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 (http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/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.