East was so commonplace, and weren’t likely to happen if American troops hadn’t set up camp in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Conversely, the solution to terrorism is to reduce social distance: to increase the amount of cultural and economic interaction, to reduce inequality and perceived (or actual) social control. This kind of thing follows naturally, to some degree, from increased physical proximity: “The conditions of its existence ultimately become the conditions of its decline… its inevitable fate is sociological death.”