“Terrorism” Revisited

My friend Vicente Medina (Philosophy, Seton Hall University) has a short piece out on the semantics of “terrorism” in Government Europa Quarterly, an online journal.  We had a few discussions of Medina’s views on terrorism here at PoT in advance of the symposium on his book, Terrorism Unjustified, that took place at Felician about a year and a half ago (see here and here). A published version of the Felician symposium is about to come out soon at Reason Papers, consisting of three critical responses (by Graham Parsons, Theresa Fanelli, and myself), and a response by Medina.

In the Government Europa piece, Medina argues that “terrorism” can in principle be given a defensible definition, and ought to be used where it properly applies. His view here contrasts with the objections some have made to using the term on grounds of its contested or partisan nature.* As Medina puts it:

Despite controversies about fixing the meaning of the term “terrorism,” there is widespread consensus that a necessary condition for classifying an act as a terrorist act must involve the actual use or the threat of violence for political purposes broadly construed. I define 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 to do so on those who can beyond reasonable doubt be conceived of as innocent non-combatants” (definition quoted from Terrorism Unjustified, p. xi).

Medina acknowledges that some might dispute his definition for failing to do justice to the demands of armed resistance against imperialist aggressors. Such critics will, he says, regard his

definition [as] too narrow because it neglects a morally significant distinction between those who engage in wars of liberation against occupying powers and terrorist groups. [But] [r]egardless [of] where the violence is coming from, it is categorically unjustifiable to deliberately or recklessly inflict substantive harm and least of all kill those who are innocent beyond reasonable doubt. A definition of international terrorism needs to focus on those who are affected the most by the actual violence or the threat of it, namely the innocent victims of such despicable acts.

I’ve laid out my objections to Medina’s account of terrorism in my forthcoming Reason Papers piece. This claim from the piece is directly relevant to Medina’s argument above:

I…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. 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.

It’s interesting that our differences arise from what both of us call a difference in “focus.” Medina thinks that a definition of “terrorism” should focus on the innocence of its victims; I think it should focus on the reasons that terrorists cite to justify their actions. In any case, as I see it, Medina’s Government Europa piece illustrates the problem with relegating the initiatory/retaliatory distinction to the margins of one’s analysis.

Suppose that we grant Medina’s definition and evaluation of terrorism. If so, all terrorism is categorically unjustified, whether initiatory or retaliatory. But even so, there still seems a basic moral difference between a purely initiatory act of aggression (whether terrorist or not), and an act of violence that exemplifies Medina’s definition of terrorism while responding to someone’s initiatory aggression. There is, in other words, a distinction to be drawn between purely initiatory aggression on the one hand, and disproportionality or indiscriminateness in an otherwise justified response to aggression on the other.

At least in cases of comparable violence,** it seems plausible to think that purely initiatory aggression is morally worse than a retaliatory response to aggression that lapses into terrorism–especially if the lapse is committed under duress (trivially true under the circumstances), is more reckless than deliberate, and is a last rather than first resort. So if we restrict ourselves to a moral comparison of X and Y, I think it’s at least coherent to say that even on  Medina’s definition, X the Terrorist can (though unjustified) be less unjustified in the violence he uses than Y the Non-Terrorist Aggressor, even if both X and Y are unjustified in the violence they use vis-a-vis one another.***

The preceding analysis works, I think, whether the initiatory violence in question involves terrorism or not. But talk of “non-terrorist aggression” eliciting a terrorist response may sound odd or paradoxical, at least to some ears. What I have in mind is a case in which Y engages in a wholesale military invasion and occupation of X. Such an invasion and occupation, though aggressive in the sense of being a serious and potentially murderous initiation of hostilities, need not satisfy Medina’s definition of “terrorism” for at least two reasons.

First, if Y invades X’s territory because Y wants the resources there, Y’s invasion does not “aim to influence an audience”–an element of Medina’s definition of terrorism. Y’s aim is simply to take what he wants, an aggressive but non-terrorist motive.

Second, Y’s invasion of X need not make actual or (in a certain sense) threatened use of any violence, either–another element of Medina’s definition. If Y’s forces are large and powerful enough to overwhelm X, Y may simply invade X’s territory and cow X into submission without firing a shot. Suppose that X initially fails to resist the invasion. In that case, Y has a potential but no actual need to use violence. He doesn’t even need expressly to threaten violence, except in the tacit sense involved when military units engage in a show of force designed to elicit submission. So while an invasion tacitly threatens enormous, murderous violence against those who might resist, an invader need not fire or threaten to fire a shot if no one does resist. And no one might. In that case, the “violence” involved in the invasion is too inchoate to satisfy Medina’s definition of terrorism. And yet the invasion remains an act of aggression.

Suppose that, after initial hesitation, violent resistance to the invasion/occupation arises. If that resistance takes terrorist form, the terrorism involved may be as categorically unjustified as the invasion. But it isn’t–or isn’t obviously–as immoral as the invasion.

In and of itself, the preceding two points seem like more of a lacuna than a defect in Medina’s account: because he doesn’t address them, he neither affirms nor denies what I’ve claimed above. So I can’t complain that he says anything that I literally regard as false. The problem, as I’ve said, is a matter of focus or emphasis, and arises if we accept the preceding analysis and then reflect on the inferences we make in ordinary English usage when we apply the term “terrorism” to acts or “terrorist” to persons and causes.

In conventional usage, the ascription of “terrorism” or “terrorist” to something, x, licenses three inferences, and plays three discursive roles. (I’ll treat x as an act, but a similar analysis applies to other values for x, e.g., a person, an institution, a cause).

  • Debate stopper: from “x is terrorist,” we can validly infer that x is categorically wrong.
  • Terminus of blame and culpability: from “x is terrorist,” we can validly infer that x is, all things considered, more blameworthy or culpable than anything that could have provoked x.
  • Context- and etiology-nullifier: from “x is terrorist,” we can validly infer that, being more blameworthy than anything that could have provoked it, it doesn’t matter why x came about or in what context. What matters is simply that x came about, full stop.

Call this the conventional schema. The predictable result of the conventional schema is to induce those who accept it to fixate on terrorism while blocking out the facts that constitute its context and etiology. Eventually, if the schema is in place for long enough, terrorism ceases to have either a context or etiology. The schema suggests that as long as Smith is a terrorist and Jones is not, Smith is axiomatically worse than Jones; none of Jones’s aggressions against Smith are discursively relevant to discussing what Smith has done.

In this connection, ask yourself, the next time you encounter a news item on an act of terrorism, how much you know or are told about who initiated the sequence of violence that led to the act in question–or, for that matter, what would count as an initiation versus retaliation in the first place. Most news items are written as though questions of initiation and retaliation were either unknowable or irrelevant or both: what matters is simply that a terrorist attack took place, full stop. Terrorist acts take center stage while the acts that provoked them, however heinous, recede into the background and go forgotten. Worse yet, cases where there are no provoking acts or plausible grievances are blithely equated with cases where the provocations have been decades in the making, and involve carnage on a scale that far outstrips anything that terrorism has done. The audience is rarely in a position to tell the difference, and is rarely put there.

The oddity here is that often enough, the sequence that leads to terrorism is evaded in the very act of acknowledging its existence. It’s become a cliche to say that terrorism is part of a “cycle of violence,” meaning that it’s part of a prior sequence of events that led somehow to the most recent event. In using the word “cycle,” however, we tend to forget that the cycle in question can’t literally be circular. It had to start somewhere. And yet this “somewhere” is habitually shrouded in discursive fog. It’s always either too soon or too late to get it straight.

My point here is not that Medina accepts or rejects the conventional schema. Arguably, what he defends is its very first move; the rest of the schema is widely taken for granted and conjoined with that first move. My point is that if we leave the conventional schema in place, adoption of a univocal definition of “terrorism” like Medina’s does not, on its own, advance the interests of truth-tracking moral discourse. Widespread ignorance of and indifference to who initiated the aggression that led to a given terrorist act is at least as much of a problem for moral discourse as the widespread hesitation to adopt a single, univocal definition of terrorism. Lack of a univocal definition of terrorism leaves us in the dark about what acts count as terrorism. But lack of an account of who initiated the violence that led to terrorism leaves terrorism identifiable and yet unintelligible: we know what it is, but not why it happened. Both are problems, and both require a solution.

Consider some possibilities here.

  1. We could accept Medina’s definition of “terrorism,” and accept the conventional schema.
  2. We could accept Medina’s definition of “terrorism,” but reject the conventional schema.
  3. We could reject Medina’s definition of “terrorism,” and accept the conventional schema.
  4. We could reject Medina’s definition of “terrorism,” and reject the conventional schema.

Personally, I accept (4): I would adopt a definition of “terrorism” that (unlike Medina’s) explicitly makes terrorism a species of initiatory force and for that reason, rejects the conventional schema. Since the conventional schema is only contingently related to Medina’s account, Medina could, consistently with the view he defends in Terrorism Unjustified, accept either (1) or (2). Though I prefer (4) to either of them, I think (2) is certainly preferable to (1) or (3).

Until we explicitly reject options (1) and (3), “terrorism” will always seem a tendentious and problematic concept serving a rhetorical or ideological rather than genuinely moral purpose. In the context of the conventional schema, it serves merely to imply by fiat that  resort to terrorism is the absolute worst thing anyone can do. I see no reason to believe that. As someone whose family has been (so far unsuccessfully) targeted by terrorism,**** I’m not one to take terrorism lightly. But I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world, either: there are worse things, and things just as bad. Even as, on the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11, we remember the horrors of terrorism, we ought to ask in a calm moment why people resort to it. Either they have good reasons for doing so or bad ones. Either discovery is preferable to indefinite evasion of the inquiry, or to stigmatizing those engaged in it.


*For a classic example of the view Medina is disputing, see Christopher Hitchens’s “Wanton Acts of Usage: Terrorism, a Cliche in Search of a Meaning” (Harper’s, Sept. 1986). Here’s a more recent discussion of the state of debate by Daniel Bynum. Medina himself cites an editorial directive issued to journalists working for the BBC.

**In other words, deliberately killing an innocent person out of purely initiatory aggression seems morally worse than recklessly killing an innocent person as part of a campaign of self-defense against initiatory aggression, where the campaign in question is a last-resort means of defending oneself, but recklessly kills innocents while doing so. Things change, of course, if we compare actions involving radically dissimilar sorts of violence, e.g., deliberately slapping an innocent person out of purely initiatory aggression versus recklessly annihilating a whole population of civilians by invoking a wildly implausible conception of self-defense. The claim in the text holds degree of violence or harm constant.

***Since I don’t accept Medina’s strong claim that terrorism is “categorically unjustified,” I don’t have a strong motivation wholeheartedly to sign on to the claim in the text; my point is simply that it’s a coherent thought. If the version in the text sounds odd or rebarbative, one of the following will do:

  • A categorically unjustified act A can be less immoral or less unjust than another categorically unjustified act B.
  • A categorically unjustified act A can be more excusable than another categorically unjustified act B.

Whatever the right phrasing, the basic assumption I’m making is that two acts that are categorically unjustified can differ substantially in the degree of wrongness or injustice they exemplify.

****My ex-wife (and PoT blogger), Carrie-Ann Biondi, was at King’s Crossing in the midst of the 7/7 bombing in London (July 2005). The so-called Moon Market and Gulshan-e-Iqbal bombings in Lahore, Pakistan (2009 and 2016, respectively) took place within yards of where my extended family lives. Though he wasn’t targeted by it, my father, a surgeon at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center on 9/11/01 in real time, and performed surgery on at least one member of the FDNY. Though I was never in danger, I missed being at the scene of this event in Jerusalem by about 20 minutes: I walked by the would-be bomber’s location about 20 minutes before he did.

Disclaimer: As most normal people are likely to realize, this post exclusively expresses my personal views, not the views of my employer, Felician University, or any other entity. It is not intended as incitement to any crime, whether foreign or domestic. I take no responsibility for anyone’s misuse or misinterpretation of anything I say in this post, and explicitly invoke my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent in response to all law enforcement inquiries regarding its contents. 

4 thoughts on ““Terrorism” Revisited

  1. And here I was thinking the whole time that you were committing your university to a policy of support for terrorism…glad your disclaimer cleared that up.

    I’m looking forward to reading the exchanges in RP.

    Liked by 2 people

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