By Zainab Lokhandwala
Can terrorism ever be justified?
The General Assembly in 1970 once referred to terrorism in some circumstances as ‘illegal yet justified’ and this ought to get us all thinking whether terrorism can ever be justified? Before the very overzealous among us denounce this section, we must remind ourselves that we are in no way trying to justify any act of terror; we are only exploring it and leaving it to each and every soul among us to reach a conclusion for ourselves. There may be umpteen legal arguments made in order to justify terrorism such as: self-defence, necessity, right to rebel, right of self-determination and so on and so forth; however all are defeated on the point of proportionality. The means that terrorism employs can never justify the end. Thus, let us look at the extra-legal arguments. Joseph Ralph in his book, America’s War on Terror: The State of the 9/11Exception from Bush to Obama provides a deep analysis as to how if US attacks on military targets in which primarily soldiers are killed are celebrated in the media as “surgical operations”, one cannot suddenly speak of terrorism when the situation is simply reversed. He speaks of a state of riotousness which the US proclaims but, its actions are no different from those of terrorists in certain scenarios; he also brings to light the type of terrorism which is directed towards only the US military unit which would hardly constitute a war crime in the legal sense as it is only an accruing consequence of a state of war.
Hence, let us analyze using an analogy: Let us suppose, for example, that the attack on the World Trade Center was a retributive act for the policy of Israel and the United States toward the Palestinians. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have time and again stated that civilians have in fact been (and continue to be) targeted in diverse Israeli military actions. In this sense, we are indeed dealing with Israeli state terrorism (sponsored and endorsed by the state of Israel), which is indeed supported by the United States, and to which even the non‐state terrorism of Israeli settlers may be added. This Israeli‐American terrorism has caused more casualties than all the Arab strikes of retaliation taken together. Yet would this justify a vindictive strike on the World Trade Center, assuming of course at all times that the attack really was such a strike? Even if one were to assign many of the victims a partial responsibility for US policy in the Middle East—the United States is, after all, a democracy—their responsibility could hardly be large enough to warrant the death penalty, right? Nevertheless, one could argue that the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center were only meant as a kind of means: to punish either all Americans and Europeans, or at least as many as possible, namely by means of a growing feeling of fear and uncertainty.
Surely innocents were also affected (e.g. people who were engaged in the struggle for the rights of the Palestinians) and guilty parties were punished too severely, but this is a risk which one also takes in a system of penal and criminal law with the principle of deterrence (as America sometimes states while justifying its harsh retaliation in Afghanistan). The difference between the two would no longer be one of principle, but would rather lie in the dimensions and appropriateness of the attack. If, as certain Israeli and US governments have believed and continue to believe, those so‐called acts of retaliation by the Israeli army which terrorized the entire Palestinian population are justified; if Clinton’s strike against Sudan—which, according to the report of the German ambassador there, caused thousands of deaths—is justified; or even if the sanctions against Iraq are justified, though they have caused some half million civilian deaths, of which half have been those of children; if all these acts are justified, it is not at all clear why the attack on the World Trade Center should not be justified?
Here one might object that both Israeli and Arab terrorism are illegitimate and that both are very well to be distinguished in principle from criminal and penal law, to the degree that the latter does not intend to affect innocent victims, but rather only takes them into account. This, however, is, of course, nothing but an appeal to the doctrine of double effect. The morally relevant difference does not lie in the question as to whether someone employs the death of innocents as a means to his ends or foresees it as a consequence, but rather whether the person in question welcomes the death of the innocents or regrets it. This is not a difference between terrorists on the one hand and legislators on the other; it is rather one between different kinds of legislators and different kind of terrorists.
To conclude, undoubtedly, terrorism commands disproportionate attention relative to the issue it tries to address—particularly by States which causes greater harm. Since the 1960s, global casualties of international terrorism have averaged a few thousand deaths per decade, in contrast to the many tens of millions killed in wars, internal conflicts, and by repressive States. Clearly, ‘the quantum of harm’ caused by terrorism ‘is not what shapes perceptions of the threat’ and terrorism may well indulge western anxieties in the absence of real emergencies. Yet the spectacular nature of terrorist acts, the vulnerability of civilian targets, the frequent victimization of the United States and Israel, and mass media publicity have shaped a powerful discourse of public panic and transnational anxiety surrounding terrorism. In some western media, there is little questioning of the official labeling of ‘terrorists’, analysis of the causes of terrorism, attention to State violence precipitating terrorism, or responsiveness to non-State explanations for violence. Exaggeration of the terrorist threat is significant because those who fear terrorism the most also tend to support more aggressively militant responses to it and this embroils us in an endless cycle of violence and hate.
While it is simplistic to claim that the attacks of 11 September 2001 were a ‘predictable and inevitable act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism’ by the US, in some cases, root causes underlie and explain—but do not necessarily justify or excuse—resort to terrorism. And, as we have seen in the past legal controls perform only a cosmetic function, or merely treat symptoms, unless structural grievances are also addressed. In particular, inclusive political processes discourage violence—even if it is not possible to bargain meaningfully with some people. The preoccupation with terrorism also overshadows less spectacular international harms, including those which may generate terrorist impulses.
Thence, is there an ultimate answer to the ultimate question of terrorism? If strong states really want to fight sub-national terrorism, there are only three legitimate and recommendable means at their disposal: the rejection of a double moral standard; the focused persecution of crime (insofar as the commission of a punishable crime—and not of an act of justifiable resistance); and, finally, the inclusion of the excluded.
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