Terrorism Justified: A Response to Vicente Medina

[This is a draft of the paper I’ll be presenting this Saturday at the Author Meets Critics session I’m organizing on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence, featuring presentations by Theresa Fanelli (Felician), Graham Parsons (West Point), and myself, with a response by Vicente Medina (Seton Hall). Comments welcome. For a link to an earlier discussion of Medina’s book at PoT, go here.]

Terrorism Justified: Comment on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified
Author Meets Critics Session
Felician University, Rutherford, New Jersey
April 21, 2018
Irfan Khawaja
Felician University

  1. Introduction

Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified offers a comprehensive, clear, and thorough critique of terrorism. There’s a sense in which I agree with and greatly admire Medina’s argument, and a sense in which I fundamentally disagree with and reject it. In this paper, I’ll focus on the disagreement, in the hopes that in doing so, the implicit agreement will come out as well.

I begin in Section 2 by making some critical observations on Medina’s definition of “terrorism.” The definition, I suggest, pushes the reader in two different directions—a categorical rejection of terrorism, and a subtly conditional one. On the latter interpretation, terrorism can be justified, but only in situations that Medina regards as extremely implausible and unlikely. In Section 3, I offer an extended thought-experiment, verging on a fable, intended to give plausibility one such situation. In other words, the case I describe is one in which it seems (to me) justifiable to target people that Medina would regard as “innocent noncombatants,” or else to inflict foreseeable harm on them without having to meet a “reasonable doubt” criterion as to their moral status. In Sections 4 and 5, I make explicit what the fable leaves implicit.

 2. Some observations on Medina’s definition of “terrorism”

Though the book addresses a fair bit of complexity, the crux of Medina’s argument is straightforward, and proceeds in essence as follows: Since, even in warfare, innocent noncombatants enjoy categorical immunity from the deliberate or reckless infliction of substantive harm, all such harm is undeserved, and being undeserved, is always (or almost always) impermissible. Since the infliction even of foreseeable harm requires stringent protection for the innocent, foreseeable harm becomes reckless (hence impermissible) when inflicted on those who are not believed beyond a reasonable doubt to be guilty. Any attempt to flout one or both of these norms would be morally wrong. Terrorism flouts both, and is thus doubly wrong.

In a deeper sense, terrorism flouts the complex application of a single norm, the Principle of Double Effect, or alternatively, St. Paul’s principle that evil ought never to be done that good (or imagined good) may come. So while some individual terrorists may well be craven criminals or unhinged psychopaths, in a more fundamental sense, terrorism is a kind of teleology or consequentialism run wild: even at their best, terrorists are people unwilling to observe humanly decent limits on their promotion of justice or well-being.

Despite the extensive attempts made to rationalize or excuse it (Medina’s argument continues), terrorism stands condemned: like murder but unlike homicide or warfare, terrorism is always wrong; like the word “murder” and unlike the words “homicide” and “warfare,” the word “terrorism” should always be used, whether in legal or other contexts, to denote something morally impermissible and out of bounds. That said, our attempts to deal with terrorism ought themselves to be kept in bounds, lest they come to mimic the terrorism we oppose.

Medina formally defines terrorism as “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 do so on those who can beyond reasonable doubt be conceived as innocent noncombatants.”[1] The definition, I think, aptly captures the essence of his argument. Four observations are worth making about the definition, and by implication, the argument for adopting it.

First, note that the genus of the definition is “use of political violence.” This genus is contestable from a variety of different perspectives. As Medina notes, feminist commentators have quarreled with the idea that terrorism is necessarily a use of political violence; perhaps domestic violence, apolitically conceived, is a form of terrorism.[2] One might also, in an age of cyberterrorism, quarrel with the idea that terrorism requires violence: it’s not clear that a virus-based computer shut-down is violent.

I myself would contest the idea that a definition of terrorism should describe it merely as a use of violence rather than an initiatory use. There is a fundamental moral difference between an initiatory use of violence and a response to one.[3] That distinction is so fundamental (I would argue) that it ought to be the focus of an analysis of terrorism, and an explicit part of the definition of the term.  In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that  Medina is unaware of the distinction, or that he ignores it in the book. I simply note for now that the distinction takes a back seat to other considerations in his definition and argument.

Second, notice that the phrase “aim of influencing a domestic or an international audience” is neutral as between the kinds of messages that one might send through the use of violence. One kind of message might be termed dramatic or spectacular: one uses violence primarily to put on a kind of show for as-yet uninvolved third parties, in order to draw those third parties’ attention to one’s cause. But a very different kind of message might be termed defensive or deterrence-based: one uses violence in response to someone who has initiated that violence, the message being to cease and desist from it. Again, I don’t mean to suggest that Medina’s account contradicts this distinction. I mean that like the initiatory/retaliatory distinction, it takes a back seat to other things.

Third, as Medina himself recognizes in the middle chapters of the book, the criteria for someone’s being an “innocent noncombatant” are highly contestable. Thus someone might well accept Medina’s definition of “terrorism,” but reject his account of who qualifies as an “innocent combatant.” Such a person would in one sense agree, and in another sense disagree with Medina’s account.

Finally, someone might accept the claim that innocent noncombatants enjoy immunity against deliberate harm-infliction, but think (like Medina himself) that innocent noncombatants do not enjoy immunity against foreseeable harm-infliction. But such a person might quarrel with the idea that the relevant standard for foreseeably inflicting harm on someone is the juridical one Medina embeds in his definition—guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This critic might well agree that while we ought not to target “impeccably innocent” civilians, we can, in targeting others, resign ourselves to harming innocent civilians as long as we foresee rather than intend the harm that befalls them. We need not be able to distinguish the guilty from the innocent “beyond a reasonable doubt,” however: juridical standards (the critic might continue) apply in courtrooms, not battlefields. Battlefields require battle-appropriate standards, and “certainty beyond a reasonable doubt” is not feasibly applied there. So a less demanding standard will do.

So far, none of these observations, whether jointly or individually, adds up to a full-blown criticism of Medina’s argument; they’re merely observations offered more or less in passing. Jointly, however, they do draw attention to a possibility that Medina either overlooks or underplays, and that I regard as a counter-example to his view.

What if there was a form of political violence with the following features?

  • It was a retaliatory response to someone else’s initiated violence.
  • The message it sent was intended primarily for the initiators of that violence, and primarily told them to cease and desist from it.
  • The violence inflicted harm on a population whose members were a complex combination of guilty and innocent people.
  • The culpable substantially outnumbered the innocent.
  • Only the guilty were targeted for harm, but
  • Instead of satisfying a “reasonable doubt” standard, targets were selected on the basis of a strong probability that the culpable would be harmed, treating collateral damages as foreseen rather than intended.
  • The covert intermingling of guilty and innocent in the target population was part of the strategy of aggression itself.
  • The only options faced by the victims were to enact the preceding strategy, or face subjugation and possible extermination.

The conditions in the preceding list are difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine in the abstract. They might also appear to be a contrived collection of claims artificially designed to produce a counter-example to Medina’s view. In the next section, I offer an extended thought-experiment designed to illustrate what the eight conditions would look like in just one of the sorts of case that exemplify them—asymmetric warfare against an imperialist aggressor.[4] Though hypothetical, I regard the case as sufficiently realistic to function as a coherent model of realistic possibilities (as opposed to a purely contrived or fanciful counter-example). In this case, and cases like it, I suggest, terrorism (on Medina’s definition of it) is justified.

  1. Asymmetric warfare against an imperialist aggressor: an extended thought-experiment

Imagine that you live in a place where your ancestors have lived since time immemorial. Suppose that one day that newcomers arrive on your shores, and conquer you by force: they kill you, rape you, rob you, kidnap you, torture you, and demand your subservience on pain of repeating the process until you get the message. Suppose that you somehow manage to get hold of their playbook, and it turns out to be a bastardized version of the first few chapters of Machiavelli’s Prince.[5] In particular, your conquerors espouse “Machiavelli’s” advice on the right way to consolidate a conquest, and on the correct attitude to have in political life toward morality and justice.

On the first issue, conquest, Machiavelli has two pieces of advice. The first is the valorization of conquest itself: conquest is a good thing, morally and practically. Morally, it brings the conqueror glory; practically, it brings him spoils.

Second, Machiavelli continues, it’s better to appear to be just and moral than to be so. Conquest is not easily compatible with the principles of justice; justice is both an obstacle to the act of conquest, and to the task of maintaining it. So justice has to be dispensed with, but in a clever way. It would be silly of a conqueror to repudiate justice explicitly. It makes more sense for the prince to be seen as sincerely committed to justice despite his lack of commitment. The best way to do so would be to treat justice as a default position from which deviation is always (or often) permissible. In this way, the prince may well succeed in convincing himself (or at least half-convincing oneself) of his commitment to justice, and in so doing, fully or almost fully convincing others. A Machiavellian conquest, then, is a complex combination of force and fraud.

The playbook goes on to describe the strategy of conquest. In order successfully to conquer a land, the conqueror’s first task is to ascertain whether the conquered people are fundamentally similar to the conquerors–culturally, ethnically, linguistically, religiously–or different from them.

Suppose in this case that the two peoples are fundamentally different from one another in the conquest-relevant respects. If so (Machiavelli continues), the optimal method of conquest is to colonize the conquered people. In other words, the prince is advised first to consolidate his conquest, and then to import civilians from his home country, arm at least some of them, and plant them within the conquered country. Doing so fragments the indigenous population, undermining its unity. It also surrounds them with paramilitary forces that keep them constantly in fear. Given the nearly universal taboo on attacking civilians, the imported settlers, described as “civilians,” can then be declared immune from attack. Those who attack them are demonized as enemies of humanity; their attacks, in turn, become a pretext for intensified militarization.

As an auxiliary measure (Machiavelli continues), it helps to place the capital of one’s country within the conquered territory, in part to keep the conquered people under surveillance, and in part to solidify the sense that the conquered land is part of the conqueror’s original inheritance. In other words, the conqueror regards himself as making a mythological “return” to a place that was always his. He makes sure to import civilians susceptible to this belief.

The exact status of the imported “civilian” population is somewhat tricky. At a basic level, it is there to effectuate a deliberate, explicit plan of conquest under that very description. Some of the settlers may know this, others may not. Of those who know it, some may know it explicitly, and others may know it tacitly. Of those who know it tacitly, some may be uneasily and evasively aware of it but in denial, while others may just be dimly aware. As for promoting the ends of the conquest,  some of the settlers may be willing and eager participants; others may participate, but only when called upon to do so; and some may be reluctant or even averse participants, pushed into the project through duress or coercion.

As time passes, new generations will arise in these colonies, and in different ways, the preceding considerations will come to apply to them.  But each generation’s decision about how to transmit its knowledge and roles to future generations will involve a series of choices. Unless the settlers are literally lost in amnesia, they will not be able to forget the significance of their presence in a foreign place.

We lack a fully adequate vocabulary for characterizing the complicity of the “civilian” part of the project of conquest. Some may be innocent shields, some may be culpable shields, and some may more accurately be described as spears or spear-points than shields. Ex hypothesi, a substantial number of them are somehow complicitous in the project of conquest. I would simply insist that to the extent that they are complicitous in a project of conquest, they are not “impeccably innocent.”[6]

The prince knows all of this. Adhering to no consistent principle or policy of his own, but claiming to do so, he loudly declares that while he expects some resistance from the conquered people—he isn’t naive, after all–he expects that whatever resistance they mount will at least satisfy certain civilized moral constraints. Among these is adherence to a principle of non-combatant immunity. Only savages, he says, would treat the colonizing population as a single, undifferentiated unit, or regard every member of that unit equally as a target. Civilized guerillas would differentiate between combatant and non-combatant (“civilian”) targets. Indeed, a genuinely civilized, gentlemanly guerilla, one equal to the conqueror in point of honor, would insist on pursuing the most difficult targets to hit. Morally speaking, an honorable resister would either choose to target strictly military targets, or choose the noblest path of all, the path of non-violence. For obvious reasons, the prince declines to note the (ex hypothesi) obvious: if the conquered population attacks strictly military targets, it is sure to be defeated; if it practices non-violence, it is sure to be subjugated.

Eventually, a second playbook is discovered. This playbook sounds a lot like Locke’s Second Treatise, retrofitted for the use of a Machiavellian prince.[7] This second playbook gives the prince the language of natural rights, alerting him to the rhetorical utility of appeal to this language. He quickly comes to learn that if he dresses the imperatives of conquest in the language of “rights,” things go more smoothly than they might otherwise have done: the language of rights seems to work on people like a weird sort of charm.

Granted, adoption of this language requires that the prince recognize such phenomena as “aggression,” that he repudiate any reliance on it, that he endorse the notion of a “right of self-defense,” and that he pledge to exercise this right of self-defense only against aggressors, and in a proportionate rather than disproportionate fashion. But this isn’t much of a problem for him. After all, the playbook offers no determinate account of any of these things. And a well-educated Machiavellian prince is smart enough to exploit the semantic indeterminacy of such open-textured, coarse-grain, highly contested concepts for the purpose of maintaining an occupation.

The “Lockean” playbook has a few more features. For one thing, it has a theory of property which says that we all have natural rights to property that we acquire by labor–our own, and that of our servants.[8]  We acquire property in land by a process of initial acquisition. This process, of course, comes with constraints. A person can appropriate land for his own use, but only if he intends to improve it rather than waste it, and only if he leaves “enough and as good” for others. Apart from a few primitive (but politically useful) examples, the playbook contains no account of the criteria for improvement, waste, or leaving enough and as good. It turns out that the prince has his own criteria for all of these things; as it happens, the indigenous population’s real estate holdings fail all of the relevant criteria.

From the prince’s perspective, the indigenes are a profligate, irrational, and licentious bunch: having improved nothing for generations, having wasted huge tranches of natural resources, and having taken far too much for either their own or anyone else’s good, they sit on land and water that they stubbornly claim to be theirs, won’t allow the settlers to use, and defend with violence.  Clearly, these resources have to be taken from them in the name of justice and human progress—no easy task, but one that just happens perfectly to cohere with the colonizing project that the prince had earlier conceived.

There’s one last set of claims in this quasi-Lockean playbook. Paradoxically enough, it prohibits conquest. More precisely, it prohibits aggressive conquest, defensive conquest being another thing. But obviously, when you confront someone who unjustly holds huge quantities of real estate that they won’t share with you, they’re the aggressor. So in that case–which is the case at hand–defensive conquest would be legitimate.

There is, however, one last proviso in the Lockean playbook: defensive conquest is conquest of territory, not of goods. When you conquer a territory defensively, you’re not allowed to loot and plunder the inhabitants. You’re only permitted to govern the inhabitants putting down insurrections, but permitting them to keep what’s justly theirs. More precisely, you can permit them to keep what’s justly theirs minus any expenses you may have incurred in conquering them. “What’s theirs minus expenses” ought to be small in most cases, and leave them with plenty of stuff to hold onto.

Of course, as the Versailles Settlement suggests, “smallness” is a matter of dispute: what Clemenceau regarded as small, Keynes regarded as large, and the Weimar rulers regarded as even larger (to say nothing of the Nazis). But in a way, the whole issue of what’s “theirs minuses the expenses of conquest” is moot. Recall that by Lockean strictures, the holdings of indigenous, conquered inhabitants were illegitimate in the first place. The proviso under discussion says that when a prince conquers a territory, he’s not allowed to loot and plunder the inhabitants–assuming that the inhabitants genuinely own something! If they don’t, the prince’s problem is solved: he can’t be looting what never belonged to anyone in the first place. Whatever resistance he meets can then be construed as theft. He is making property of what was hitherto unowned; they are attacking his productive efforts in an attempt to steal it. How else does one deal with a society of robbers but with force?

Suppose you learn all of this about your conqueror–the whole brutal, cynical truth laid out in two treatise-length volumes of Pentagon Papers-like detail. Now suppose that you canvass your options.

Inaction is not a feasible option: while it may not bring “imminent” genocide, it would bring subjugation, and resistance to the intended subjugation is just a few steps away from genocide.

A conventional attack on your conqueror’s official combat troops would lead to certain  defeat: the militarily weaker party can’t compete on the same grounds as the stronger one.

An attempt to target all and only the culpable parties while sparing the innocent by the juridical standard of certainty beyond a reasonable doubt is made impossible by the deliberate strategy of the prince. He has set things up so that you can’t apply so stringent a principle of discrimination, and has done so in the hopes that you will be paralyzed into inaction by that very fact.

You try good-faith negotiations, but they fail. What else would you expect of negotiations with a Machiavellian prince?

You try to appeal to the justice of those who are “impeccably innocent.” But this doesn’t work. Some of them are inaccessible to you; some are too suspicious to grant you a hearing; some are coldly indifferent to your plight; and the rest are powerless to make the sort of change that counts.

You settle, then, on the following strategy, which some might call “terrorist,” but which you describe as “armed resistance.” You find targets that are accessible to you, that minimize your own casualties, and that inflict casualties on your conqueror. You design your attacks to send one hitherto unheeded message: cease and desist. You pick “civilian” targets, but do so in the knowledge that many of these “civilians” are armed combatants, while many others, whether overtly armed or not, are culpably complicitous in the conquest.

Indeed, as time passes (you reason), the ratio of culpable to non-culpable changes in your favor: very few people can non-culpably be ignorant of the fact that they are part of a plan of conquest. The longer they spend in conquering you, the fewer can be presumed innocent, and the more the innocent can be regarded the responsibility of the conquerors who brought them there in the first place. Every passing day enables your conqueror to consolidate and normalize his conquest. Your strategy merely aims to undo what he’s done. You pick targets where it is likely that the guilty will congregate in the knowledge that the targets will vary in culpability from completely culpable to impeccably innocent.

You acknowledge the impossibility of being certain beyond a reasonable doubt that your targets are all or even mostly guilty. You hope that they are, and do the best that you can to ensure it. But you justify your uncertainty by telling yourself that you are fighting a war of justified resistance, not arguing a legal case in a courtroom. You are facing a ruthless, deceitful conqueror, not a jury of your peers. You didn’t put yourself in this situation; he did. You wouldn’t have chosen to be in this situation; you’re in it because he put you in it. If you could run, you would. But you can’t.

If really pressed about those civilian casualties, you say that you’ve read his playbook, and as far as you’re concerned, guilt and innocence doesn’t track the conventional distinction between combatant and non-combatant (aka, “civilian”). It tracks the distinction between those who know the playbook strategy and/or are culpably ignorant of it, and those who are non-culpably ignorant of it or are aware of it but non-culpably present in the conquered land without viable means of escape. Members of the first category include (among others) apparently harmless free riders on the conquest—people who cash in on conquest but refuse to fight. Such people may appear innocent and harmless, but are neither. Members of the latter category, you conclude, are innocent shields and hostages of those in the first. You don’t particularly want to kill them, but there is no way to kill the guilty—or escape your predicament– without killing them. It’s terrible to have to kill both sets “indiscriminately” without knowing which is which. But maybe the prince should have thought of that before he invaded. 

  1. Making it explicit: what the thought-experiment shows

My thought-experiment is easy to misunderstand, so let me clarify a few things about it, starting with what it was not meant to say or imply.

First, the Machiavellian-Lockean “playbook” I described was absolutely  not meant to be a description of Medina’s theory. Medina’s theory is a critique of terrorism; the playbook is a rationalization of imperial conquest. The two things have nothing to do with each other.

Nor was it meant to be an objective or accurate account of either Machiavelli or Locke (or their combination). It was meant to be an extended description of a plausible ideological misuse of both Machiavelli and Locke in the service of imperial conquest.

Nor was it meant to describe some actual or historical situation. It’s a hypothetical account, not an actual or actualized one.

Nor was it meant to be an entirely realistic account of how conquest works. It’s unlikely that any real-life conqueror would translate “Machiavelli” or “Locke” (or any other theorist) directly into practice. It’s also unlikely that he would describe his plans as cynically and explicitly as my hypothetical prince does. Even if he did, it’s unlikely that the conquered population would get access to those plans. And it’s unlikely that any real-life resistance movement would operate as deliberately or without malice as mine does, or face a situation as clearly delineated as mine is. The real world is more complex than anything I’ve described.

That said, the thought-experiment is not pure fantasy, either. Machiavelli and Locke, among many others, have been read and used as I’ve described. Conquests have taken place that at least approximate what I’ve described. Playbooks of conquest have been written and published, some remarkably candid–and sometimes, such playbooks do find their way into enemy hands. Finally, while no real-life resistance movement would operate exactly as my thought-experimental one does, no real-life counter-terrorist operation operates exactly as Medina recommends, either.[9] So while hypothetical, my thought-experiment is within the realm of realistic possibility.

By Medina’s standards, my resistance operation is a terrorist operation. While its operatives do not deliberately target impeccably innocent civilians (at least not under the description of “targeting impeccably innocent civilians”), they recklessly[10] inflict harm on the innocent without knowing beyond a reasonable doubt whether their targets are guilty or innocent. Put another way, they gamble with the lives of the innocent in the hopes of either hitting the guilty or sending the guilty a message.

My thought-experiment is designed to give a plausible reason for their doing so: “terrorism” is, in a case like this, the only viable means of resistance against injustice. The thought-experiment is as long and detailed as it is because (as I see it) the details give added plausibility to the idea that “terrorism” is justified in this sort of case. What is essential to the case is not just that the victims are facing the terrible injustice of conquest (though they are), but that they’re forced, in resistance, to target civilians precisely because their conqueror has designed things that way.

 5. Conclusion

If my thought-experiment works, it offers a counterexample to Medina’s claim that terrorism is categorically wrong. In cases like the one I describe, either terrorism is not always wrong, or there are justifiable forms of warfare that closely resemble terrorism without quite counting as terrorism. Personally, I prefer the latter conclusion, but I doubt Medina would be content with either. I’m eager to hear how he’ll respond.[11]


[1] Vicente Medina, Terrorism Unjustified, p. ix.

[2] Or perhaps domestic violence is a political phenomenon, but on a conception of the political that differs from Medina’s. See Terrorism Unjustified, pp. 62-64.

[3] The distinction is most sharply insisted on by political libertarians, e.g., Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and others. But one need not be a libertarian to regard the principle as fundamental.

[4] Another case would be that of strategic or area bombing against a totalitarian aggressor. Though I lack the space the develop the point, much of what I say in defense of terrorism might also be said, with appropriate changes, in defense of area bombing against a totalitarian aggressor who puts his own civilians in harms’ way, and (many of) whose civilians support his aggressive projects. I thus disagree with much that Medina has to say about area bombing. See index entries for “area bombing,” “Jonathan Bennett,” and “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” in Terrorism Unjustified, pp. 276, 280.

[5] See Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, chapters 1-7, but particularly chapter 3. I should emphasize that the reading I offer in the text is not intended as an accurate exegesis of The Prince, but as an ideological reading intended to rationalize conquest. The reading I offer is in the spirit of Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago, 1958), without explicitly relying on it.

[6] My terminology here is influenced by Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), pp. 33-35. See also Nozick’s “War, Terrorism, Reprisals—Drawing Some Moral Lines,” in Socratic Puzzles (Harvard, 1997), especially p. 303, where Nozick criticizes Walzer for paying “insufficient attention to the way guerillas exploit the morality of those they attack.” In my view, both Walzer and Nozick pay insufficient attention to the ways in which imperialists exploit the morality of those they invade.

[7] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1687). As with my use of Machiavelli, the use I make of Locke here is not intended as an accurate exegesis of Locke; it’s intended as the sort of ideological reading of Locke that might be offered by an imperialist. For readings of this ideological sort, see Barbara Arneil, Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford, 1996), and Craig Yirush, Settlers, Liberty, and Empire: The Roots of Early American Political Theory, 1675-1775 (Cambridge, 2011). The inspiration for the idea of a purely rhetorical appeal to rights comes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s, “Community, Law, and the Idiom and Rhetoric of Rights,” Listening: A Journal of Religion and Culture 26 (1991). Pp. 96-110.

[8] Naturally, a Machiavellian-Lockean regime won’t have slaves. It may have a few people who have sold themselves into drudgery, but as Locke insists (Second Treatise, chapter IV), drudgery isn’t slavery.

[9] See Terrorism Unjustified, chap. 5.

[10] By Medina’s standards, not their own.

[11] Thanks to Alison Bowles, David Riesbeck, Chris Sciabarra, Michael Young, and my students at Felician University, Al Quds University, and Forman Christian College and University for helpful conversation on the issues discussed here. Thanks also to many comrades and colleagues on the front lines in Palestine. Thanks above all to Vicente Medina for having written the book, and for having agreed to participate in our event.

None of the preceding individuals is responsible for anything I say here, and nothing I say should be construed as offering actionable advice in favor of any criminal act.

19 thoughts on “Terrorism Justified: A Response to Vicente Medina

  1. I wish that I could be there, or at least that I had the time to respond to this as carefully as it deserves. I really wish that I could do all that and actually read Medina’s book. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a transcript of his response, or something like that???

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re planning to publish the proceedings in Reason Papers at some point–meaning revised versions of Graham’s paper, my paper, and Vicente’s response.

      Theresa is in effect legally debarred from publishing a paper, or even presenting a fully written-out one; she’s a former FBI counter-terrorism agent now teaching at Felician, and the FBI puts restrictions on its ex-employees that make it de facto impossible for most people to publish (James Comey being the exception that proves the rule). I’ll try to find an acceptable way of summarizing her remarks.

      I was supposed to get permission from the AV people to get a camera to film the damn event, but like most of my life, that got lost in the shuffle. Not sure I’ll be able to pull that off, but if I do, I’ll mention it.

      Michael and Alison will be there. Michael has been attacking the paper offline. I’ve been trying to draw him into an ambush here. We’ll see.


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  5. Irfan, I’m sure you’re aware of my own views on US foreign policy and intervention abroad—especially insofar as they tend to create “boomerang effects.” Sadly, those boomerang effects involve a lot of so-called “collateral damage.” So now comes the question everyone will ask of you, and you know it is coming: Did Western colonial and U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East (throughout most of the twentieth century) justify or provide moral legitimation for the attacks on US soil on 9/11?

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    • The short answer is “no.” I think the 9/11 attacks are best read in conjunction with Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to the Americans,” intended to justify the attacks, and in general in conjunction with bin Laden’s writings generally.

      If you go back to the bulleted list near the end of section 2 of my paper, I’d say that the 9/11 attacks fail to satisfy the first and second, as well as the seventh and eight conditions: the 9/11 attacks were not retaliatory, and not intended to send a merely defensive message. Even if we supposed an intermingling of guilty and innocent parties in our population, the intermingling isn’t part of a strategy of aggression, and even if we take Al Qaida as a legitimate representative for the victims (itself objectionable), the victims of the unjust features of American foreign policy have other, better options than launching a large-scale suicide attack of the 9/11 variety.

      Finally, while it’s a difficult matter how we conceptualize the complicity of the American population in the worst features of American policy, no matter how we conceptualize it, that complicity isn’t analogous to the example I use in the paper, i.e., of a population of settlers deliberately sent to subjugate a purely indigenous population while masquerading as rational and productive pioneers of a Lockean variety.

      In other words, even if we regarded our government as “Machiavellian” in the sense described in the first part of the thought-experiment, the American people aren’t “Lockeans” as described in the second part. (There’s a reason why the thought-experiment has two parts.)

      In general, though, I want to distinguish two questions:

      1. Would “terrorism” (on Medina’s definition) be justified under the conditions described in the thought experiment?
      2. To what extent are the conditions described in the thought experiment–or have they been–exemplified in the real world?

      My answer to (1) is “yes,” except that since I don’t accept Medina’s definition of “terrorism,” I wouldn’t use that word to describe the actions in question.

      The answer to (2) depends in part on facts about particular cases, but it also presupposes an analysis of complicity (or “sanction,” to use the Objectivist term), which is a complex and difficult matter. I’m eager to read this book on the subject, but haven’t yet gotten the chance. I suppose that Mellema’s analysis would also have to be supplemented by something like the dialectical account you’ve proposed in your work. But those are all complications I’ll have to deal with in the future.

      Incidentally, I’ve discussed bin Laden’s letter here:

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Pingback: Extra Credit Assignment(s) for Terrorism Event (April 21) | Modern Political Thought

  7. Report on the Event (1):
    The event went well, despite low attendance. We didn’t videotape it, alas, so I thought I’d summarize some of the questions or issues that came up, at least as far as I remember them. This first comment is on the questions directed at my paper, which I remember more clearly than the stuff that addressed other people (narcissistic as that may be). I’ll mention some of the other issues in a second one.

    The main features of my thought-experiment are laid out in a bulleted list near the end of section 2 of the paper. I’d intended to list to present a set of conditions that were either jointly sufficient for an act that satisfied Medina’s official definition of “terrorism” while being morally justified, or very closely approximated Medina’s official definition while being morally justified.

    The disjunctive formulation above is made necessary by the possibility of disagreements about the meaning/definitions of key terms within Medina’s definition of “terrorism.” In other words, I took Medina to interpret the thought-experiment either as providing a clear instance of Medina-type terrorism, or of providing an example of something that satisfied the definition on one plausible interpretation, but failed it on some other that Medina happened to espouse. As it happens, Medina agreed that the thought-experiment involved an instance of terrorism, full stop, so the complications involved in the second disjunct never arose.

    (1) One criticism, from Michael Young, was that while my bulleted list did provide a set of jointly sufficient conditions as advertised, it did so through over-determination. In other words, though the list of eight provided a successful counter-example to Medina, a shorter list might also have done so. So the list as stated failed to identify the minimal set of jointly sufficient conditions for an act to count as Medina-terrorism while being justified; in effect, the list includes a condition or two too many. For that reason, we could say that the list (and the thought-experiment itself) fails an Ockham’s Razor-like methodological principle applied to thought-experiments: a thought-experiment ought to illustrate no more and no less than what it sets out to illustrate. Mine does too much, and in so doing, fails to address the essential issues involved.

    (2) Vicente Medina made a pair of criticisms from the reverse direction: on his view, the act depicted in the thought-experiment does satisfy his definition of “terrorism,” but would, on any reading, need a few more conditions to count as morally justified (so that the eight conditions fall short of being sufficient). For one thing, terrorism wouldn’t be justified, even on my account, if the probability of achieving military success through terrorism was low. Nor would it be justified if the only probable sort of military success to be achieved was a Pyrrhic victory.

    (3) A two-part question from Mike DeFilippo:
    (a) How many people would have to be complicitous (and to what degree) in order for terrorism to be justified their society? (The thought-experiment illustrates this without being explicit about the exact principle involved. I do explicitly say that the number of complicitous people is high.)
    (b) Given the structure of the thought-experiment, the number of complicitous people among the settler-colonialists has no bearing on the justifiability of terrorism used against them. What difference would the number of complicitous people make, as far as the justification of terrorism is concerned? Suppose that only a small minority of the settler population was complicitous in injustice: given the structure of the thought-experiment, wouldn’t terrorism still be required of (or permissible on the part of) the indigenous resisters? The stakes for the indigenous population remain the same whether complicity is involved or not. So complicity seems irrelevant, as does the proportion of complicitous to non-complicitous or culpable to non-culpable.

    (4) From Rick Burnor: What counts as the sort of complicity that justifies terrorism? Doesn’t the thought-experiment’s strong reliance on complicity effectively eliminate innocence altogether by making everyone guilty-through-complicity? And isn’t that a reductio for the view?

    (5) Vicente and I disagreed about whether voting could be sufficient for complicity: I said yes; he said no. He explicitly makes a case for ‘no’ in the book: Terrorism Unjustified, pp. 86-87.

    (6) Dan Restrepo: Can political inaction entail the relevant sort of complicity? I take it that Dan was suggesting that it could (as would I), while Vicente was denying that.

    All good questions that I hope to address in the finalized version of the paper.


  8. Report on the event (2):
    Graham Parson’s paper addressed two issues, (a) one about the very idea of defining “terrorism,” the other (b) about the concept of “innocence.”

    Put briefly, his claim about (a) was that defining “terrorism” is a fool’s errand (my phrase, not his!), and a distraction from the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue concerns the justifiability of various kinds of violence; “terrorism” is too normatively loaded and politically tendentious a concept to serve as the object of fruitful philosophical activity, and we’d be better off getting rid of it.

    Travis Timmerman responded that even granting Graham’s claim about the normative fraughtness or contestedness of the concept, it doesn’t follow that we ought to get rid of it. Confronted with a normatively fraught or contested concept, we can either get rid of it, or resolve to do a better job of analyzing it, multiplying senses of the concept to cover the various nuances that might be needed. “Harm” is a highly contested concept, but no one suggests getting rid of it; its contested features just become fodder for further analysis.

    I’m over-simplifying a bit, but as I remember, Graham responded to Travis by saying that “terrorism” is different from “harm” because “terrorism” is more politically tendentious than “harm” (granting whatever political uses “harm” might have).

    I argued that an attempt to eliminate “terrorism” and proceed with analyses of the justifiable uses of violence would just re-locate the definitional problem to the concept of “violence.” Violence is at least as normatively fraught as “terrorism,” or at least sufficiently fraught to produce analogous problems. So doing away with “terrorism” to focus on “violence” just puts us in the position of having the same sort of debate about “violence” as we might have had about “terrorism.”

    Graham’s claim about (b) was the Vicente’s account of innocence entails that combatants qua combatants are not innocent. But on Graham’s view, a combatant qua combatant in a justified war is dutiful and virtuous. A dutiful-virtuous person is the clearest case we have of a moral innocent. So some combatants are innocent qua combatants. I don’t quite recall how Vicente responded, or how the conversation on this topic went.

    Theresa Fanelli raised questions about the application of the concept of “terrorist” and “terrorism” to cases where moral patients–children, the mentally impaired, etc.–are coerced or manipulated into terrorist activity. The example discussed was that of a mentally impaired 10-year-old “convinced” into committing a suicide bombing in a place like Penn Station. Vicente’s claim was that while the child is neither culpable nor a terrorist, his action, that of detonating himself, qualifies as terrorist.

    I’m skeptical in this case that the action can be ascribed to the child at all: both the terrorists and the terrorist act seem to be farther upstream, so to speak. It’s the people who induce the child to blow himself up who are the terrorists (not the child), and their inducing him to blow himself up, and helping him to do so, are the relevant terrorist act (not the sheer fact of the child’s detonating the bomb at the relevant time). The paradigms to keep in mind here, it seems to me, are things like programming a drone to fire a missile, or strapping a bomb onto an animal; obviously, neither drone nor animal is a terrorist, but neither the drone’s firing per se nor the animal’s doing-as-trained per se, are terrorist acts. It’s the drone’s or animal’s handlers who are the terrorists, and the handlers’ whose action counts as terrorist. Granted, a mentally impaired 10-year-old is different from either an animal or a drone, but morally speaking, the child is close enough to them to be assimilated to them.

    The real question is what to say about children prosecuted as terrorists by (e.g.,) the Israeli authorities for (e.g.,) throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers within the context of the Israeli occupation. We happened not to discuss that topic, but I wish we had:



    • Useful illustration of two things relevant to the preceding discussion: a child gets treated as a terrorist for touching the “border fence” between Gaza and Israel.

      Assuming that the fence actually marks the border (not a trivial assumption), the following questions arise:
      (1) Can one breach a border by touching a fence on one’s own side of the border?
      (2) Can the breach of a border count as an act of terrorism?
      (3) Is the breach of a border an act of violence?
      (4) If the answer to the right combination of the preceding questions is “yes,” what is the status of a child who breaches a border by touching a fence? Can he permissibly be killed for doing so?
      (5) If so [for 4], would Gazans be justified in killing Israeli children for approaching the border?


    • “A dutiful-virtuous person is the clearest case we have of a moral innocent…”

      Anscombe, articulating what I take to be the traditional (and appropriate) concept of ‘innocence’ relevant to thinking about the justice of killing in war:

      Now who are “the innocent” in war? They are all those who are not fighting and not engaged in supply those who are with the means of fighting. A farmer growing wheat which may be eaten by the troops is not “supplying them with the means of fighting.”…”Innocent” here is not a term referring to personal responsibility at all. It means rather “not harming.” But the people fighting are “harming,” so they can be attacked; but if they surrender they become in this sense innocent and so may not be maltreated or killed. (‘Mr. Truman’s Degree’)

      In light of such a conception, why isn’t Parsons just introducing an irrelevant equivocation? (Or does Medina perhaps not adopt a similar conception of innocence? Or does he somehow fail to clarify what he means?)


      • Well, Parsons is only introducing an “irrelevant equivocation” if we take Anscombe’s use for granted as relevant and appropriate. Absent an argument, I don’t see any reason for doing so. And I don’t see an argument for her conception of innocence, either in your comment or in her essay.

        Anscombe aside, the English word “innocent” means “not guilty of a crime or moral offense.” Parsons is right to say that a soldier fighting in a just war is innocent in this respect. Even if we acknowledge the existence of Ancombe’s use of the term, I don’t see that Parsons has an obligation to respect it, or is equivocating if he uses “innocence” in a different sense. Part of the point of the April 21 discussion was that most of the terminology we use in the context of arguments about war is contested–including “force,” “violence,” “freedom,” “peace,” “victory,” “terrorism,” “civilian,” and “innocent,” among others. No one conception of any of these terms can claim to be authoritative or set the agenda for a discussion.

        Faced with the obvious objection that conscripts are innocent–especially conscripts threatened with death for refusing military service–Anscombe simply denies that they are innocent: “innocent” (she says) refers to “not harming,” not personal responsibility for malfeasance. A critic might as well respond that “innocent here is not a term that refers indiscriminately to ‘those who harm’, but refers to personal responsibility for malfeasance.” That may seem “underargued,” but it’s about as much “argument” as she offers, and she’s the one who bears the burden of proof for her claim about innocence.

        If “innocent” means “not fighting and not supplying those fighting,” then the architects of a war, who do no fighting, are “innocent,” unless we stretch the concept of “supplying” to include the “supply of ideas.” Likewise commanders, politicians, intelligence officers, and so on (for a very long list). I would stretch “supply” to include all of them (and more), and I guess Anscombe is committed to stretching “supply” to include civilian commanders of military operations (since she holds Truman responsible for Hiroshima/Nagasaki), but her polemics against “collective responsibility” make it impossible to give any precise meaning to what she means by “supply.” As far as I’m concerned, “supply” means “positive causal contribution.” I honestly have no idea what she means, and don’t think that’s my fault.

        Again, if “innocent” means “not fighting and not supplying those fighting,” someone who supports a war, but whose support is epiphenomenal, is innocent by Anscombe’s account (e.g., an incompetent propagandist whose propaganda efforts are rejected by the official war machine)–even if he fervently wants others to die on his behalf, and benefits from the war without supplying anything. A perfect example is the pro-Nazi Palestinian leader Amin al Husseini during World War II, who didn’t fight, and didn’t supply anyone with anything, but was obviously not innocent (and wouldn’t have been “innocent” even if we ignore any possible causal contribution he might have made to the Holocaust).

        Contrary to what Anscombe says (or implies), a farmer growing produce which is being shipped to the troops is obviously “supplying” them with the means of fighting. Actually, she refers to a farmer growing wheat that may be eaten by the troops, but the “may” is a red herring: any attack on any target is going to involve probabilistic inferences of some kind; strategic considerations will dictate narrowing the gap between “may be eaten” and “is definitely being eaten,” but never guarantee that you narrow it to the vanishing point. Anscombe denies that “farmer producing wheat that may be eaten” is a legitimate target, but says nothing about the farmer producing wheat that is definitely being eaten, and says nothing about the fact that most actual targets will, epistemically speaking, fall between the two extremes of “wheat that may be eaten” and “wheat that is definitely being eaten.” That’s effectively to say nothing of substance on the topic–unless she wants to insist that you can only attack a supply line after, say, you watch a soldier eat a sandwich, then trace the bread of that particular sandwich back to a particular grocery store and farmer, then attack only them, sparing all other grocery stores and farms. I take that to be a reductio. It’s also an instance of contingent pacifism (i.e., insisting on in bello strictures that are so demanding that they make the conduct of war impossible). But she’s the one who tells us that pacifism is a false doctrine.

        That farms are part of military supply lines, hence legitimate targets in a just war, strikes me as patently obvious. I would say that no one is innocent who knowingly and deliberately makes a causal contribution to an unjust war. (That’s a sufficient, not a necessary condition of not-being-innocent.) The means of making a causal contribution to a war are going to be varied and subtle; you’d have to consult an economist (among others) to get them right. If so, the relevant concept of “innocence” is likewise subtle. Only 20% of the soldiers sent by the U.S. to Vietnam ever saw combat. Nothing in Anscombe’s account deals with what the other 80% were doing. They weren’t fighting. It’s not clear whether they were “supplying.” But what should be obvious is that, from a North Vietnamese perspective, they were all legitimate targets, and so, from the reverse perspective, were their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong counterparts. Same claim, mutatis mutandis, re the Politburo: none of its members were literally fighting in the war, and none were clearly “supplying” the war, but their (voluntary) sheer participation in the activities of the Politburo made all of them non-innocent, hence legitimate targets.

        That said, I don’t recall exactly what Parsons or Medina said on this issue at the symposium. My vague memory is that Medina defended something closer to the Anscombian view, and Parsons contested it as described in the previous comment. Medina’s official view is laid out in the middle chapters of the book, and I can’t reproduce all of the details from memory. He actually sent me a written version of his comments, but it’s part of a backlog of emails I haven’t gotten to.


        • I don’t have the scholarly expertise to be entirely confident on the issue, but my understanding of the tradition of just war theory that Anscombe (and, from what I can see, Medina) represents is that that it uses the term ‘innocent’ in at least roughly the way she states and not in the way that you describe as the meaning of the English word. What matters here is not whether we accept your insistence on taking one dictionary definition of a term as the only legitimate one in the discussion — that’s the kind of move I repeatedly tell my 10th graders they should regard as beneath them, and I wish you’d regard it that way too, because it is, because that’s not how language works and we’re doing philosophy, not lexicography — but whether the Anscombe/Medina claim is true. Given that that’s the question, what matters is what they mean. So if you refuse to abandon semantic dogmatism, you can just invent a totally new term and mentally substitute it out every time you see Anscombe / Medina use the word ‘innocent’ — call it, I dunno, ablaptic. The way I see the issue is that Medina claims, following roughly the same tradition that Anscombe represents, that it is never permissible intentionally to kill the ablaptic. Parsons then objects that soldiers fighting (on the right side) in a just war are not guilty of any crimes or moral offenses. I fail to see why that is remotely relevant to how we should assess Medina / Anscombe’s claim.

          The rest of your response raises some points that would be important for anyone attempting to elaborate a detailed and precise just war theory, and of course Medina/Anscombe will need to offer some kind of account of who counts as ablaptic — one we can criticize, perhaps on grounds similar to those you raise (though I’m not sure I see much more to your criticisms than terminological caviling and a demand for more precision). But all of that is totally beside my original point; however much work we would have to do to determine who counts as ablaptic and who doesn’t, and however far from Anscombe’s or Medina’s views on that topic we might end up, that question simply has nothing to do with whether the soldiers fighting on the right side in a just war are guilty of any moral or legal crimes.

          To be clear, I don’t suppose that any definition of ablaptism would constitute an argument for the view that it is never permissible intentionally to kill the ablaptic. I’d just like to hear objections to that view and not to a different view constructed by the authors of the objections.


          • Or, more precisely: I’d like to hear good objections to that view, and I’d like not to hear any more objections based on equivocation (or, if you prefer, based on the insistence that one way of using a word is the only right way of using a word).


          • It doesn’t matter how “the tradition of just war theory” uses the word “innocent.” If Parsons (or anyone else) uses it a different way, and a legitimate way, he can’t be accused of “equivocating,” except by someone who insists on begging the question (and appealing to authority) by insisting that his uncertain scholarly knowledge of the traditional just war use of the term is the default use from which all other uses are problematic deviations.

            The meaning I gave (and Parsons implicitly assumes) of “innocent” is obviously a legitimate way of using that term–the ordinary, colloquial English language use. Saying that is not a matter of appealing to a single dictionary, but of describing what’s obvious to any competent user of the English language. You may regard doing that as “beneath” you, and be teaching your students all kinds of things based on your sense that it is, but that doesn’t change its obviousness, or prove much of anything one way or another. The issue is not whether Parson’s conception of “innocence” is the one true use of that term, but whether it’s permissible for him to use it to formulate his argument. It is. Contrary to your suggestion, you haven’t offered a single cogent reason why it’s not.

            If a critic wants to say that there is another use of “innocence,” different from Parson’s, he’s free to say so, and couch the claim as an objection. But the objection obviously can’t consist of accusing Parsons of “equivocation.” An equivocation is an ambiguous use of a single term in multiple different senses by the person making use of the term. Parsons isn’t using “innocent” ambiguously, or using it in multiple different senses. He’s giving it a single univocal sense with which you disagree. That’s not an “equivocation” on his part: it’s a refusal to use the term in the way that you demand that it must be used. Parson’s predictable (and thoroughly defensible) response to you would be: “I’m not equivocating, I’m just using the term differently than you are.” In which case he’d be right, and the objector would have to try another tack–a tack designed to persuade him, Parsons, to use the word “innocent” in a different way. “A tack designed to persuade” is a genuine argument, something you haven’t offered.

            If you regard Anscombe’s claims as true, you bear the burden of proof for demonstrating that. To demand that others refute Anscombe before being permitted to use the word “innocent” in the way Parsons does begs the question, appeals to authority, and illicitly displaces the burden of proof. Anscombe herself provides literally nothing in the way of argumentation for her use of “innocent.” So far, neither have you. 0 + 0 = 0.


          • Maybe I’m misunderstanding the context of the dialectic, and if so you can explain what it is I’m missing, but here’s how I understand it:

            1. Medina defends a view about the impermissibility of intentionally killing the innocent, (perhaps?) using ‘innocent’ in the traditional way that it has been used in just war theory, a way conveniently glossed by Anscombe to distinguish it from other familiar uses of the word in English.
            2. Parsons objects to this view, but uses the term ‘innocent’ in a different sense. He takes his objection to be an objection to Medina’s claim about the justifiability of terrorism conceived as involving the intentional killing of the innocent.

            I suppose we can devolve into semantic quibbling about ‘equivocation’ if you want, but an objection to a claim that relies on using a key term in a different sense is pretty obviously a bad objection. It’s a bad kind of objection because the counter-assertion and the original thesis that it counters can both be true, but the failure to disambiguate two different uses of the same term masks or clouds that fact. That is what I’m trying to capture by talk of ‘equivocation.’ (And no, I’m not going to insist that other uses of ‘equivocation’ must be mistaken or inferior to my usage.)

            If your defense of such an objection is that the use and meaning of ‘innocent’ isn’t settled by how traditional just war theory has used the term, then I haven’t made my point clearly enough. My claim is not about how we should or shouldn’t use the term ‘innocent’; it’s about what counts as a serious objection to Medina’s view, the kind of objection that might show it to be committed to false or inadequate claims. I want to know why we shouldn’t accept Medina’s view; if you or Parsons or anyone else just wants to tell me that we should use the word ‘innocent’ in a different way, then you’re not giving me a reason to reject Medina’s view, you’re giving me at best a reason to use a different word when formulating Medina’s view. I don’t think you’ve even done that much, but even if you had, it’d leave Medina’s actual view untouched.

            Perhaps I’ve misunderstood how the objection fit into the context of the discussion and they were really just arguing about how to use the word ‘innocent.’ For my part, I’d think there should be a simple resolution of that dispute: let’s just disambiguate these different ways of using the term and focus on who’s saying what in which sense and whether it’s true.

            If none of that is clear enough yet, maybe a different way of putting the question would help: what about Parsons’ objection is actually inconsistent with Medina’s view, granted that he and Medina want to use ‘innocent’ differently? If they’re not just at odds over how to use a word, what is it that they’re at odds over?


          • “…an objection to a claim that relies on using a key term in a different sense is pretty obviously a bad objection.”

            So too, that’s pretty obviously a badly constructed clause. I hope you know what I meant to say, but your recent responses have struck me as willfully misunderstanding mine, and since that’s uncharacteristic of you, the charitable thing for me is to assume that I’ve really just been unclear – and so I ought to clarify my claim here, but without going back and editing after too long a delay.

            Hence, read that as: “an objection to a claim is pretty obviously bad when the objection relies on using a key term in a sense different from the sense in which it appears in the initial claim.”

            Talk about ambiguity!


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