I am grateful to my friend and professional colleague Irfan Khawaja for his incisive critique of my short piece, Terrorism as a Toxic Term: Why Definition Matters, and for generously allowing me to post my reply on his website. As Irfan underscores, our main difference regarding the definition of the term “terrorism” is a difference in “focus,” but perhaps there is also a difference in kind. That is, the kind of definition that one might find morally adequate for describing terrorist violence. I argue that the disposition of the perpetrators and the objective innocence of the victims should be the focus of an adequate and fair definition of terrorism.
Irfan, however, argues that one “should focus on the reasons that terrorists cite to justify their actions.” He contests “the idea that a definition of terrorism should describe it merely as a use of violence rather than an “initiatory” [my italics] use of violence and a response to one.” Irfan’s suggestion is well taken. I agree with him that there is a relevant distinction “between purely initiatory aggression on the one hand, and disproportionality or indiscriminateness in an otherwise justified response to aggression on the other.”
Still, I would like to add two points that seem worthwhile for our conversation. First, given that terrorists, as well as their opponents, are fallible, their reasons need to be inspected and evaluated considering the relevant evidence. The fact that they believe that P, namely that they have sufficient and convincing evidence to engage in terrorist violence, does not necessarily show that their actions are well-justified or excused, whether their resort to violence be initiatory or retaliatory. And second and more to the point of contention between Irfan and I, I think that the “initiatory/retaliatory” distinction is neither necessary nor sufficient for what I view as an adequate and morally fair definition of terrorism. On the contrary, Irfan argues that that his distinction is necessary although not sufficient for understanding whether terrorist violence can be morally justified.
The fact that a nonstate actor or state initiates what one could reasonably describe as an act of aggression (initiatory use of violence) against another nonstate actor or state does not justify the victims of the aggression to retaliate by engaging in viciously moral behavior against objectively innocent noncombatants to try to avenge or stop the aggression. By engaging in viciously moral behavior, such as deliberately or recklessly killing or seriously harming objectively innocent noncombatants, one could argue that the victims’ retaliatory response to the aggression, while not equivalent in terms of blameworthiness, might be morally questionable too.
Of course, one can plausibly reply that had it not been by the vicious behavior of the aggressor the victims would have not retaliated in kind. But while the counterfactual can be illuminating for inspecting and hence understanding the reasons why some terrorists resort to indiscriminate or reckless use of violence against their alleged enemies, it does not justify their action. Like the difference between the context of discovery and the context of justification in science, the context of understanding P and the context of justifying P, even when they are relevantly related, are different: one might be purely descriptive and hence explanatory and the other is necessarily normative and hence justificatory or exculpatory.
Irfan correctly underscores that even if one grants that “all [his italics] terrorism is categorically unjustified,” as I argue, it does not follow that there is no substantive moral differences at times between a “purely initiatory act of aggression” and retaliating violently against the aggressor. And yet, I am somewhat puzzled by Irfan focusing on an unjustified invasion and hence aggression of one state by another state to unjustifiably acquired the natural resources of the latter, and presumably how the victims of the invaded state might justifiably respond to the aggression. Despite acknowledging that the initiatory/retaliatory distinction plays no role in my definition of terrorism, Irfan seems to be offering such a scenario as a sort of counterargument or objection to my proposed definition of terrorism. He goes on to argue, “Suppose that … 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.”
I would argue that while the two acts can be classified as being categorically unjustified, the act of imperial aggression is in some sense worse than the act of terrorism as an act of self-defense against the aggressor. But of course the reason why the act of the aggressor is morally worse than the act of terrorist retaliation by the victims of the aggression is not primarily because of the “initiatory” use of violence by the aggressor but rather because of the deliberate disposition of the aggressor to occupy and expropriate that which is not theirs. As a result, the aggressor inflicts undeserved pain and suffering on the victims. The victims, however, might act as viciously as the aggressor if the reason for retaliating against the latter is based primarily on their disposition to deliberately or recklessly inflict pain and suffering on those who might not deserve it. I am not convinced, or it is not obvious to me, that the victims have greater latitude to behave immorally against the aggressor. They certainly have the right to defend themselves against the aggressor and even kill them, but they have no right to target those who can be conceived of as objectively innocent beyond reasonable doubt. For me the morality of an act is determined primarily not by who initiated the act but rather by the original disposition of those who initiated or responded to the act in question. However, I think that the initiatory/retaliatory distinction is important for ascribing blameworthiness.
For the sake of argument let us assume that aggression and hence the initiatory part of Irfan’s distinction is noncontroversial. Consider the following example. Suppose for the sake of my argument that Saudi Arabia were to be responsible for having initiated a war of aggression against the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war. In addition, it is a well-known that the US is the main armed supplier to the Saudi Kingdom. So, the Houthis assume, whether reasonably or not, that if they could successfully attack the US civilian population, the US could be cowed to stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, and, as a result, that will give them leverage to stop the Saudi aggression. Therefore, instead of attacking legitimate military targets in Saudi Arabia, they choose to perpetrate an attack like the 9/11 terrorist attack against the US civilian population in New York City and Washington, DC. Are the Houthis morally justified in carrying out such an attack against the civilian population in the US? I would say no because despite the Saudi’s aggression and the morally suspect support provided by the US government, I would argue that the deliberate or reckless killing of objectively innocent noncombatants is categorically wrong. By the way, the same answer would apply if the Houthis were to deliberately or recklessly attack the objectively innocent noncombatants in Riyadh or elsewhere.
The Saudi’s oil installations, however, are fair game in an armed conflict because they directly contribute to the Saudi’s aggression or war effort. Whether US conglomerates that supply arms and arms related paraphernalia to the Saudis to help them in their aggression could be justifiably targeted by the Houthis remains an open question.
I think that Irfan might agree with me that the Houthis are not justified in targeting objectively innocent US noncombatants. But my hunch is that he would add that, given the assumption that the Saudis are the aggressors (initiators), the Houthis in retaliating against the Saudis have moral latitude to deliberately or at least recklessly kill or seriously harm objectively innocent Saudis noncombatants if they have reason to believe that they will be able to avenge or repel the aggression. But objectively innocent Saudis noncombatants are relevantly analogous to objectively innocent noncombatants everywhere. So, if one is willing to grant that objectively innocent noncombatants enjoy moral and legal immunity based on their innocence and nonthreatening behavior, consistency demands that one grants the same moral and legal immunity to objectively innocent Saudis noncombatants.
Irfan also argues that those who use the label of terrorism and terrorist adopt what he calls a “conventional schema” or three different ways that one might use the already mentioned labels: (1) Debate stopper, (2) terminus of blame and culpability, and (3) context-and etiology-nullifier. Irfan assumes that whoever accepts any of the three conditions is trying to stop worthwhile debates about the root causes of terrorism, misplacing or exaggerating the blame of those who are identified as terrorists, or simply ignoring those who have been responsible for having initiated the cycle of violence. I agree with Irfan that many people, mainly dogmatic ideologues on the right or the left, might hold something equivalent to his schema. But my argument does not presuppose nor depend on the alleged conventional schema.
I am not sure, as Irfan states, that I am committed to defending (1). My sense is that I offer a definition of terrorism that is presumably ideologically neutral between the violence committed by nonstate actors and the violence committed by states. So, I do not see how my definition could be seen as a “debate stopper,” as Irfan suggests. I do not argue that from the statement “x is a terrorist” simpliciter we can validly infer that x is categorically wrong. First, we need to ascertain whether the person is indeed a terrorist. My labeling someone a terrorist does not make him or her one. And second, if we can determine that x used political violence deliberately or recklessly to inflict substantive underserved harm or threaten to do so on those who can be conceived of as being objectively innocent noncombatants beyond reasonable doubt, then we can label x as a terrorist. If x is a terrorist, then her violent act can be described as being categorically wrong. Why is it categorically wrong? Because she deliberately or recklessly chose to inflict substantive harm on those who do not deserve to be harmed, namely objectively innocent noncombatants.
Irfan, however, offers an incisive observation about how some people tend to have a one-sided view of terrorist acts in abstraction from the oftentime violent background that might have motivated so-called alleged terrorists, and I would say sometime states, to engage in such questionable behavior. Irfan writes, “Terrorist acts take center stage while the acts that provoked them, however heinous, recede into the background and go forgotten.” That is a sad reality of political violence because oftentimes those who commit the heinous acts are also those who have the power to condition the narrative of those acts. So, if we are truly committed to understand the root causes of terrorism, we need to embark in a serious archaeological excavation to have a better understanding of political conflicts that lead to violence. In addition, Irfan correctly argues that the so-called cycle of violence cannot be circular. Someone needs to have started the cycle. Regrettably, it is quite challenging to have a fair and objective understanding of many violent conflicts, including who actually initiated them.
Next, Irfan offers 4 possibilities to try to understand the complexity of terrorism.
- Accept my definition of terrorism and accept the conventional schema.
- Accept my definition of terrorism and reject the conventional schema.
- Reject my definition of terrorism and accept the conventional schema.
- Reject my definition and reject the conventional schema.
Irfan accepts 4 because he wants to incorporate his initiatory/retaliatory distinction into a definition of terrorism, assuming that by doing so one could avoid using the label “terrorism” as a rhetorical or ideological purpose rather than as a moral purpose.
Two points are worth considering. First, I do not see how my ignoring the initiatory/retaliatory distinction makes my definition of terrorism morally suspect. And second, as I have underscored above, I think the initiatory/retaliatory distinction conflates the understanding of terrorism with the justification of political violence. There is an important distinction between understanding the root causes of terrorism and trying to justify or excuse a given act of terrorism.
Also, I do not see how my definition of terrorism commits me to the claim that terrorism is, as Irfan states, “the absolute worst thing anyone can do.” We can easily envision scenarios of infliction of pain and suffering worse than terrorism. If that is so, then I am afraid that Irfan’s argument is a strawman because I do not think that any reasonable person, namely nondogmatic person, would defend the view that terrorism is “the absolute worst thing anyone can do.” Moreover, while I argue that terrorism is categorically wrong, it does not follow that terrorism is “the worst wrong one can do.”
Irfan writes, “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.” Irfan’s suggestion is well taken. But I would add that even if they were to have good reasons for engaging in terrorism, they would not necessarily be justified in deliberately or recklessly inflicting substantive harm on those who can be conceived of as objectively innocent noncombatants beyond reasonable doubt. To argue otherwise seems to me to try to justify murder or manslaughter in domestic law, or crimes against humanity or war crimes in international law, regardless of who initiated the cycle of violence.
Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Seton Hall University