Reviewing Terrorism

Since Irfan and I have been discussing terrorism lately, I was intrigued by the recent review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews of Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified: the Use and Misuse of Political Violence ( The review strikes me as a bad review in a number of ways, but, probably unintentionally, illustrates what seems to me to be the relatively sterile character of debates about how to understand ‘terrorism.’

Medina presents two definitions, one offered by opponents of terrorism and one offered by ‘apologists’:

1. The use of political violence by individuals or groups who, with the aim of influencing a domestic or an international audience, deliberately or recklessly inflict substantive undeserved harm or threaten to do so on those who can beyond reasonable doubt be conceived of as innocent noncombatants.

2. The use of political violence by individuals or groups, provided they are not engaged in an interstate armed conflict, who deliberately inflict substantive harm or threaten to do so against their alleged enemies, aiming at influencing a domestic or international audience.

Meggle, the reviewer, complains sensibly that because these two definitions are so different, Medina’s distinction between opponents and apologists of terrorism is problematic; after all, the same person could oppose terrorism on the first definition and endorse it on the second. The complaint seems undermined at least somewhat by the fact that, as Meggle points out, these are in fact the definitions that tend to be offered by opponents and apologists alike. Part of what we’re dealing with in debates about terrorism is rival conceptions of what terrorism is. I of course haven’t read Medina’s book, so I can’t say whether he gives a muddled treatment of the issue or not. But my main reaction to Meggle’s giving so much attention to the proper definition of terrorism is that it’s a huge waste of time and a distraction from the important questions. Of course, it may not be mere semantic bickering. We might think that, if we suppose that ‘terrorism,’ whatever else it is, refers to certain sorts of violent acts but not to other sorts, then one or another of the rival definitions does better at capturing what it is that distinguishes violent acts of this sort from others, and that working with the definition that does that will enable us to think more clearly about political violence. I’m not confident that the word ‘terrorism’ does in fact refer to any unified kind of thing rather than a loosely unified set of things that resemble each other in various ways, so I don’t think much is to be gained by treating it as though it were a natural kind term and having serious debates about its essence — at least, not much is to be gained by doing that rather than simply disambiguating different uses of the word. The important question seems to be, ‘what kinds of political violence are justified and what kinds aren’t?’ I don’t see how it helps to think about that question to bicker about the proper definition of terrorism when it is possible instead simply to say, ‘ok, you guys use the word in this way, let’s call that X; these other guys use the word in this way, let’s call that Y,’ and so on.

Meggle gives about half the review to the definitional disputes. When he comes to the substantive moral argument, his treatment seems uncharitable and dismissive — and I can see that without even having read Medina’s book. In particular, Medina puts a good deal of weight on a distinction between justification and excusability, a distinction that Meggle brusquely labels ‘doublespeak.’ Now, I don’t think it’s clear that such a distinction is obviously sound and important, and perhaps Medina makes a mess of it, but it surely does not merit this kind of treatment. It, or something like it, is familiar from certain treatments of moral dilemmas that argue, very plausibly in my view, that we should recognize at least the possibility of ‘tragic’ dilemmas, dilemmas in which any course of action open to us involves some form of wrongdoing, whether injustice or something else. We can, the thought goes, be in such a dilemma even when one course of action is clearly the ‘right’ one, the one that we should choose. The problem isn’t that the dilemma is irresolvable, but that even the right resolution involves doing something bad and regrettable (we find a good statement of this view in chapter 3 of Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics). We might, of course, want to say that in such cases the course of action that represents the right resolution of the dilemma is justified, and there is surely a sense of that term in which that is true (it seems obviously false to say that it was the right resolution of the dilemma but that it was unjustified). But for all this shows, we might simply need to work with a more fine-grained set of concepts than ‘justification.’ That is in fact part of Hursthouse’s point: in one sense the right resolution of a tragic dilemma is a ‘right action,’ but in another equally important sense it is not a ‘right action.’

Of course, Medina’s justification/excusability distinction may not map well onto Hursthouse’s discussion of tragic dilemmas — it’s impossible to say without having read the book, because all Meggle tells us about it is that he regards it as an unpersuasive case of doublespeak. To my mind, it hits upon an important question: whether there can be actions that are unjust and yet ones which we have equal or better reason to do than not to do. It’s easy to see why one might want to reject this possibility, but it seems apparent to me that if one should never do what is unjust in any circumstances, that is a substantive claim and not merely a conceptual truth about justice (or ‘morality,’ for that matter). This is the possibility I raised in my earlier discussion with Irfan about Nat Turner and the Palestinian resistance: perhaps in certain circumstances of desperation people have insufficient reason to be just. That seems to me at least to be a coherent question. It also seems to be the question that Medina discusses under the rubric of circumstances of ‘extreme emergency,’ and despite Meggle’s dismissive treatment of Medina’s answer, it sounds like a very plausible one to me.

If something like that is true, then it could enable us to solve the sort of puzzle I raised earlier in my discussion with Irfan: how can we coherently think that governments ought to avoid policies that give rise to terrorism without either accepting that terrorism is a justified response to those policies or simply capitulating to terrorist threats? Though I don’t think it is the only way to resolve that puzzle, if certain circumstances are such that people genuinely do not have sufficient reasons to prefer justice over injustice, then there would be ample reason to avoid creating those circumstances. I don’t mean to suggest that the Israeli occupation is such a circumstance; I don’t know enough about it to take any strong view on the matter. Nor do I mean to suggest that any other perpetrators of ‘Islamic terrorism’ — or any other perpetrators of terrorism at all — are in such circumstances. I suspect that they are not. Perhaps Nat Turner and his accomplices were; I don’t know. But it seems like an open question that we can coherently ask, and widely held assumptions about rationality and morality do not allow us to ask it coherently, because they suppose that moral requirements can only be violated if they are rationally overriding.

6 thoughts on “Reviewing Terrorism

  1. I’m going to keep this comment very short, because I’ve neither read the NDPR review nor (yet) read Medina’s book, and I have yet to respond to your previous comment on this topic. I agree with part of what you say, but don’t agree with all of it.

    It’s true that the underlying issue in debates about terrorism is “What kinds of political violence are justified, what kinds not?” In my view, that question presupposes an answer to a set of more fundamental questions:

    (1) What is “force” (and what is its relation to such phenomena as “coercion,” “violence,” and the like)?
    (2) When is the use of force morally justified in human life, and why?

    I don’t think your question about political violence can be answered by bracketing the two questions (or sets of questions) I’ve just posed. To my mind, the failure to discuss terrorism (or political violence) by first settling those fundamental questions is what explains the apparent futility or interminability of discussions of the subject.

    I think it’s intuitively plausible to think that “terrorism” names an unjustified use of fear-instilling violence for any purpose, political or otherwise (on my view, schoolyard bullies are mini-terrorists). The apparent mistake in Medina’s analysis is his mis-analysis (so to speak) of the genus of the concept. Contrary to the definitions you’ve given in your post, the genus of terrorism is not “use of political violence” but “unjustified use of force.” (Terrorism can take place through cybercrime, but cybercrime probably does not qualify as “violent.”) What he’s done is to leave the genus much too broad and leave its main concepts unanalyzed, then move on to derivative or secondary issues concerning “terrorism” without having gotten the preliminary matters in place.

    My proposal: If we divide the genus of force-uses into all-in justified and all-in unjustified, then subdivide the all-in justified into primarily fear-instilling and not-primarily-fear-instilling, we’ve isolated the rationale for a unified concept of “terrorism.” Once the analysis is completed, we’re justified in condemning all terrorism as unjustified, regardless of who perpetrates it or why. But that’s the last step in an account which begins with answers to the two questions I blockquoted above.

    My suspicion is that too many theorists start with an ad hoc but politically motivated set of non-negotiable paradigms of “terrorism” that must be condemned, then try to formulate their definition of “terrorism” to fit these paradigms, then run into trouble arriving at a unified conception of terrorism, not because terrorism isn’t a natural kind, but because they’ve begun with paradigms that, on closer inspection, have nothing in common (or don’t have enough in common to yield a coherent concept of terrorism).

    You’re right to say that the real issue is justification, not how we define “terrorism” at the start of the inquiry. It’s a mistake to try to define “terrorism” at the start of an inquiry into the nature of force in the first place. What we first need is an account of force (not at all a trivial task), and an account of its justified and unjustified uses. But “terrorism” strikes me as a useful concept, and not one we should throw out because this or that analysis fails to capture its essence.

    More in a bit. I should mention, as I did on Facebook, that the Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs (which I run) will be holding an author-meets-critics symposium on Medina’s book sometime in the spring of 2018.

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    • I don’t know if I’d call that comment ‘very short,’ but I’m the one complaining about semantic bickering, so I’ll refrain from indulging in it. Besides, I know what you’re capable of.

      I’m not entirely sure that I’d agree with making the nature and justifiability of force the fundamental issue, but only because I haven’t thought enough about what that might involve. In general, I have no objection to your claim that addressing questions about the (un)justifiability of political violence requires answering more basic questions such as those you raise about force. Nor did I mean to suggest otherwise. Whether or not force would play the central role that you seem to want to carve out for it, it’s clear that if we want to give some kind of philosophical or theoretical account of what sorts of political violence are (un)justified and why, we’ll need to appeal to some more basic notions, and we’d better get those right.

      Nor, however, am I sure that Medina or other theorists can fairly be accused of ignoring such questions. I haven’t read Medina’s book either, but from a quick skim it hardly seems to ignore them; while it could be mistaken, my impression is that it is Meggle’s review, not Medina’s book, that gives disproportionate attention to the definitional question and insufficient attention to the more basic conceptual and normative questions (to judge by the ToC, Medina’s book gives ten pages to definitional questions and over 150 to the normative questions). More generally, while I haven’t read enough work on this topic to have any firm views about how good or bad the state of the discussion is, I’d be surprised if serious political theorists writing on terrorism ignore these questions. They may well not answer them in a way that you’d find remotely satisfactory, but my sense is that it is widely acknowledged that it matters a great deal how a treatment of terrorism answers more basic questions. Perhaps you have in mind the broader discussion of terrorism that takes place beyond the pages of academic philosophical writing; in that case, my experience certainly suggests that there is nothing like adequate attention paid to more fundamental questions (though that’s hardly unique to discussions of terrorism).

      I don’t have any particularly strong objections to your proposal about how to proceed in working out a definition of ‘terrorism,’ but it’s immediately clear that it’s a controversial one, and since it effectively stipulates that ‘terrorism’ shall name something unjustified, it’s not clear why those who prefer a definition that doesn’t define terrorism into unjustifiability should accept it. I can see just as good reason to think that ‘terrorism’ should be defined in a way that doesn’t make unjustifiability a necessary condition of the concept’s application. As it stands, I draw no conclusions one way or the other because I can see more or less equally plausible reasons on different sides and therefore none of them seem decisive. I might conceivably be persuaded that one or another way really is the best way to use the term. But I don’t see how a debate between your approach and some others to defining the concept would have any particular bearing on the question that you agree is the one that really matters, viz. what is justified and what isn’t. Your opponents could just as well say, “ok, fine, you use the word ‘terrorism’ however you want; I won’t call the indiscriminate attacks on innocent non-combatants that I take to be justified ‘terrorism,’ I’ll just call them ‘righteous resistance’; if anything, that’s a better label for me.” Of course such an opponent might disagree with you about what is and isn’t justified, too, but from where I sit that is what matters, and whether your use of ‘terrorism’ is the ‘right’ one — if there can even be a single right use of the term — is of no deep importance. You call it ‘terrorism’ if you regard it as unjustified and otherwise not; someone else calls it ‘terrorism’ on the grounds that it has certain non-normative properties X and Y and takes it to be a further question whether it is justified. I really don’t see why we should suppose that disagreements of that sort are important.

      ‘Terrorism’ may well be a useful concept; I’ve certainly no objection to concepts that apply only to acts that are unjustified or otherwise bad, so I’m not objecting to your preferred approach on those grounds. What I don’t see is that there is really any serious disagreement between you and Medina’s ‘apologists’ simply because you use the same word in markedly different ways (whatever serious disagreements there are will lie elsewhere, it seems). When a term is used in markedly different ways by different people who differ in theoretical approach and agenda, that may be a good reason to avoid using a term altogether. Or it may just be a reason to be precise about how you’re using a term. But if there’s a serious disagreement, the parties to the disagreement have to be talking about the same thing. It’s not clear that Medina’s opponents and ‘apologists’ have such a disagreement simply because they operate with different definitions of terrorism; nor is Meggle’s alternative proposal obviously an alternative way of understanding or assessing the same thing; it seems to be merely a proposal about how to use a word. Maybe it isn’t, but I’m not seeing how.

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