Here is a thought experiment--an attempt to lay out what kinds of violence a terrorist or terror group would deploy that was justified. I am here, positioning myself in the mind of the potential terrorist. I will not be exploring in great detail, the justification that can be given for violence such as just war. I am primarily interested in setting down a continuum of ethically justified, proportionate terror/violence. Developing a gradual increase in action.
I feel I should say a few words on the use of the word terrorist. As the name implies, terror, fear and panic is one of the goals that various “terror” groups seek to achieve. However, I believe as this will show there is a distinction to be made concerning numerous terror groups various goals, intentions and tactics, not to mention their attitude towards targeting non-combatants.
In what follows can be seen either as an escalation of violence or a slow slide into ever more questionable or unethical and immoral action. (please note, again, this will be argued from a point of view of a terrorist, I am not dealing with the underlying premises. Or example I believe it would be justified to respond with some sort of “terrorist“ activity in response to genocide or slavery or a huge infringement of civil liberties.)
Here is the gradient.
* Rational persuasion and negotiation has failed to bring both sides to an agreement or that one side will not listen to rational argument. Said policy is continuing and will continue for the foreseeable future. Which leads to…
* Warning-that the failure to cease and desist from said policy will result in violent consequences.
Failure to do so results in….
* Kidnapping of political leaders who have either advocated, implemented or created the said policy. Attempt to persuade them to either see arguments to desist (dubious given the circumstances) or present them with three choices. Either support our cause, (if you really have changed you mind) and or cease and desist from you role in carrying out or implementing said policy or die. If you choose to cease and desist and renege on your promise--you will be marked for death.
* Targeted assassination (designed to kill one person, ie a sniper rifle or pistol--one bullet one body) of a political leader who has either advocated, implemented or created the said policy that has motivated the terrorists.
* Targeted assassination of various political leaders, deputies, ministers, military leaders, police chiefs, CEO’s who have either advocated, implemented or explicitly support said policy.
* Bomb or mortar attack on HQs, offices or home of said political leaders who have created or implemented said policy. If there is collateral damage this is justified if and only if there is strong evidence to think the political leader is or will be in the targeted location. And only if the violence is proportionate. (I will discuss proportionality later)
* Telephone or email target and or media and inform target that a bomb has been planted in said location. The call is a feign. There is no bomb, the point is to cause fear and to show the enemy that next time we might not either be lying or merciful.
* Plant bombs in or near military or political institutions. Ring forward and state that said bomb will explode--this will give them time to evacuate the building. Only structural damage and financial damage is the aim here. There is one other aim--which is power and fear (which is used to persuade the enemy to change said policy) Inform target that next time there may not be a warning.
* Deliberate shoot to kill policies against soldiers, policemen or other government personnel who are actively in co-operation with said policy.
* Deliberate and without warning--detonate bombs or mortar attacks, military bases or government building which are actively in co-operation with said policy.
* Kidnapping of non-combatants and NGO’s who are clearly and explicitly in support of said policy. Either persuade them to the cause or get them to cease and desist or kill them, and kill them (target for assassination) if they renege.
* Targeted assassination of non-combatants and NGO’s who are clearly and explicitly in support of said policy.
**** Indiscriminate bombing of non-combatants in a public place****
**** Maximal indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants in a public place****
Given the logic of just war and that there is times that violence is in fact an ethical response to things like slavery or genocide or the threat of annihilation- it seems to me that much of the above is justified. The problems start I believe when we move from bombing military and political institutions to the kidnapping and finally killing non-combatants. The threshold is non-combatant, however I believe it could be said that for example a wealthy German businessman who was donating money and resources to help the Nazi party could be targeted as a facilitator and supporter. If he were “persuaded” to cease and desist this would seem to be a “positive” outcome. If his death was caused, there would be less money and resources going into the Nazi party.
However this action would be constrained by what difference would it really make? Furthermore it might actually increase support for the Nazi party or similar political party or policy for example. Also would there not be more worthy targets? Would his targeting be justified though if the previous justified actions (kidnapping and targeting of leaders etc) were carried out and to avail? Surely though, if the leaders and solders were killed and a regime or country did not still change its ways how likely is it to change after a civilian is targeted? This is an “empirical” point, if there was no prior indication of what the action may result in it might be justified to carry out the action--provided the outcome or goal to be brought about was worth it.
Clearly the real problem is with indiscriminate bombing. Bombing kills indiscriminately. It kills both supporters of a terrorists cause, indifferent civilians and the backers of said policy that terrorists have a problem with. It is a crude, blunt weapon. However is there any circumstances were it could be justified? I believe so. To be adopted only in extreme circumstances and when all other approaches both non aggressive and aggressive has failed and only if there is a real chance of success and that the action is proportional to the likely success and goal of the terrorist and of his action.
Putting it more clearly, this pretty much rules out bombing if not in theory but in practice. I would define extreme circumstances as either slavery or genocide. Real chance of success also seems pretty negligible. The only “success” that perhaps can be taken from deliberate targeting of civilians is that it might persuade both sides to sit down and work out their differences peacefully as they have seen that violence does not work.
Proportionality is a problem and I don’t consider myself to have solved it. In the end all that can be said is that it is a matter of degree and reasonableness. For example it would not be proportionate to detonate a nuclear bomb in a city of a country that has denied certain members of that county labour rights or basic civil rights. It may be ethical though, to assassinate a politician or bomb a government building. From this crude example it would suggest that our concept of rights, freedoms and welfare does not translate easily into the arithmetic of body count. For example is it ethical to kill one person to promote to welfare and rights of twenty million people? What about twenty thousand or twenty? No? What if he is actively blocking their welfare and causing their death and suffering? Should violent action only justified in the actual consequences it brings about? Ie intentions and means are unimportant if the end gained outweighs the losses?
Given the hierarchy of justified violence it is quite clear that many terrorist groups do not consider them and go straight to indiscriminate killing or show no regard for human life whatsoever. There is many who would make a moral equivalence between say a government that accidentally kills civilians in air raid and a terrorist who blows up a teenage disco. The distinction is obvious when you consider it from the perspective of the continuum. The military are targeting either military or paramilitary targets, the terrorists are not. The military as best possible seek to reduce civilian deaths, the terrorists in many cases seek to maximise it.
Arguments about collective responsibility are fraught. Indiscriminate targeting, kills as I have said people who are indifferent or in support of what the terrorist wants. Also it should be considered unethical to hold hundreds or thousands of people guilty for policies in which they have not explicitly supported or carried out. Especially when there are more guilty targets that deserve singling out. Also at the risk of repeating myself, the repugnance of the action, the indiscriminate nature of the violence and the probability that it will bring about what the terrorist seeks is also further strikes against terror bombing.
A move against this could be that because individuals “choose” to live in a democracy they have to assume the responsibilities and consequences that the country they live performs. There does seem to be some tacit support for this. For example lets say I possessed illegal drugs, I don’t agree with the governments support of drug criminalisation and would argue the point with the judge, however I would have to resign myself to the prison sentence nevertheless.
I don’t think this argument is more persuasive to the idea that perpetrators of crimes are the ones that should be held to account. There are graduations of culpability and in turn graduations of punishment. It would seem to fly in the face against everything we hold of value such as individual liberty, choice, responsibility and notions of judicial equality.
To conclude then I would argue that almost certainly the policy of indiscriminate bombing and mass murder against non-combatants is never justified.