Why is terrorism justified?


Can terrorism be morally justified? A question that seems paradoxical, if not obscene: after all, terrorism has "a connotation of evil, indiscriminate violence, or brutality."

J. Angelo Corlett, who teaches philosophy at San Diego State University, nevertheless tries to develop a theory for a just and thus justified terrorism. And contrary to what the discussion about the book "After Terror" by Ted Honderich suggests, 2 Corlett's argument moves against the background of an - at least in the Anglo-Saxon-speaking area - an intensive philosophical examination of this topic

But can terrorism even be justified? Isn't terrorism, as Michael Walzer put it, "the random murder of innocent people" 4 - and thus illegitimate per se and cannot be justified by anything? Corlett counters this accusation with a simple statement: "But even if terrorism is unconcerned with the harming of innocent persons, it hardly follows from this supposition that terrorism must be directed at innocents." that terrorism does not necessarily harm and kill the innocent. He gives two examples of this, the attacks by the anc, which were primarily directed against the infrastructure of the apartheid regime, and terrorist bomb attacks, which are only directed against buildings or facilities, but do not injure or kill people.6 And the question actually arises about one possible justification of terrorism only makes sense if it is understood openly: "A justification of terrorism is needed which captures all or most of the essential features of it while not begging the question against the moral justification of terrorism" .7

The starting point for the search for a possible justification for terrorism is a definition that differs in one essential respect from the known definitions of terrorism. She is neutral; it lacks the description of terrorism as violence against the innocent - and thus also the fundamental moral condemnation:

"Terrorism is the attempt to achieve (or prevent) political, social, economic, or religious change by the actual or threatened use of violence against other persons or other persons' property; the violence (or threat thereof) involved therein is aimed partly at destabilizing (or maintaining) an existing political or social order, but mainly at publicing the goals or causes espoused by the agents or by those on whose behalf the agents act; often though not always, terrorism is aimed at provoking extreme counter-measures which will win public support for the terrorists and their goals or causes. «8

For Corlett, terrorism is just a form of political violence, the legitimacy or illegitimacy of which must first be proven. Corlett arrives at this neutral definition through a list of political acts of violence that ranges from the attacks of September 11, 2001 to the Boston Tea Party9. For the insurgents
in America their struggle was legitimate, a struggle for independence for freedom and self-determination. For the Crown of England, on the other hand, it was an illegal, more than that: an illegitimate insurrection, a crime against the law. Today we would say: terrorism.10 Which also names the core problem of (almost) every terrorism debate, namely the question of what counts as terrorism (and thus generally illegitimate) and what is legitimate resistance or a legitimate struggle for liberation : "One person's freedomfighter is another person's terrorist."

In terms of legitimation theory, this also justifies a dilemma to which Corlett rightly points out: "If terrorism is never morally justified, then no form of it is." 12 Or to put it another way: If non-state political violence13 can sometimes be required, there is a moral justification from terrorism at least
conceivable. Indeed, the literature deals with various real and hypothetical cases in which political violence appears justified. Burleigh Taylor Wilkins argues, for example, that in the "Third Reich" attacks against civilians who had the goal of stopping mass murder or deportations would have been morally justified.14 And Seumas Miller would have considered attacks by the ANC in South Africa to be justified against the officials of the apartheid regime.15

What the authors use here is the argument of self-defense and emergency aid: If I cannot ward off an attack on my life other than killing the attacker, then I may. And if I am attacking the life of an innocent, for example on a child, can only be prevented by killing the attacker, so may I too. An argument that must also apply in relation to the state or to another population group.16 Otherwise, to use a current example, the African population in the Darfur region in Sudan would not have the moral right to oppose the expulsions, even with violence, to fight back the rape and the killing.

Corlett also uses the principle of self-defense and emergency aid to develop a multi-level catalog of criteria based on the definition of the theory of just war for checking the legitimacy of terrorism:

"S is morally justified in employing terrorism, T, in certain circumstances, C, and at a given time, t1, to the extent that:
S, being morally innocent, is defending herself or another morally innocent individual or group of moral innocents in the face of a significant form of injustice in C at t1, and concerning which injustice S [or the one (s) defended by S] is (are) morally innocent;

S is as conscientiously selective as possible in her choice of terrorist targets in C at t1 - tn;

In C at t1, S directs terrorist activity both proportionately and only against those clearly guilty of committing acts of significant injustice;

if time and circumstance permits, S attempts non-violent means of political, social, economic or religious change in good faith;

S plans T so as to best achieve the cessation of the conditions of injustice which might justify the use of T in the first place; other

it is morally justified for others in relevantly similar circumstances to engage in T. «17

What is striking is the value Corlett places on "moral innocence". It serves him as a decisive criterion for evaluating the legitimacy of political violence. With the help of "moral innocence" - as a category for both the perpetrator and the person to be protected - Corlett succeeds in defusing the most morally massive charge against terrorist violence: that it is directed against the innocent. In response to Carl Wellman, who rejects terrorism as a violation of fundamental human rights and therefore unjustifiable, 18 Corlett asks:

“How is it, then, that an oppressor has a right not to be terrorized, especially by those whom he has abused? How much weaker is the oppressor’s claim to not be a victim of terrorism when that oppressor has already victimized others by way of terrorism? «19

Corlett gives himself the answer: “Thus it seems that there is no inviolable or absolute and non-conflictable
moral right to not become a victim of terrorist action, unless, of course, one is truly innocent of harming the terrorist and / or her property, or someone on whose behalf the terrorist chooses to act. "20

This gives Corlett the status of a categorical imperative for the principle of discrimination, which demands the protection of non-combatants in a just war: Just terrorism spares the innocent - without exception! And with Corlett you come to a clear judgment on the most recent terrorist attacks (September 11th, March 11th or the attack on the school in Beslan): They must all be disqualified as unjustified, as crimes. Which corresponds to our moral judgment.

Nevertheless, in the end Corlett fails because of the problem of mediating between his moral claim and what, with Michael Walzer, could be called the "moral reality of political violence" 21: the fact that political violence (regardless of whether it is called war or terrorism) always also claims innocent victims. And that a theory that wants to rule on the justified use of political violence must also find an answer to the most pressing moral question: Can the death of innocents be justified? 22 Corlett does not answer this question.

1. Lutz, James M. and Brenda: Global Terrorism, London 2004, p. 9.

2. Ted Honderich's book, published in the summer of 2003, tries to justify terrorism in a moral-philosophical way. After an intervention by Professor Micha Brumlik, director of the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt, the Honderich and the
Suhrkamp Verlag accused of spreading anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, the publisher took the book out of its program again. In an open letter that received little attention from the media, Norman Paech, professor emeritus for international law at the Hamburg University of Economics and Politics, defended Honderich against accusations of anti-Semitism - even if Paech considers the attempt to justify terrorism to be extremely problematic. (Compare: www.unikassel.de/fb10/frieden/themen/Rassismus/honderich.html).

3. A selection of texts that deal with the problem of a justified, a moral terrorism: Khatchadourian, Haig: The Morality of Terrorism, New York 1998; Wilkinson, Paul: Political Terrorism, London 1974; Seto, Theodore P .: The Morality of Terrorism (www.lls.edu/academics/faculty/pubs/ seto-moralityterror.pdf); Khan, Ali: A legal Theory of International Terrorism (classes.washburnlaw.edu/khan/publications/19clr945.htm); Narveson, Jan:
"Terrorism and Morality," in: Frey, R. G. and Christopher W. Morris: Violence, Terrorism and Justice, New York 1991, pp. 116-169; Miller, Seumas: "Osama bin Laden, Terrorism and Collective Responsibility", in: Coady, Tony and Michael O’Keefe (eds.): Terrorism and Justice. Moral Argument in a Threatened World, Victoria 2002, pp. 43-57; Thompson, Janna: "Terrorism and the Right to Wage War", in: Coady and O’Keefe (eds.): Terrorism and Justice, op. Cit., Pp. 87-96; Young, Robert: "Political Terrorism as a Weapon of the Politcal Powerless", in: Coady and O’Keefe (eds.): Terrorism and Justice, op. Cit., Pp. 22-30.

4. Walzer, Michael: Just and Unjust Wars, New York 1977, p. 197. 5. Corlett: Terrorism, op. Cit., P. 117 (italics in the original).

6. Corlett: Terrorism, op. Cit., 142.

7. Ibid., P. 117.

8. Ibid., Pp. 119 f. (Emphasis in the original).

9. The Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773 exacerbated the conflict between the American colonies and metropolitan Britain, which ultimately led to the War of Independence from 1775 to 1783.

10. See Corlett: Terrorism, op. Cit., P. 48. 11. Lutz and Lutz: Global Terrorism, op. Cit., P. 8.

12. Corlett: Terrorism, op. Cit., P. 48.

13. C.A.J. Coady points out that there are around 100 different definitions of terrorism. For the most part, however, non-state violence directed against civilians is defined as terrorism (cf. Coady, CAJ: Terrorism, Just War and Supreme Emergency, in: Coady and O'Keefe [ed.]: Terrorism and Justice, loc. Cit.) , P. 8).

14. Burleigh Taylor Wilkins argues that attacks against "normal" Germans that were carried out with the aim of stopping mass murder or deportations would have been morally justified (cf. Wilkins, Burleigh Taylor: Terrorism and Collective Responsibility, London 1992, P. 26).

15. Government officials who formulated these policies (who were responsible for discrimination against blacks, AB), administrators who implemented them, and police who enforced them, were all legitimate targets, on the assumption that killing these officials was necessary in order to halt these rights violations. "(Miller, Seumas: Osama bin Laden, Terrorism and Collective Responsibility, loc. cit., p. 56).

16. Compare: Meggle, Georg: “Is this war good? An ethical commentary ", in: Merkel, Reinhard: Der Kosovo-Krieg und das Völkerrecht, Frankfurt / Main 2000, pp. 140 f. 17. Corlett: Terrorism, op. Cit., P. 126 f. (Emphasis in the original).

18. Wellman, Carl: "On Terrorism itself," in: Journal of Value Inquiry, 13 (1979), pp. 156-160.

19. Corlett: Terrorism, op. Cit., P. 136.

20th vol., P. 136.

Andreas Bock
Geschwister-Scholl-Institute for Political Science, Munich