Is Terrorism Ever Justified?

First published in the American Herald Tribune

On September 20, 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush declared a “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) and proclaimed, “You are either with us or against us.” This declaration setup and enabled a program of attacking and killing “terrorists” around the globe and of supporting other countries that agreed to participate in the GWOT. The result of this strategy was to make the words “terror’ and “terrorist” so common in the lexicon that they have, in large measure, lost their meaning. Many unsavory leaders have used the label to justify their actions, including imprisonment without trial and assassination, against those who oppose their policies and to receive the millions of dollars of aid lavished upon allies in the GWOT. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Egyptian Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Abdel el-Sisi come to mind.

In exploring the rationale and morality of terrorism, a good starting point would be a definition. In literature, definitions of terrorism are more numerous than terrorist attacks themselves. Many definitions are self-serving. The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” This definition gives the U.S. and other nation states a pass on the “terror bombing” in Germany, the use of the atomic bomb in Japan or “shock and awe” in Baghdad. The State Department’s list of terrorists and supporters of terrorism is also not a useful tool in evaluating terrorists as it is frequently used as a political club to authorize otherwise illegal actions against those on the list. Cuba was placed on the list for political reasons and remained on the list long past any rational period. Nelson Mandela remained on the list until 2008; long after he was elected President of South Africa and received the Nobel Peace Prize. A generally accepted definition, which I subscribe to, is “Deliberate attacks or attacks that callously disregard the consequences of the attack, by governments or non-government groups, against innocent civilians, as well as their social, economic and societal institutions and infrastructures, aimed at reaching political, religious or ideological goals.”

War on Terror

For centuries religious theologians have wrestled with the question of whether or not it is morally allowable to use unjust means to reach a just end or to realize a just cause. Catholic tradition holds that evil may never be done to achieve good. Thomas Aquinas took a more nuanced view in his Summa Theologiae, which takes into account motives and consequences. Taking into account the relative consequences of inaction or action, one can argue that the consequences of terrorism might be morally preferable to the status quo if terrorism is the only means of changing the status quo. U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright used the consequences argument when asked if the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children as a result of U.S. sanctions were worth it. She said “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” You decide.

Hezbollah was placed on the U.S. terrorist list as a result of the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon which killed 241 U.S. servicemen and for the killing of CIA agent William Buckley. Hezbollah, on the other hand, would argue that these were legitimate military targets attacked in an effort to protect their country against foreign intervention.  On the other hand, the CIA set off a car bomb in Beirut that killed 80 civilians in a failed attempt to kill Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah for his alleged role justifying the Marine barracks attack. Which act was terrorism?

Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups have long been classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Leaving aside the asymmetry of the power relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in justifying terrorism, the magnitude of the terrorist actions employed by Israel in attacks on Gaza and Palestinian refugee camps, which have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, far exceeds the toll inflicted by Palestinian organizations. As friends in the Middle East have pointed out to me, democracies such as Israel which elect former terrorists, Itzak Shamir, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon as President, have little standing to condemn terrorism. Israel has even less standing in justifying its destruction of Gaza, including hospitals, apartments and schools in the name of retaliation for a few Palestinian rockets fired into Israel.

For weak states and non-state actors, terrorism is often the tactic of choice because, not only is it cheap, but also, it is effective. Strong states on the other hand have other options. Nelson Mandela said, “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” Terrorism has often been a major contributing factor in ousting colonial regimes and liberating oppressed people from colonialism. Examples include Algerian independence, ANC terrorism against the South African Apartheid regime, the defeat of British colonialism in Kenya and the success of Zionist terrorism in the founding of Israel.

Tragically, as is the case in Israel/Palestine, when an oppressed people loses hope that the present situation can change, terrorism is seen as the only option.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *