PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Monday, December 20, 2004



Let's get to the point. There is no reason why someone's terrorist is someone else's freedom fighter.

The following conditions for an act to be a terrorist act might not be to everyone's liking, but they will do for now:
1) there is an alternative and peaceful way to bring about one's political cause;
2) the cause is unreasonable and/or unjustified;
3) the terrorist is not a legitimate representative of the people.

Of course, philosophers are very lucky; their raw material, aka concepts, can be so vague and imprecise that makes it all worth while getting up in the morning. So let's see what we can do with all this luck.

By definition terrorists usually, but not necessarily, use violence against the civil population to achieve their objectives. Sometimes they target assets, sometimes government employees and sometimes the military.

However, by definition, using violence against people is not something one can justify very easily. And when it is justified it is usually done with a whole legal or moral system to support it or regulate it. Self defence and justified war come to mind.

It is easy to claim that one does not have an alternative but to use violence. Of course, the ability to use violence gives one a certain degree of power, but that is not a justification. Not unless, that is, if we accept the slogan ‘might is right.’ At least in today's world, we are fast discovering that economic power or strategic alliances have a better leverage than semtex.

Terrorism is first and foremost associated with territorial claims. Anyway, there are enough historical precedents that should put territorial claims on top of the list. Ideology, in the form of political convictions or religious beliefs, are also quite high on the list. So, what justifies a cause or makes it reasonable? Since it is the business of the courts to tell us what is reasonable, we need not concern ourselves with this question here. Deciding what is a justifiable cause is more difficult. We first have to ask the question justifiable for whom? Followed by, what is being justified?

I suspect that matters of justification depend on whether the above three conditions are to be taken as necessary and sufficient together. Or whether each of the above conditions are to be treated as separate conditions.

Who do the terrorists represent? And how do they become representatives? In a way the cause has a lot to do in determining this question. Fighting an occupying force is surely a different matter from fighting to establish an oppressive regime. It is true that in some cases so called terrorists have wide support from the population, but there are occasions when the legitimacy of this support is not clear. Using coercion is not exactly the idea of representation we have in mind anyway.

A subject like terrorism will always come with some loose concepts attached to it. Two of these concepts are 'state sponsored terrorism' and freedom fighter.

I don't know about you, but for me 'state sponsored terrorism' is an oxymoron, especially if that terrorism is directed at an other state. It’s an oxymoron because if a state supports or directly uses terrorists or terrorism against another state that would be an act of war by whatever language or other system one wishes to stretch the semantics. States commit act of wars; individuals commit acts of terrorism.

At a superficial level the term 'freedom fighter' is also vague. What does the freedom fighter want to achieve? Does the freedom fighter want to get rid of an occupying force or replace an occupying force with their own ideological system? How important is it distinguish between the terrorist who specifically targets the civil population and the freedom fighter who targets the occupying force?

Finally, it is sometimes said that when terrorists bring about a change in the political scene they operate in it is because things were due to change anyway. In other words, the terrorists, at best, hastened the inevitable. The questions then follows: what causal implications does terrorism have? What exactly do terrorists achieve? And how does terrorism affect the population, governments and other institutions? However, the most pressing issue moralists and philosophers have to address themselves to is this: do we have a duty to protect the rights of terrorist?

Take care

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