The word “terrorism” needs to be defined, if for no other reason than at least to challenge its misuse.
Charles Webel, in Terror, Terrorism, and the Human Condition, asks us to consider the effects of this phenomenon as the main criterion for its definition. The primary effect of terrorism, obviously, is the deliberate creation of terror, or intense fear, in the target population, as a means of coercion. Webel then argues that there are two kinds of terrorism, depending not on the motivation of the perpetrators but on their power to terrify. There is, then, Terrorism from Above (TFA) and Terrorism from Below (TFB), where the former includes state terrorism and the latter includes terrorism by non-state entities.
If terrorism is defined from the viewpoint of its victims, in terms of the intense fear that it creates in those who are targeted, then it could hardly be disputed that a typical modern state enjoys a power and a capacity to terrorize that is thousands of times greater than the power and the capacity for doing the same that is possessed by all terrorist groups combined.
This is not to absolve sub-state entities of their crimes against humanity; it is to emphasize, on the contrary, the tremendous difference between the ability of a modern state and the ability of a sub-state entity to terrorize a given population and to coerce them into submission. Nor is this difference merely theoretical or statistical. It can be easily demonstrated by placing side by side the number of human beings killed or injured by the violence of the state in any given historical period and of those killed by the violence of sub-state entities during the same period. To condemn the organized violence that is carried out from below while disregarding the same when it is carried out from above is an inconsistency that betrays a deeper problem, i.e., it is not organized violence that is being condemned but only certain people or causes. This can be seen most blatantly when we disregard the tremendous difference in suffering.
On the other hand, if we are bothered by organized violence as such, then we ought to be able to distinguish the big actors from the marginal ones. After all, the marginal ones are only taking the basic assumptions that are championed by the big actors themselves and then taking them to their logical conclusion. If the reasoning of the marginal actors is faulty, the same should be recognized for the reasoning of the big actors. Furthermore, if we are truly interested in addressing the problem of organized violence, then it should be obvious to us where most of our efforts should be directed . . . exactly where most of the problem is situated.
When talking about TFA and TFB, we are dealing with the same kind of distinction that exists between wholesalers and retailers. If certain drugs are illegal, for example, then going after a petty drug dealer in the local neighborhood should not make us forget those who are moving megatons of the same stuff from one continent to another. In fact, the “war against drugs” is doomed to fail if we don’t take the wholesalers into consideration, for, obviously, the retailers would be out of business if there were no wholesalers. The same goes for the “war on terror.”
Igor Primoratz, like Charles Webel, defines terrorism in terms of its observed and observable aspects, which gives us a perspective outside of legal and moral judgments . . . a perspective based only upon what is actually there. As we saw in the case of “organized violence,” this way of looking at the phenomenon of terrorism does not allow us to make distinctions in terms of motives (religious or secular) or permissibility (moral or immoral). The advantage of this approach is that it unmasks the attempt to confuse the issue by those who would condemn TFB while carrying out TFA.
Our condemnation of terrorism, then, should transcend our preference for certain motives over others. Terrorism is to be condemned whether it is religiously motivated or politically motivated, whether it is carried out in the name of God or in the name of democracy. After all, the nature of the motivation makes no difference to the victims. Similarly, our condemnation of terrorism should transcend our tendency to base permissibility upon magnitude; large-scale terrorism is no more justifiable than small-scale terrorism. If anything, the magnitude should have the opposite effect; we should condemn large-scale incidents of organized violence more than we do small-scale ones.
From a phenomenological viewpoint, as well as from the victims’ perspective, there is no essential difference between the forms of organized violence that are variously labelled as “war” and “terrorism.” Both are intentional and planned destruction of human lives; neither differentiates between military and civilian targets; and neither makes any real attempt to prevent harm to noncombatants. Some people claim that when a state carries out organized violence it is war; if a sub-state entity does it then it is terror. Yet, this distinction does not tell us anything about permissibility, for many nation-states have emerged in and through organized violence carried out by sub-state entities, including the United States and Israel. If a state comes into being through terrorism, would it be considered a legitimate state? If yes, would the terrorism that led to its creation be then recognized as legitimate and re-named “freedom struggle” or “the war for liberation”? Can we treat the violence of PLO or the Hamas in the same way? Or, to take an extreme case, if Al-Qaeda succeeds in establishing the Caliphate, God forbid, would the violence of 9/11 be then legitimized as part of its “liberation struggle” and would schools and hospitals be named after the 19 hijackers? To complicate the matters further, many non-state terrorist groups are actively supported by states in the course of their “proxy wars,” and, even more frequently, certain elements within a particular state structure may support certain sub-state terrorist groups without the knowledge or consent of their own political authorities. Are these forms of violence legitimate insofar as states are involved?
The legitimacy of organized violence has, in fact, nothing to do with the legitimacy of its perpetrators’ authority. Most of these judgements are made post facto, and in a rather arbitrary and inconsistent manner, alluding to the many irrational variables that shape our beliefs. Since the victors write history, it is often the “success” of organized violence that legitimizes it in the eyes of the posterity, and its “failure” that makes subsequent generations condemn it as immoral. What was so “great” about Alexander except that his campaigns of organized violence “succeeded”?
To link the legitimacy of a given authority to the permissibility of its violence is problematic for other reasons as well. In many international conflicts, the legitimacy of a given authority is itself in dispute, which cannot therefore be used to justify the actions of that authority. Furthermore, a large moral and legal gulf separates the legitimacy of an authority from the legitimacy of its decisions and polices. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was a legitimate ruler according to the standards of Western democracy, yet that fact was considered completely irrelevant to the legitimacy of his actions. Similarly, the standard of “open declaration” versus secrecy and surprise doesn’t work either; our common sense rebels against accepting any notion that makes organized violence legitimate simply because the perpetrators had announced their intentions in advance. After all, the leaders of Al-Qaeda too have issued such declarations; in fact, they did so as early as 1996. Yet, none of those declarations made their attacks legitimate.
All supposed distinctions between legitimate war and illegitimate terrorism turn out to be either arbitrary, politically motivated, or otherwise irrelevant. The worst problem, however, is that theoretical distinctions are never applied in any consistent and objective manner to actual cases. We use different standards when judging ourselves as opposed to judging others. We resort to these devices because the door that we open for the purpose of allowing “our” organized violence is the same door that also allows “their” organized violence to go through. When we allow war, we have to accept terrorism if we wish to remain consistent; on the other hand, if we wish to eradicate terrorism, we have to do the same for war.
The problem is organized violence, not “terrorism,” and the solution is organized peacemaking, not “war on terror.”