The term “terrorism” is a loaded term… The implications and images after 9-11 are of “Arab extremists” — targeting innocent people in NYC (had they gone after the bankers on Wall Street, we may be cheering them now… just kidding, kind of). The images of the burning twin towers, the images of the piles of ash and paper coating lower Manhattan and the ever evolving images of Ground Zero set the meaning of the term “terrorism” for most of the world.
The thing is, in many ways the term “terrorism” is applied with a value judgment. The fact of the matter is that terrorism is a tactic used by groups to fight when they can’t fight in more traditional ways.
We apply the term to groups we don’t like — or who are opposing us — and not to groups we agree with. Those groups are “freedom fighters”, “rebels” or “patriots” — people who use the traditional restraints of a well-established army against it… People like the Founding Fathers — yea… the (not quite yet) US was perhaps the first group of terrorists, fighting the British in non-traditional means.
When we refused to stand up and fight like “real men”… because we couldn’t match the manpower the Crown could throw up in bright red coats, we did the equivalent of planting roadside bombs, sneak attacks and other means of bringing down an opponent with overwhelming force and budget. By day the heroes of the US revolution were silversmiths — by night, revolutionaries.
Ya know what, it worked… terrorism can work. From what I know of the US Revolution the founding fathers fought ethically and more than likely had a just cause.
The first point is where modern terrorists tend to fall down. In order to make their tactics work, they think they need to target civilians — breaking what is perhaps the most restrictive just war principle, non-combatant immunity.
Modern terrorists tend to work on two levels. First, they indiscriminately target civilians, regardless of their responsibility for what may or may not be their just cause. A random person on the street may be killed in order to serve their purposes. Second, they attempt to coerce a broader population — either in the target population or in their own…
Coercion of the target population is pretty simple. Scare the people, harm the economy, try to get the government of that population to change it’s ways. Coercion of their own population is more complicated — they need to get support from their “peoples” — whomever they may be. They need materials, funds and recruits — and a successful attack can get all of that for them.
So — when thinking about modern terrorism, it becomes difficult to see how a terrorist action can be done without violating just war principles — especially with a broad understanding of non-combatant immunity. That being said, it’s just a tactic like any other tactic and the normative judgment comes with the application of the tactic.