Most recent alteration:
November 5, 2003

The main article below was originally composed in late 2000.
Only minor changes have been made since September 11, 2001.

Author: Jan Garrett

For related reading, see The Just War Theory and Self-Determination.

Also, see the discussion of terrorism by philosopher Noam Chomsky in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Jacques Thiroux, author of Ethics: Theory and Practice (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2001, 1998) is mistaken when he suggests that the defining feature of terrorism is that it is motivated by a desire to protest an opinion.

What terrorism aims to do is to challenge a political or social reality (or what the terrorists perceive as political or social reality). Settler regimes use terrorism to drive out natives from land the settlers wish to occupy on the cheap. The Irish Republican Army wishes to challenge the discriminatory treatment of Irish Catholics by Protestants in the North of Ireland, and the division of Ireland that makes the Catholics an oppressed minority in the North. The Oklahoma City bomber probably hoped to spark an uprising against the liberal police state he imagined to operate out of Washington DC. When terrorists target religious or ethnic groups, the reason is a desire to reduce the influence these groups are believed to have or to drive them away or to set an example in hopes that others will follow and exterminate them.

More adequate is C.A. J. Coady's definition (from C. A. J. Coady,"Terrorism," Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. L. C. Becker [New York: Garland Publishing, 1992], 1241-44):

[Suppose] we define terrorism as the tactic of intentionally targeting noncombatants with lethal or severe violence for political purposes.
Coady adds:
. . . We might narrow the definition in certain respects by incorporating a reference to the idea that the attacks or threats are meant to produce political results via the creation of fear and we could widen it by including noncombatant property as a target where it is significantly related to life and security.

Such a definition will not require secret armies nor the idea of indiscriminate violence. Terrorism does not have to be indiscriminate, in the sense of random or irrational, but it will violate the normal discriminations favoring noncombatant immunity. . . .

It is important to note that terrorism is not defined by the precise nature of one's social or political goals. Terrorists can have awful goals: ethnic cleansing, preservation of a dictatorship against the will of the people, preservation of oppressive regimes. They can also have noble goals, including the ending of oppression against people who really are being oppressed. Jacques Thiroux to the contrary, terrorism is a tactic that can be used by states, including big powers, as well as insurgent groups.

Coady writes that his approach to defining terrorism:

. . . helps to raise sharply the moral analogies between the State's use of violence against nonlegitimate targets, either in State-to-State warfare or against its own citizens, and the political violence of non-State agencies against similarly illegitimate targets. There is a genuine case to be made in support of the common accusation that States, too, use terrorism.
Political violence is a broader category than terrorist violence. Poliltical violence can be wrong even when it does not involve terrorism. As Coady says:
Perpetrators of an unjust war or an unjust revolution [or, we might add, an unjust suppression of a democratic reform movement--J.G.] do a great wrong even where they do not kill or endanger noncombatants.
The notion of noncombatant is key to Coady's definition. He says
. . .The concept . . . needs clarification, especially for the case of revolutionary violence . . . The distinction between combatant and noncombatant is clearly more difficult in subversive [=revolutionary?--J.G.] war than "normal" war. In normal war the immunity of noncombatants is a basic principle because our justification for using lethal violence is specified by the need to deal with those who are prosecuting the evil which gives us just cause.
The justifiable goal of political struggle, as of war, is a just and lasting peace. For these reasons
. . . It is important . . . not to identify people as combatants too readily. Both revolutionaries and governments lose support by slaughtering village administrators, and killing peasants or destroying villages on suspicion, not to mention the difficulties created for postwar reconstruction by such policies. A genuine reluctance to harm noncombatants will be exhibited in the reluctance to classify people as combatants even where this involves a degree of real risk to one's life and cause.
Violation of the rules of jus in bello (proportionality, minimization of harm to innocents) can generate a charge that one is acting in a terrorist spirit. Coady writes:
. . . If terrorism is defined in terms of violent attacks on noncombatants, then certain actions or policies which will not strictly count as terrorist can nonetheless be carried out in a terrorist spirit because they show indifference to the welfare of noncombatants. If a grenade and machine gun attack is made against soldiers on duty in a crowd of civilians when it could have been made when they were alone, it would be understandable to describe the attack as terrorist simply because the civilian casualties were eminently avoidable.
Terrorist policies are subject to a general consequentialist criticism: As Coady writes, ". . . it is by no means clear that terrorism can be expected to work. . . It is often doubtful whether there is any reasonable prospect of success."

Further Observations

1. It seems to me that state terrorism is always wrong because it violates the just war theory, in particular the prohibition under jus in bello against intentionally targeting noncombatants. (For more on just war theory, see, among other things, Just War Theory and Self-Determination.)

2. Nonstate terrorism is always wrong when it is motivated by racial or religious intolerance, a desire for ethnic cleansing, or the suppression of reform movements critical of unjust social arrangements.

3. Nonstate terrorism is always wrong when it is motivated by a radical misperception of the facts, e.g., the fantasy that the U.S. is about to turn its sovereignty over to the United Nations.

4. Regimes that violate human rights often use terrorism to block political movements that seek to secure those rights.

5. Members or representatives of groups whose human rights have been systematically violated may be tempted to engage in terrorism out of a belief that it may be more effective in promoting those human rights than other forms of struggle. Yet it is highly doubtful that terrorism is an effective method of promoting human rights. In fact, it usually helps oppressor groups to demonize the leaders of oppressed populations and rationalize the continued subjugation of those groups.

6. States that knowingly provide material or intelligence support to paramilitary groups that terrorize reform movements and their leaders are morally blameworthy for aiding and abetting indefensible acts of terrorism.

7. Nongovernment democratic reform movements are not necessarily engaging in terrorism when

a) there is widespread systematic social injustice
b) attempts to correct this through peaceful means are met with systematic repression by the state or paramilitary terrorist groups operating with collusion of the state
c) the democratic reform movement is growing
d) this movement cannot operate openly for fear of being violently liquidated
and (e) this movement develops its military self-defense units in order to defend itself and, when all attempts to resolve social justice issues by peaceful legal means are thwarted by state-sponsored violence, eventually to engage in military confrontations with the regime and paramilitaries.

In other words, not every use of violence by insurgent groups is necessarily terrorist. (It might be wrong or ill-advised for other reasons, but that is another issue.)

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Interview with Noam Chomsky

Excerpts from an interview with philosopher and social critic Noam Chomsky in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon from "Interview 5,", taken from the zmag.org website on 9-30-01:
I understand the term "terrorism" exactly in the sense defined in official [U.S.] documents: "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear."

In accord with this -- entirely appropriate -- definition, the recent attack on the [U.S.] is certainly an act of terrorism, in fact, a horrifying terrorist crime. There is scarcely any disagreement about this throughout the world, nor should there be.

But alongside the literal meaning of the term, as just quoted from [U.S.] official documents, there is also a propagandistic usage, which unfortunately is the standard one: the term "terrorism" is used to refer to terrorist acts committed by enemies against us or our allies. Political scientist Michael Stohl is quite correct when he writes that "we must recognize that by convention [i.e., by the customs of the powerful--J.G.]-- and it must be emphasized only by convention -- great power use and the threat of the use of force is normally described as coercive diplomacy and not as a form of terrorism," though it commonly involves "the threat and often the use of violence for what would be described as terroristic purposes were it not great powers who were pursuing the very same tactic."

This propagandistic use is virtually universal. Everyone "condemns terrorism," in this sense of the term. The Nazis harshly condemned terrorism, and carried out counter-terrorism against the terrorist partisans -- in Greece, for example. The US basically agreed. It organized and conducted similar "counter-terrorism" in Greece and elsewhere in the postwar years. Furthermore, us counterinsurgency programs drew quite explicitly from the Nazi model, which was treated with respect: Wehrmacht officers were consulted and their manuals were used in designing postwar counterinsurgency programs worldwide, typically called "counter-terrorism."

Given these conventions, even the very same people and actions can quickly shift from "terrorists" to "freedom fighters" and back again. That's been happening right next door to Greece in recent years. The kla-uck were officially condemned by the us as "terrorists" in 1998, because of their attacks on Serb police and civilians in an effort to elicit a disproportionate and brutal Serbian response, as they openly declared. As late as January 1999, the British -- the most hawkish element in [NATO] on this matter -- believed that the kla-uck was responsible for more deaths than Serbia, which is hard to believe, but at least tells us something about perceptions at high levels in nato. If one can trust the voluminous documentation provided by the state department, [NATO], the [OSCE], and other western sources, nothing materially changed on the ground until the withdrawal of the kvm monitors and the bombing in late [M]arch 1999. But policies did change: the [U.S.] and UK decided to launch an attack on Serbia, and the "terrorists" instantly became "freedom fighters." after the war, they became "terrorists," "thugs," and "murderers" as they carried out similar actions in Macedonia, a [U.S.] ally.

Everyone condemns terrorism, but we have to ask what they mean. You can find the answer to your question about my views in many books and articles that [I] have written about terrorism in the past several decades, though [I] use the term in the literal sense, and hence condemn all terrorist actions, not only those that are called "terrorist" for propagandistic reasons.

It should be unnecessary to point out that massive terrorism is a standard device of powerful states, just as Stohl observes. Some cases are not even controversial. Take the us war against Nicaragua, leaving tens of thousands dead and the country in ruins. Nicaragua appealed to the world court, which condemned the us for international terrorism ("the unlawful use of force"), ordering it to desist and pay substantial reparations. The [U.S.] responded to the court ruling by sharply escalating the war, and vetoing a security council resolution calling on all states to observe international law. The escalation included official orders to attack "soft targets" -- undefended civilian targets, like agricultural collectives and health clinics -- and to avoid the Nicaraguan army. The terrorists were able to carry out these instructions, thanks to the completely control of Nicaraguan air space by the us and the advanced communications equipment provided to them by their supervisors.

It should also be recognized that these terrorist actions were widely approved [not, of course, by Chomsky--J.G.]. One prominent commentator, Michael Kinsley, at the liberal extreme of the mainstream, argued that we should not simply dismiss state department justifications for terrorist attacks on "soft targets": a "sensible policy" must "meet the test of cost-benefit analysis," an analysis of "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end" -- "democracy" as the US understands the term, an interpretation illustrated quite clearly in the region. It is taken for granted that US elites have the right to conduct the analysis and pursue the project if it passes their tests. When the terrorist project succeeded, and Nicaragua succumbed, Americans were "united in joy," the New York Times proclaimed, knowing full well how the goal was achieved. As Time magazine put it joyfully, the methods were to "wreck the economy and prosecute a long and deadly proxy war until the exhausted natives overthrow the unwanted government themselves," with a cost to us that is "minimal," leaving the victim "with wrecked bridges, sabotaged power stations, and ruined farms," and thus providing the [U.S.] candidate with "a winning issue": ending the "impoverishment of the people of Nicaragua." euphoria over the achievement was unconstrained among elites.

But the US terrorist war was not [called] "terrorism" [by the U.S. media and the U.S. government], it was "counter-terrorism" by doctrinal standards. And [U.S.] standards prevail in much of the world, as a result of [U.S.] power and the cost of defying it.

This is by no means the most extreme example; [I] mention it because it is uncontroversial, given the [W]orld [C]ourt decision, and because the failed efforts of [N]icaragua to pursue lawful means, instead of setting off bombs in [W]ashington, provide a model for today, not the only one.