The Ethics Of… Terrorism

It is a Saturday afternoon when members of the organisation park the car bomb in front of the crowded bar. This organisation is committed to the overthrow of the government and replacing them with their own set of values, by any means necessary. They believe this bar is frequented by members of the state security police, who have been hunting the organisation down for years.

The explosion is timed for when the bar is at its busiest. It kills three civilian women and injures 69 others. There was no warning for these people, no declaration of war, no targeted attack – in fact, the leader of this organisation knew that civilians would be caught in this attack when he approved it. He did so willingly.

There are very few people that would describe the event described above as anything other than an act of terrorism. While what precisely qualifies as terrorism is not all that well defined this attack has all the features; the attack was not announced, the weapons used did not discriminate between the enemy and innocents, no one wore any uniforms, and most of all it knowingly targeted civilians.

There are few among us who would not condemn this attack as cowardly, brutal and criminal. Who could disagree that, whatever the aims of this organisation, their methods could not be justified? That people willing to use such vicious tactics must make for terrible leaders should they succeed in toppling the government? That the cruel, callous leader of this organisation must be hunted down and tried, or simply executed for his crimes against humanity?

But what if I told you that, not only was the leader of this organisation given a full pardon for his crimes, but that he went to become celebrated around the world as an ambassador of peace and reconciliation?

The attack I described above occurred in 1986, perpetrated by uMkhonto we Sizwe which sought to overthrow the apartheid government of South Africa.

The leader of this organisation was the recently departed Nelson Mandela.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks on New York, terrorism (or the fear of terrorism) has been perhaps the single greatest defining idea of the 21st Century, and the vast majority of us react to the word ‘terrorist’ the same way we do to ‘paedophile’ – with a hatred and fear so entrenched we don’t even have to think about it.

But as Nelson Mandela’s example shows us, terrorism is not a well-defined concept. The reaction I’m inevitably going to get to this article, and the reaction Andrew Bolt already received for his little bit of shit-stirring on the topic both demonstrate this; people are so attached to the peace-loving statesman image of Mandela that even associating him with the word ‘terrorist’ makes them very, very upset, regardless of whether the shoe fits or not. How is it possible for someone to be a good person, but also the leader of a terrorist group?

For most of the western world, the emotion attached to the concept of terrorism since 9/11 only makes it harder to define – it’s hard to discuss any concept rationally when the merest hint that terrorists might not just be simply ‘evil’ gets you howled down and run out of town as a sympathiser. As with any issue where opinions might have very real consequences, the argument tends to be overwhelmed by the extreme ends of the debate, not helped by the opportunistic governments who see a chance to push through unpopular security legislation, and media outlets that make a nice dollar off sensationalist coverage.

So what is terrorism, and is it possible for terrorist attacks to ever be justified as we seem to have done in the case of Mandela?

The most obvious distinction we could make is that terrorists deliberately target civilians, rather than legitimate military targets. It’s clear after all that the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks were never aimed at the military or even the government, instead aiming to kill as many civilians as possible to make a statement and spread fear. Mandela on the other hand, only killed civilians in the process of attacking members of the state security force – uMkhonto we Sizwe still knowingly killed civilians, but it was not the aim of their attacks.

But is this line as clear as we’d like to believe? While intention is important, it doesn’t really matter to the civilians they kill and injure why they were attacked – they’re still dead or maimed either way. Is there any real distinction between deliberately killing civilians with a car bomb and calculating ‘acceptable collateral damage’ for a cruise missile strike? One may try to claim the moral high ground of ‘good intentions’, but both choose to kill innocent human beings in the pursuit of their causes.

And are those civilians so innocent after all? In an age of unprecedented access to information the question must be asked where the line of responsibility ends between the military, the government directing them, and the civilians who elected and empower that government. It is now quite widely accepted the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ invaded Iraq in 2003 based on lies about weapons of mass-destruction, and doubts about the justification for invading Iraq were clear long before it began. Demonstrations occurred world-wide in opposition of the attack, yet the democratically elected governments of the Coalition felt secure enough to proceed with the invasion regardless – and they were proven right to feel secure when both the USA and Australian governments were later re-elected.

We often like to excuse soldiers from responsibility when it comes to wars – the politicians sent them in, the soldiers just follow orders! But if we’re willing to follow that logic to its conclusion, then democratic governments are only able to send the army because we allow them to. While in reality stopping a government from doing something during its term is quite a bit harder than that, re-electing that government after the fact is nothing less than an endorsement of their actions. How then are the people behind the USA and Australian governments anything other than the cause of the invasion of Iraq? And as such, on what basis can we claim to be illegitimate targets for those trying to kick us out of their country? Indeed, given that we have far, far more control over our government than the citizens of Sadam Hussien’s Iraq, or Taliban Afghanistan did, it could be judged far more acceptable to target US and Australian citizens than the civilians killed incidentally during the invasions of both countries – this distinction clearly is not strong enough.

Perhaps the distinction between terrorism and legitimate attacks is what the attackers are aiming to achieve through their attacks. Perhaps if the outcome is good enough – in Mandela’s case the end of the oppressive and racist apartheid South African government was an obviously positive result. On the other hand, Al Qaeda’s attempt to impose fundamentalist Islamist values on other nations is recognised even by most Muslim groups as a demonstrably bad thing due to their extreme and oppressive nature. So are the means of an organisation justified by the ends?

But this argument doesn’t stand up to history. Even in the case of World War Two, where the cause of eliminating the Nazi threat is universally considered a solid justification for the war, the fire bombing of Dresden has been massively criticised due to the sheer scale of devastation, specifically targeting a civilian area with the aim of breaking the spirit of the German people.

This sort of justification can also get quite messy; given the basis for invading Iraq has been shows to be unjustified, the troops invading and occupying Iraq can easily been seen as hostile aggressors by the people of Iraq. Are they then justified in attacking Coalition forces by any means necessary to get them out? And aren’t those Coalition troops, who obviously have the right to protect their own lives, then also justified in attacking the Iraqi people with every means at their disposal? Clearly, this is not going to end well.

What this question boils down to is not a simple, clear definition of what is and isn’t terrorism. In fact the entire label starts to seem like an unhelpful and heavily abused simplification of what is a far more complex and difficult question; when can violence be justified in the pursuit of a cause? What are the ethical limits of war?

The whole idea sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Limits of war? When you’ve gotten to the point where two groups of people are actively trying to kill each other with guns, fire and explosions, then surely we’re past the point where anyone care about rules, right? How could things possibly get any more extreme than fighting for your life?

But this misses the fundamental point of violence and war; they’re nearly never just about killing the enemy. They’re about killing the enemy in order to achieve some sort of goal, and when the means used to achieve that goal start to cost too much or destroy the very goals of those fighting in the process, then those means have gone too far.

Was a free South Africa worth the civilians killed by Nelson Mandela’s attacks? Most would say it was a price worth paying for such a momentous and positive goal. But if that goal could have been achieved without those killings, how much more sweeter and untainted that victory could have been.

9 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Terrorism

  1. As always, extremely well presented and thought provoking. The lines are so blurred all the way around, that I think probably in the end there is always a better solution. For instance looking at something like 9/11, the attack is much the same a slow moving gazelle provoking a lion. It will ultimately end in your own death, your other gazelle friends, and a whole bunch of innocent animals along the way that had nothing to do with it. The attack on Afghanistan killed many innocent civilians which was a predictable result by Osama Bin Laden. As you point out his aim was simply to cause fear, and that he did, but an act of terrorism usually costs the lives of people on both sides when retaliation occurs. This must also be taken into account in the death tally.

    As I was reading your post I was reminded of a Star Trek The Next Generation episode called The High Ground, where a group of rebels use terrorism to try to achieve their goals of being treated as equals by the government. Perhaps in some ways this episode was inspired by the bombing you describe at the beginning. In that episode the government literally would not talk to the rebels, branded them as terrorists and did not acknowledge any of their concerns as legitimate. As such they were also tortured while interrogated for information which added to the immoral acts on both sides. One can easily see this behavior too in the U.S. where the extraction of information to fight terrorism is felt by many to be justified in using any means necessary. Regardless of who starts it. An oppressive government, or acts of terrorism, the human rights violations start escalating. But in that episode it did lead to a conversation finally. One that the government seemingly would not have had otherwise. That being said it was a TV show and perhaps contrived to a certain degree, but I’m not sure there haven’t been somewhat similar situation in our history.

    Ultimately I think Gandhi did show us a path to the high road, but it requires a leader with courage that few leaders ever have. In the movie his philosophy is summed up nicely when Charlie questions Gandhi as to whether Jesus’ “Turn the other cheek” wasn’t meant metaphorically and he responds ” “I’m not so certain. I have thought about it a great deal. I suspect he meant you must show courage–be willing to take a blow–several blows–to show you will not strike back–nor will you be turned aside…. And when you do that it calls upon something…that makes…hate for you diminish and…respect increase. I think Christ grasped that and I…have seen it work.” I also believe that there is something to this. There are ways to protest, and there are ways to be provocative without being violent. It’s no easy path. Later in the movie Candice Bergen’s character asks Gandhi if his approach would work against Hitler and he admits that he think it would, but not without great loss. To take great losses on your own side, while the other takes none and wait before the killers feel guilty enough that they question their own actions and the orders of their leaders. That would be a really tough pill to swallow.

    There was a relatively famous case here where a professor at the University of Colorado was fired for writing an essay essentially saying that America essentially brought on the 9/11 attack through their own foreign policy and making similar arguments as you have about America could also be considered terrorists to other parts of the world.. The professor’s name is Churchill Ward. A very popular Native American professor at the university. The university said they fired him because of plagiarism, but it was interesting how this seemed to be closely timed with a lot of parents calling the university threatening to take their kid out of the university and go somewhere else because they found this essay offensive. He sued the university for wrongful termination, he won, but sort of didn’t. The judge did rule that he was wrongfully fired, but somehow the court also ruled that they couldn’t force the university to hire him back. It shows how easily academic freedom can be eroded for presenting an unbiased view of terrorism.

    Unless you are a psychopath we generally feel empathy towards our fellow man and would be unlikely to kill innocent people. It seems to me that the only way this is possible is through the dehumanizing of others. If bombing a bar kills a couple of political officials but then a lot of innocent people too, often the group justifies such actions by painting all people associated with those officials, near those officials, voting for those officials as scum and less than human. Certainly without human virtues which the group committing the act of terrorism would say they themselves have.

    Ultimately the difference between attacking with a country’s military or attacking with terrorism seems to have little difference. I have one friend who was in the military who I felt comfortable enough to sort of broach ethical questions with. I find it hard to imagine joining in the military. Not because of the possibility of a cause possibly worth fight for, but because I am more likely to have to take part in a cause where I don’t feel it is worth fighting for. In talking to my friend he describes it the way you have, that well you are in the middle of a war zone…it’s kill or be killed. I understand that, but like you said there is this overarching goal, and that’s where I have a problem being part of that goal if I don’t feel it is justified. And it seems to be pretty common amongst military types that if they haven’t just completely dehumanized the enemy (like all muslims are evil) then they sort of justify it with a “well I don’t know whose right, but here I am in Afghanistan and I have to kill this guy or he’ll kill me”. So I support the troops in that I don’t want them to die, but I sure have a hard time understanding why they would want to join the military in the first place.

    Ack, sorry for the ridiculous long response, but it’s your fault for writing such a wonderful piece. If you take requests I’d love to some time see you write a post on the Ethics of Punishment (for crimes).

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