In our everyday usage, “war” is often a good word, or at least a neutral one; but we all know that “terrorism” is always a bad word. “Warriors” are often role models, but “terrorists” are never so. Yet, when we look closer at the phenomena that these words are supposed to describe, we come to notice the many similarities they share, similarities that often blur the boundary between war and terrorism, between warriors and terrorists. Both phenomena, after all, belong to the larger category of “organized violence.”
There are two major assumptions that the supporters of war share with the supporters of terror. Both “we” and “they” agree that (1) organized violence is justified under certain conditions, and (2) noncombatant casualties are acceptable under certain conditions. The disagreement between warriors and terrorists is not on these two assumptions, but on their respective understandings of what counts as “certain conditions.”
The first assumption is fairly obvious; it is not just criminals and bad guys who believe in the legitimacy of organized violence under “certain conditions,” it is all of us. We, the law-abiding and peaceful citizens of the modern nation-state, demonstrate in very concrete ways that we accept the possibility of war, the justification for at least some wars, and the probability of deaths and injuries caused to noncombatants during the course of those wars.
We demonstrate these beliefs by maintaining permanent institutions of war, otherwise known as a professional military and associated government agencies like the deaprtment of “defense.” The function of a professional military, to put is bluntly, is none other than preparation for and execution of large-scale organized violence in the most effective and efficient way possible. Of course, we don’t define the professional military of our respective nation-states in exactly these words; we prefer euphemisms like defense, service, loyalty, commitment, dedication, efficiency, etc., or we employ quasi-spiritual slogans like “be all that you can be.” But these fancy words and pretty slogans do not hide the ugly nature of the phenomena in question, just as terms like “collateral damage” do not hide the ugliness of violence against people who bear no responsibility for causing the conflict and whose deaths contribute nothing to ending it.
While the existence of professional military is as old as civilization, the second assumption that warriors share with terrorists is relatively modern. The insistence that noncombatants should not be harmed in a war may have been a fair demand in the pre-modern period, but it has become increasingly impossible to implement ever since aerial bombing of urban centers came into being in 1911.
Over the last hundred years or so, there has been a significant blurring of the distinction between military and civilian targets, between combatants and noncombatants, between soldiers and ordinary citizens. In fact, the technologies of modern warfare are inherently biased against all such distinctions, partly because of their immense effectiveness vis-a-vis the primitive sword. While an ancient or medieval warrior riding a horse and carrying a sword may spare someone who would seem incapable of causing him any harm, no such distinction is relevant for the modern pilot. The latter merely pushes a button from the impersonal and indifferent height of a few thousand feet; he never sees his victims, either before or after the killing, and so the reality of murdering innocent people fails to touch his heart. He flies home with a satisfied conscience, with his crisp uniform free of any one’s blood, and feeling proud in having fulfilled his national duty in the most professional manner.
Once the technology for mass murder is made available, it is easy to assign collective guilt and to carry out collective punishments, as seen (to mention only a few well-known cases) in the bombings of London and Berlin during the Second World War, or in the nuclear holocaust that visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once the enemy nation has been demonized and deprived of its humanity, it becomes unlikely that we would object to any violations of noncombatant immunity, particularly when we are told that the “collateral damage” was greatly regretted but that it was, unfortunately, unavoidable to achieve our aims. Even the most self-righteous of nations feel that it is perfectly fine to bomb hospitals because terrorists may be hiding there, or destroy civilian shelters because politicians may be seeking refuge there, or target power stations and water purification plants because it is important to demoralize the enemy. No bombs are smart enough to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, between the dangerous and the powerless. By manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, including missiles, cluster bombs, and landmines, we all give our tacit assent to the killing of civilians.
Once the distinction between military targets and civilian targets is effectively dead, it becomes increasingly impossible to keep alive the illusion that separates legitimate war from illegitimate terrorism. The distinction, in the final analysis, comes down to the claims made by the perpetrators in question. Both terrorist leaders and military generals make identical claims: Our cause is obviously just; we only wish to serve our nation; we have the right to maintain our way of life; we aim at nothing other than our freedom; we are committed to minimizing casualties; we are only acting out of self-defense; we wish to avoid any harm to innocent people; we are sorry that innocent people were killed; we did explore peaceful ways of solving the problem; we never wanted any violence but our enemies left us with no choice; it is their fault that we have to resort to war; we never really killed any innocent person because everyone we targeted was guilty by association . . .
Both groups of perpetrators agree on the legitimacy and morality of organized violence and the real or potential harm to noncombatants, provided, of course, that “certain conditions” are met. And it so happens, quite predictably, that every time “we” attack them these “certain conditions” are found to have been fully met; but that every time “they” attack us it is found that those “certain conditions” were definitely not met.
In order to figure out which side’s actions are legitimate and moral, we would have to decide which side’s claims we would be willing to accept regarding the justness of their cause, the purity of their intentions, the legality of the means used, and the guilt of their victims.
Who decides, then, as to which side’s interpretation is correct regarding whether or not the “certain conditions” in question were actually met? In most cases, it is the perpetrators themselves who act as their own judges and, unsurprisingly, find the defendants not guilty. The futility of this kind of “justice” is obvious.
When a similar dispute arises in civilized societies regarding, for example, the death of a single person, we refuse to take either party’s claims at face value, which is why we have courts and judges and juries and laws and procedures to decide the matter in as fair and transparent a manner as possible. On the other hand, when it comes to the killing of hundreds, or thousands, or millions of people . . . somehow we don’t feel that the matter should be referred to a neutral authority who would have jurisdiction over both parties, which is why the United Nations or the International Court of Justice are such impotent bodies. The powerful nations of the world are not willing to accept any neutral authority to judge any dispute in which they are a party. I suspect this is due to their awareness of how flimsy and ridiculous their defense will look like if it was actually made in a real court.
This tendency to judge while refusing to be judged is an important characteristic of powerful nations; it is a tendency that sends out a loud and clear message to everyone: In any conflict, the side that is able to kill and destroy the most, and is then able to get away with it, will not only be victorious but its cause will also be celebrated as righteous and just. Those whom we have labelled “terrorists” are merely people who have received, accepted, and internalized this message . . . and are actively putting it into practice. If we don’t like what “they” are doing, perhaps we should take a closer look at their underlying logic and then, given we can exercise enough courage, compare it with the logic that motivates “us.”
In the absence of a legitimate and neutral authority that is able to implement its judgments, the question of just and unjust forms of organized violence will continue to elude the possibility of effective resolution. In the absence of such an authority, disputes will continue to be settled either by the threat or by the actual use of deadly force. As military technology advances, the world is going to become become more and more dangerous. The forces of globalization will ensure that if a single place on earth is unsafe, no place on earth can enjoy safety. So long as inequality before the law remains the basic principle of international politics, it will remain impossible to consistently and logically maintain the distinction between “war” and “terrorism.”