“Terrorism” as Toxic Term: A Reply to Irfan Khawaja

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.

  1. Accept my definition of terrorism and accept the conventional schema.
  2. Accept my definition of terrorism and reject the conventional schema.
  3. Reject my definition of terrorism and accept the conventional schema.
  4. 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.

Vicente Medina
Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Seton Hall University
e-mail: medinavi@shu.edu

14 thoughts on ““Terrorism” as Toxic Term: A Reply to Irfan Khawaja

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  2. I’m a bit confused as to how “initiatory” is being used here. If A initiates violence against B, and B responds by attacking, say, B’s innocent sibling C in order to punish B, then while the attack on C may be retaliatory against B, I’d assume it counts as initiatory against C.


    • Roderick: just to clarify, were you referring to something I wrote, or something Vicente wrote, or both? I don’t disagree with what you say; just wasn’t sure which one of us it was intended for.

      I actually haven’t gotten a chance to read Vicente’s post. I’ll read it and respond when I get a chance, though I’m not sure when that’ll be.


      • I was taking Vicente to be glossing (rightly or wrongly) your statement that we should distinguish between “purely initiatory aggression on the one hand, and disproportionality or indiscriminateness in an otherwise justified response to aggression on the other.” as meaning that the kind of case I described would be non-initiatory. (I hadn’t taken you to mean that, but I see how it could be read that way.) And Vicente seemed to be agreeing that this was the case, and then concluding from it that initiatoriness must not then be such a big deal morally. Whereas I would take the modus tollens.


        • I’m going to write a separate response to Vicente’s post, so I don’t want to write too much right now by way of comments for fear of saying the same thing several times over. Not sure when I’ll get to that, however, so I figure I should say something.

          On this narrow issue (quotation from Roderick):

          If A initiates violence against B, and B responds by attacking, say, B’s innocent sibling C in order to punish B, then while the attack on C may be retaliatory against B, I’d assume it counts as initiatory against C.

          I agree, with one proviso. I don’t think the relevant issue of the initiation of violence but the initiation of force. I take force-initiations to be unjust and unconsenting boundary crossings (including credible threats or commands to cross them), and violence-initiations to be a species of those. Thus Adolph Hitler’s verbal or written order to initiate the invasion of Poland is a force-initiation, not a violence-initiation. The actual physical shooting involved in the invasion was the violence initiation. On my view, the very earliest stages of the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland–meaning, columns of tanks uncontestedly crossing the boundary into Poland (insofar as that happened)–was a force-initiation. Violence was initiated (on my view) in that case when the first shot was fired, whether that first shot was German or Polish. Suppose ex hypothesi that the first shot fired in the Nazi invasion came from a Polish soldier firing (defensively) at the Nazis. Since the Poles were in the defensive position, this entails that the initiatory act of injustice was the German force-initiation, not the Polish violence-initiation. From this perspective, the morally relevant issue was who initiated force, not who initiated violence.

          Likewise, if a burglar sneaks into my house (suppose I left the door ajar), and I shoot him, he initiated force; I initiated violence. But his act was the initiatory unjust act that led to the overall altercation.

          I insist on this pedantic-looking distinction to take stock of the fact that there’s nothing violent per se about a bunch of tanks moving along a road. Nor is there anything violent (except, perhaps, metaphorically) about the speech act that commanded those tanks to move along that road. Nor is there anything violent about sneaking into someone’s house. Nor, to change the example, is there anything violent about slipping someone a drug and then engaging in sex acts on them in a comatose state. But these are all clearly unjust acts involving unconsenting boundary-crossings. They’re all force initiations, as I see them.

          This goes beyond what I said in either thing I’ve written in response to Vicente, but perhaps it will help to understand my view: to conceptualize terrorism properly, we not only need to do conceptualize it within the context of the initiatory/retaliatory distinction, but we need to conceptualize that distinction itself in a moralized way. I’ll say more about this later, but as I see it, the distinction between force initiations and retaliations is normative, not purely physical or behavioral or perceptual. I have a feeling this is a major difference between Vicente and me.

          One example to illustrate my view: Suppose we live in a Lockean State of Nature, and I come to the house you’re currently living in and forcibly eject you from it. It surely matters whether “the house you’re living in” is yours by right or mine by right. If it’s yours by right, I’ve initiated force against you. If it’s mine by right, you’ve initiated force against me, and my “forcibly” removing you is not an initiatory act of force at all. The point of the example is that we have to settle the question of boundaries (yours, mine) before we apply the initiatory/retaliatory distinction. At a minimum, we need a theory of property rights before we can apply it. That’s as true of garden variety crimes as it is of terrorism.

          To go back to your A-B-C example: I agree with what you say about, with that preceding proviso and as stated. But change it in two respects and I don’t agree.

          (1) Suppose that A and C are somehow tied together by complicity in a common force-involving unjust enterprise against B. Then even if A is overtly the one to attack B, C is no longer innocent. So B’s attack on C is no longer initiatory. The more (clearly) complicitous in A’s force-initiating injustice C is, the more justified is B’s attack on C. Past a threshold of complicity, A and C are engaged in a common enterprise, so that both have common authorship over the initiatory act of force.

          (2) Suppose that A and C are proximately situated in such a way that it’s impossible for B effectively to exercise B’s right of self-defense against A without also wielding it against C. Then I would say B can’t be described as reckless in treating C as collateral damage of an attack on A, whether or not B takes the kind of precautions that would be required under non-war circumstances. The more is at stake for B, the less stringent the requirement for B to worry about C’s innocence or immunity from attack.

          (3) Now suppose that both (1) and (2) obtain. At a certain level of complicity, and given a certain level of proximity, B is justified in treating C just as B treats A.

          Having said that much to respond to your example, I think more broadly that we need to distinguish three issues that are getting conflated here.

          (a) Which acts are morally justified or not justified in the context of warfare and terrorism?
          (b) How should we define the term “terrorism”?
          (c) How should we assess the way the word “terrorism” is used in contemporary discourse?

          The exchange that Vicente and (and two other interlocutors) are about to have in Reason Papers concerns (a) and (b). (The Reason Papers symposium hasn’t come out yet; the symposium itself took place at Felician in April 2018.)

          But Vicente’s Government Europa piece, and my response to it, focus primarily on (c), not (a) and (b). (I realize that there’s some overlap there, but I still regard them as distinct issues.) My view is that, to the extent that we discuss terrorism in abstraction from who initiated force in a given context and who is retaliating, the word “terrorism” will inevitably be used in a problematic (“toxic”) way. This is true whether we accept Vicente’s definition or reject it: accept the definition or reject it, but the initiation/retaliation issue remains, and can’t be pushed to the margins without leaving a major lacuna in our understanding of the subject matter. What, for instance, does “innocence” mean if we treat the initiation/retaliation distinction as peripheral to and irrelevant to an understanding of terrorism? I would have thought that the innocent were precisely the people who hadn’t initiated force against anyone, and weren’t complicitous in doing so, either. Deprived of the initiation/retaliation distinction, I don’t see how it’s possible to apply Vicente’s distinction even if someone fully accepts it.

          I tried to illustrate the problem involved in (c) by conjoining Vicente’s definition with what I called the “conventional schema.” I conjoined the definition with other claims because there’s no other way to answer the question involved in (c) except to invoke background beliefs. The question involved in (c) isn’t simply about a definition, full stop. It’s about how the definition functions or is used in contemporary discourse. A definition functions in discourse by being conjoined with other beliefs, not simply by being asserted on its own.

          So suppose that we conjoin Vicente’s definition with the three other background beliefs I mentioned in my post (“the conventional schema”). My point was neither that Vicente himself necessarily accepts this conventional schema (he doesn’t discuss it), nor that his definition entails the conventional schema (it doesn’t), nor that the defects of the conventional schema are literally equivalent to any defects in the definition (they’re not). My point was that if you conjoin his definition to that schema, you are led to a problematic conception of terrorism–the problematic conception that most people in our culture take for granted, and tend to wield against anti-imperialist guerrilla movements. By abstracting from who initiated violence, {the conjunction of the definition with the schema} treats terrorist retaliations of force as worse than the initiations of force that occasioned them, even to the point of condemning as “terrorist” those retaliations that might well be required as defensive measures against the initiations. Precisely because contemporary commentators claim agnosticism about who initiated violence, it doesn’t matter to them whether a given act was initiatory or retaliatory. They’re therefore content to equate a wholesale invasion with a terrorist response to that invasion, or even worse, to ignore the invasion and condemn the response. But I regard that as a clear inversion of the requirements of justice. If this moral inversion is explained by how the word “terrorism” now functions in discourse, there is something wrong with how the term is used. Contrary to Vicente, the term really is toxic.

          To repeat: the problem here is not a problem with Vicente’s definition per se; it’s a problem that arises in contemporary discourse about terrorism if you accept Vicente’s definition and then conjoin it with common beliefs about terrorism. This may not be a problem with Vicente’s definition per se–in the sense of being a direct counter-example that proves that the definition asserts something false–but it’s still a problem, and my point was that the definition doesn’t help resolve this problem.

          Suppose you agree that there’s something wrong with {the conjunction of Vicente’s definition plus the conventional schema}. You’re therefore left with a choice. Either you accept Vicente’s definition and reject the conventional schema, or you produce a definition that entails the rejection of the schema. I prefer the latter move. That said, the former move is perfectly consistent with accepting Vicente’s definition of terrorism. But it illustrates either a defect or a lacuna in the definition, and in Vicente’s overall analysis of terrorism in his book. If you accept Vicente’s definition, yes, you can in principle reject the conventional schema, but the rejection of that schema requires separate treatment, independently of anything in the definition, and independently of anything said in defense of of the definition. It’s an undealt-with issue that has to be handled de novo.

          The lesson here, as I see it, is that ideally, the initiatory/retaliatory distinction has to be integrated into the structure of an analysis/definition of terrorism from the very outset. It’s not a separate issue that can be added after the fact, like an appendix to the main text of a book. Terrorism is a species of force-initiating aggressions. A definition that doesn’t explicitly elucidate the genus-species relationship is bound to miss something important about the definiendum, even if it gets a lot of other things right (as Vicente’s analysis does).

          If the complaint about the distinction is that it yields indeterminate results in too many cases–“we don’t know who initiated the violence”–I would respond that it’s unclear how a rival account manages to get determinate results while professing agnosticism about who initiated force and who is retaliating in a given case. If you don’t know who owns a car or a house, then the most you can say of the person who forcibly takes it from someone else is that he should refrain from certain methods in getting it back. But you can’t condemn the enterprise of getting it back. In the case of armed resistance to imperialism, the same thing applies. If a resistance group is engaged in warfare against an imperialist aggressor, but you have no idea who started the war, you can at most condemn certain methods of armed resistance that they engage in. You can’t condemn the enterprise they’re engaged in. Ex hypothesi, you’re not in a position to judge that enterprise. If you decide to judge it at all, you have to consider the possibility that the enterprise itself is justified; the methods you’re condemning don’t impugn it any more than they would in the reverse case. (Nazi sympathizers aside, no one takes Allied excesses in World War II to impugn the Allied cause, at least in the case of the Western Allies.) But if the enterprise that they’re engaged in is just (and for all you claim to know, it could be), the enterprise ought not to be called “terrorist” any more than the groups engaged in them should be. Then what you see are simply two sides engaged in battle, each engaging in excesses and atrocities, but neither clearly on the side of justice or injustice.

          That is simply not the way contemporary Westerners think about or talk about terrorism. They speak of terrorist groups engaged in terrorism, as though it were obvious that in any confrontation between a terrorist group and something else, the terrorist group is, qua terrorist group, in the wrong. If you then ask why this is so, you get the insistence that we abstract from “who started it” and talk instead about illicit methods. But I find this ad hoc. It’s not the way we talk about World War II, the paradigm of a just war. We don’t focus on Allied excesses and then profess agnosticism about the difference between the Poles and the Wehrmacht. That’s what Holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathizers do! When it comes to terrorism, however, the reverse procedure prevails. We focus on excesses, then profess agnosticism about the difference between imperialists and their victims. That’s what I object to. My point is not to saddle Vicente with the view I’m objecting to, but to insist that an account of terrorism that lacks an explicit means of dealing with it is missing something important.


  3. Thanks, Roderick, for your incise comment. I think you are raising a rather interesting point that seems to me to show the weakness of the initiatory/retaliatory distinction for an adequate morally impartial definition of terrorism. Consider the following scenario. Suppose that I threaten to inflict substantive harm (initiatory harm) on X if she refuses to hand me her money so that I can buy an expensive bottle of gin to enjoy my gin martini this coming weekend. X surrenders her money to me, but in order to retaliate against me for having wronged her, she chooses to stab my son instead (retaliatory harm against me but initiatory harm against my son) who has nothing to do with my wrongdoing. Is her retaliatory/initiatory act against an objectively innocent person who accidentally happened to be my son justify or excuse? I do not think so. Regardless of my criminal initiatory act against her, her retaliatory/initiatory act is morally and legally wrong because she has deliberately attacked and thereby harmed an objectively innocent person who, by virtue of his innocence, should enjoy moral and legal immunity.


    • I don’t see how my example shows “the weakness of the initiatory/retaliatory distinction.” It seems to me to show the strength and usefulness of that distinction. I’d say an action can have both initiatory and retaliatory dimensions, and if it is unjustified under its initiatory dimension then it is unjustified as a whole, period, although the retaliatory dimension can serve as a mitigating (but not excusing) factor.


      • I do not deny that the distinction can be relevant for evaluating whether a given act is morally justified or excused, but I argue that the distinction is irrelevant for an adequate morally impartial definition of terrorism, which is what I have argued for in my short article. The initiation of violence or retaliation in kind is one thing and their justification is something else. Determining who initiated the violence is an empirical investigation, but whether the initiation of violence is justified or not is a normative claim. Regardless of who initiated the violence, I argue that terrorism is categorically wrong if those who engage in it do so deliberately or recklessly against objectively innocent people.


        • Would it be fair to say that on your view, an act A can be an act of terrorism whether or not it is an initiatory act of violence?

          One potential problem for that view might be that your own account of what makes terrorism unjustified — that it involves “the deliberate or reckless killing of objectively innocent noncombatants” — seems to entail that terrorism is always an act of initiatory violence against the victims whose deliberate or reckless killing renders it unjustified. Perhaps that is Roderick’s thought. I’m not sure it would pose any problems for you to accept that terrorism is necessarily initiatory violence in this sense, because it is entirely consistent with its also being in some significant sense retaliatory. As I understand your view, the problem with terrorism even as retaliation against genuine injustice is that it deliberately or recklessly harms people who did not initiate the relevant injustice against which the terrorist is retaliating. If that’s right, then it seems sensible to say that on your view the initiatory/non-initiatory distinction plays a crucial role. But it wouldn’t help Irfan’s case against your view, so far as I understand it, because the sense in which terrorism is (sometimes) a retaliatory act is entirely consistent with its also being an initiatory act of violence. If Irfan’s point is that terrorism is (sometimes) a retaliation against genuine injustice, then his point poses no objection to your view, because your view does not deny that terrorism is sometimes a response to genuine injustice. I might agree with him that a terrorist act retaliating against genuine injustice is, ceteris paribus, less bad than an act of initiatory violence that is not a response to genuine injustice. But I’m not sure the difference counts for much with me. After all, if the initiatory violence to which the terrorism is a response is supposed to be especially bad because it’s initiatory, then it’s not clear why the terrorist act is any better, since it is also an act of initiatory violence. If the idea is supposed to be that terrorism isn’t an act of initiatory violence because it’s a response to a genuine injustice, and hence retaliatory, then I think the idea is just confused, for precisely the reason that Roderick highlights: A can initiate violence against C while responding to B’s initiatory violence against A. I do think it matters whether a person is responding to genuine injustice or simply inflicting injustice on others. But the very nature of terrorism seems to be to inflict harm on innocent people, whether deliberately or recklessly, as you say. I can more easily sympathize with injustice done in response to injustice than to injustice done out of the blue. But it’s still injustice. So while I think you perhaps ought to accept the essentially initiatory character of terrorism, I’m so far inclined to accept your overall view and not Irfan’s. But I’m pretty puzzled by the dialectic here and would need to revisit Irfan’s earlier piece more carefully (and to finally get around to reading your book, which I still haven’t managed to do) before coming to a firm conclusion.


          • Thanks for your worthwhile comment. The answer to your question is an unqualified, yes.
            I agree with you that what makes terrorism categorically wrong (unjustified) on my account is the deliberate or reckless substantive harm inflicted on those who can be conceived of as objectively innocent, or innocent beyond reasonable doubt. But the reason why they are objectively innocent is not only because they have not “initiated” an unjust act against anyone, but also because they pose no significant threat to anyone. In addition, I agree with you that Irfan’s initiatory/retaliatory distinction is consistent with my definition of terrorism. However, I am not convinced that the distinction poses a potential problem for my definition of terrorism. My definition could be an inadequate definition for other reasons, but not necessarily because it ignores the initiatory/retaliatory distinction. Whether I concede terrorism to be essentially initiatory or retaliatory what matters is the deliberate or reckless infliction of undeserved substantive harm on those who are objectively innocent. Nevertheless, I agree with Irfan’s worthwhile point that to have a broad and fair understanding of the use of force in any given conflict it is morally significant to determine who initiated the use of force. But it is also important to determine the reasons why they chose to use force to begin with. I understand your view, but I am not sure that there is such a thing as “injustice out of the blue.” Nevertheless, I agree with your morally significant point that regardless of one’s sympathy for the victims an injustice remains an injustice whether initiatory or retaliatory. My sense is that it is precisely at this moral juncture that Irfan and I disagree.
            I think that Irfan as well as you, are working with the assumption that, other things equal, those who initiate an unjust act of force/violence are morally worse than the victims who might retaliate in kind but disproportionally to the unjust act. Perhaps that is true under some scenarios, but that need not be the case always. Any of us can conceive of scenarios where despite X having initiated an unjust act of force/violence, the retaliation by the victims might be so disproportional that their violent act could be conceived of as being as bad as the original act of aggression or at times even worse. There are plenty of illustrations from WWII, and perhaps from other conflicts that speak to my point, but it would be too long for me to revisit those cases.

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            • “I think that Irfan as well as you, are working with the assumption that, other things equal, those who initiate an unjust act of force/violence are morally worse than the victims who might retaliate in kind but disproportionally to the unjust act. Perhaps that is true under some scenarios, but that need not be the case always.”

              I agree wholeheartedly. I’m not so convinced of the significance of the initiatory/non-initiatory distinction as Irfan and Roderick seem to be, though I’m not sure I understand their views well enough to agree or disagree firmly with them. My suggestion is rather that even if one were to follow what I take to be their suggestion and thus to see a tight connection between being objectively innocent and not having initiated force, your overall view of terrorism would emerge unscathed — that, as you say, the distinction doesn’t pose a serious problem for your definition of terrorism. I can’t claim to understand the details of your view because I haven’t read your book, but I’m deeply sympathetic to what I know of it, and so far as I can see Irfan’s critique addresses different — important, but different — issues than the ones you’re emphasizing.


              • I don’t think I can improve very much on my earlier comment. The dialectic is puzzling because there are two different issues in play. One concerns the adequacy of not of Vicente’s definition. That’s the topic of my previously Reason Papers piece, not my recent blog post. The second (separate) topic (discussed in the more recent post) concerns the role of the word “terrorism” in contemporary political discourse, taking Vicente’s definition for granted, but criticizing not the definition per se, but the result of conjoining the definition with common beliefs.

                One assumption I make throughout is that a definition ought to do more than state a truth (even a distinctive truth) about the definiendum, but serve to integrate (explain, make coherent) facts about the definiendum. Even if grant the truth of Vicente’s definition, the definition abstracts from the initiatory/retaliatory issue. Since Vicente grants the importance of the distinction, I take it to be at least a lacuna and arguably a defect in the definition that it makes no mention of it. The very fact you cite in your comment, that there’s a tight connection between being objectively innocent and not initiating force, suggests that Vicente’s definition gets the explanatory priorities wrong. Objective innocence is asymmetrically explained by not having initiated force. But if the latter thing is the explanans, and definitions ought to be explanatory, initiation/retaliation ought to find its way into the definition.

                The crux of my Reason Papers critique is that if one faces a sufficiently ruthless aggressor, one stands in asymmetric power relation to that aggressor, and complicity with the aggressor entails non-innocence, then attacking aggression-complicitous civilians is perfectly justified whether or not one has evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a proper subset of the civilians one attacks are objectively innocent. That complicity with the aggressor entails non-innocence doesn’t literally contradict Vicente’s definition, but it does contradict how he interprets it. “Possession of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt regarding innocence” is what Vicente regards as necessary and sufficient to avoid the recklessness referred to in his definition. Again, my counterexample/argument doesn’t literally contradict the definition as stated, but it does contradict Vicente’s interpretation of its meaning and implications.

                That’s why the conclusion I reach in the Reason Papers piece is not that terrorism is justified (full stop), but the disjunctive conclusion that under the conditions I specify, either terrorism is justified or terrorist-like-activity-that-resembles-but-isn’t-full-fledged-terrorism is justified (depending on how Vicente’s definition is understood).

                On the use of the term in contemporary discourse, I guess my challenge to anyone would be: take a concrete case, and abstract entirely from who initiated the force in question. Now try to apply any definition of “terrorism” in order to identify the party to whom it most appropriately applies. On Vicente’s view, the party engaged in “recklessly” killing objectively innocent civilians, on an interpretation of “reckless” appropriate to a murder trial in a courtroom, is the terrorist party, even if those engaged in this killing are on the receiving end of an invasion, face complete annihilation, and have no other means of exercising a right of self-defense.

                I find that very implausible, but set that aside. The issue isn’t the implausibility of the definition, but the implausibility of the definition plus common beliefs. Suppose that having reached this result, we then continued indefinitely to discuss the preceding scenario by abstracting from initiation and retaliation, making a moral point of never mentioning that the “terrorism” in question was a response to a genocidal invasion. Wouldn’t we be missing something? That’s the point of my more recent blog post.

                Even if you accept the definition and run with it, once you conjoin the definition with the common belief that ascription of “terrorism” to an act is a debate stopper, you have a recipe for ignoring the crucial background context of real-world warfare. That is not an objection to Vicente’s definition (I agree), but it is an objection the way the definition commonly gets deployed in real-world discussion. If members of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising managed, during the uprising, to get reckless and kill some objectively innocent citizens of Warsaw, it would be preposterous (on any definition of “terrorism”) to do an end-run around the fact that they were responding to a Nazi invasion whose ultimate aim was their annihilation. But people do that all the time.

                One way to clarify the significance of the initiatory/retaliatory distinction might be this. Think of it as a specification of a more general distinction, the distinction between initiating and responding to harm-producing wrongdoing, i.e., injustice. Surely the relevance of that distinction is obvious. There is a clear moral distinction to be drawn between being the one to initiate a wrongful act, and being the one to be obliged to respond to that act.

                To specify: think of members of the moral community (agents and patients) as circumscribed, metaphorically, by moral boundaries that can’t without injustice be crossed. On this view boundary-crossings are by definition unjust. If the initiation of an unjust act is unjust, then every intentional boundary-crossing will be unjust. (Unintentional boundary-crossings are a problem, but a separate problem.)

                For purposes of this discussion, equate force-initiations with intentional boundary-crossings, and I think the rationale for the view that I hold (and I think Roderick holds) becomes clearer. To abstract from the initiatory/retaliatory distinction is to abstract from a part of justice that is directly relevant to the issue at hand–so relevant that when someone claims to be abstracting from it, he usually ends up introducing it through the back door. (I don’t mean to imply that all force-initiations are intentional boundary-crossings; my point is, if the topic is terrorism, intentional boundary crossings are the relevant kind. Torts are an example of a non-intentional boundary-crossings, but there’s a world of difference between terrorism and torts.)

                It matters, of course, how the boundaries are “drawn” and what rationale one gives to any given account of them. I’ve tried to be relatively neutral there. But I hope it clarifies things to think of force-initiations as initiations of wrongdoing by initiating the crossing of morally relevant boundaries in ways that demand a response by the entity whose boundaries have been crossed.

                I promised not to say too much in the comments for fear that I would repeat myself when I wrote up a direct response to Vicente. We see how well that promise has fared. But I do promise to write up that response. Really, I do.

                PS. I understand that the next issue of Reason Papers (with the symposium on Vicente’s book) is coming out next week.


  4. Pingback: Terrorism without Mens Rea? | Policy of Truth

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