… is a loaded term..

We had an excellent discussion about this in class last week.  Many of my thoughts should be credited to my students — so, Fall 2011, Tuesday at 2:15 class… thanks!

The problem with defining “terrorism” is that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to objectively separate a “freedom fighter” from a “terrorist”.  This is because many terrorists see themselves in the role of “freedom fighter”.  When I make this argument, I base it on the idea that people simply don’t set out to do things they think are objectively wrong.  They don’t decide to go out and do the worst thing they can do — rather, their perspectives and reasoning process is so skewed that when they take their action, they think it’s right and the rest of us see it as wrong.

My photo above is another example of how it’s difficult, if not impossible to objectively define “terrorism” — in the case of Native Americans vs. those who wanted to settle the west — we were the invaders and they were protecting their territory.  They did so by whatever means necessary, often breaking what we’d define as just war norms to do so.  Was it wrong of them to fight in that manner — probably not.  They were facing settlers, organized armies and a government that wasn’t supportive of their wish to remain autonomous.  In fact, I think not fighting in that situation would have been an immoral act.

So, if we define “terrorism” as acts intended to scare or intimidate the opposition — then we have two additional questions… It’s clear that attacking and killing unarmed civilians not involved with the conflict is wrong — BUT… and there’s a biggie here… 1) how do you define “civilian”… is a guy who works in an ammo factory a civilian?  What about the non-military person who processess paychecks or feeds soldiers?  Isn’t it the case that many non-military people in war time have some role in supporting the actions of their government… how much support is necessary to become a combatant?

Also — if we call the direct killing and maiming of anybody wrong, the way that terrorism works is by intimidating the living.  If a terrorist can stop you from acting in the way you were going to act — in significant and long term ways — i.e. change your behavior, then it seems that they have achieved their goal.  So — according to classic just war theory, the violations of non-combatant immunity are quite small and not the goal of the terrorism process.  Instead, the goal is to make a much broader and shallower impact on the living, which isn’t a violation of current just war theory.

Perhaps a better alternative is to decide that “terrorism” is a tactic, which could conceivably be used in either a morally justifiable or non-justifiable ways?



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Filed under Applied Ethics, Philosophy in progress

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