Need help?
Call now 0207 118 0808


Writer's Profile
Ted Clarke

Specialised Subjects

Criminology, International Relations, Politics

I graduated in 2009 with a 2:1 in Politics with Criminology. In 2010 I graduated with a Masters in Politics with Commendation. I currently write articles for a number of news websites and webzines and plan to undertake a PhD in the near future. I am also working on a study into Holocaust denial with the aim of having it published.

Is terrorism always unjustifiable?

In discussing and looking at terrorism, the diversity of opinion and the controversy surrounding its acceptance and justification becomes clear. In looking at whether there are grounds for justification in any particular instance of terrorism, or certain conditions which can make it acceptable, there will also be a reflection on how, with particular scholars, it can never be justified and will always be wrong. In looking at wide-ranging works from Michael Walzer, Ted Honderich, Virginia Held, Haig Khatchadourian, Michael Ignatieff and Robert Young, the complexity and dispute within the area is revealed. In looking at the arguments for and against the justification of terrorism, ideas such as utilitarianism, consequentialism, rights-based analysis as well as the terms for the just use of force are explored. The subject, though, still remains one that is much contested and one in which a definitive answer thus far has not been reached, and whether or not one could be reached adds to the complexity of the subject.

In looking at how one could possibly justify terrorism, Ted Honderich argues that ‘the only terrorism with the possibility of justification is terrorism for humanity’ (Honderich cited in Murchadha, 2006:36), which can be interpreted as justification on the grounds that such terrorism is aimed at addressing grievances and gaining equality and influence, which would not be possible by using any other methods. With this in mind, Honderich openly supports Palestinian terrorism towards Israel, highlighting his consequentialist stance by stating, ‘I have no doubt that the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism against the Israelis’ (Honderich, 2003:199) and such a moral right would justify their terrorism on the terms that they are denied a voice for their right to self-determination and their displacement and oppression by the superior Israeli Defence Forces. In direct contrast to this, Ignatieff argues that there can be no justification for Palestinian terrorism, ‘No campaign of violence can be justified in the name of self-determination if its essential premise is to foreclose peaceful negotiations and to deny the right of another people to exist ’ (Ignatieff, 2004:103). Ignatieff refers to the Oslo Peace Accords which attempted to bring an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence, address the grievances of the Palestinians and recognise their right to self-determination and autonomy. This, in essence, would have shown a degree of success in Palestinian terrorism and would have been a perfect example for the argument of the justification of terrorism for humanity. However, as Ignatieff highlights, the whole peace process fell apart after Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad denied Israel’s right to exist and thus undermined the whole process by intensifying their attacks on Israeli targets. If Palestinian violence had brought about a situation whereby their grievances were to be addressed, how could further violence be justified? Of Honderich’s justifications, his consequentialist approach argues that Palestinian terrorism is more effective for advancing Palestinian calls for equality, influence and self-determination, ‘Terrorism can be directed, to speak differently, to ends that make for progress towards well-being for those who are deprived of it ’ (Honderich, 2003:192). If we apply this to the breakdown of the Oslo Peace Accords, the action taken by Hamas highlighted a suspicion with the Israelis over their ability to actually stick to the stipulations of the Peace Accords. However, it is clear that this is representative of the contentious nature of, not only attempting to justify Palestinian terrorism, but also other terrorisms.

Consequentialist and utilitarian responses have been used when looking at the justification of terrorism, or, lack of justification. Virginia Held explains this succinctly, ‘To a consequentialist, terrorism would have to be justifiable if, on balance, it brings about better consequences than its alternatives ’ (Held cited in Primoratz, 2004:68). This coupled with utilitarianism, which would suggest that terrorism is justifiable if it resulted in the greatest good for the greatest number within a state or society, forms the bedrock for discussion on the morality and contentious nature of the use of terrorism. However, Held does not agree with a utilitarian approach to terrorism. She believes that the justification of terrorism has to be looked at in terms of rights violations and the need to recognise and share the burdens of rights violations, through equal distribution. As Held states, ‘T errorism cannot necessarily be ruled out as unjustifiable on a rights-based analysis ’ (Held cited in Primoratz, 2004:76) and upon basing the justification of terrorism on the distribution of rights violations, Held looks at the Palestine-Israel situation. When applying a rights- based analysis to this situation, Held argues that the Palestinians may have a right to their terrorism because there is an unequal distribution of rights violations. Israel can be seen as an aggressor and a state which denies the justice and rights of the Palestinians and, as such, terrorist attacks upon Israel in the name of equal rights distribution, may be justifiable. Therefore, ‘Depending on the severity and extent of the rights violations in an existing situation, a transition involving a sharing of rights violations, if this and only this can be expected to lead to a situation in which rights are more adequately respected, may well be less morally unjustifiable than continued acceptance of ongoing rights violations ’ (Held cited in Primoratz, 2004:76). With this in mind, the continued violation and denial of self-determination for the Palestinians warrants a justification for the terrorism as a way of equalising the rights violations. However, she does make the distinction by highlighting the terror campaign of Al Qaeda, who, lacking clear goals and inhabiting a different context than the Palestine-Israel situation, would not be able to justify their terrorism. She also makes an interesting contention when comparing terrorism with state terrorism. When state terrorism is justified as legitimate in the eyes of the people who have, with their citizenship and rights, have given the monopoly of the use of force to the state, Held asks, ‘Can terrorism as a considered method to overcome oppression with as little loss of life as possible be, in contrast, less unjustifiable than state terrorism?’ (Held in Primoratz, 2004:74) which is a valid point. Those who deny any right of justification to terrorism must also reject state terrorism, which is something that has happened before and will continue to happen and so other forms of terrorism must come under consideration.

There are of course a number of scholars who reject the justification of terrorism in any form and that it cannot be justified under any circumstances. Michael Walzer is a main proponent of this viewpoint as he concentrates ‘upon the idea that terrorist violence is targeted upon non-combatants or innocents’ (Primoratz, 2004:5). But to simply reduce terrorism to an attack upon innocents is perhaps to over-simplify the complex contextual and variables which make up the unique position of each terrorists situation. Walzer believes that within a democratic state, terrorism can never be an option because there are an infinite number of peaceful, democratic means of sorting and addressing grievances and inequality. Terrorism as a last resort is inherently wrong because there can be no ‘last resort’. This in direct contrast with Ignatieff who believes that, ‘In order to overcome the greater evil of injustice and oppression, the weak must be entitled to resort to the lesser evil of terrorist violence ’ (Ignatieff, 2004:91). With this juxtaposition what is highlighted is that there is disagreement as to whether a ‘last resort’ can be reached. It also asks questions of what constitutes the lesser of two evils. Interestingly, Walzer ‘believes that at least some of the Allied bombings of German cities during WW2 in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were intentionally killed were justified ’ (Held cited in Primoratz, 2004:67). With this in mind, Walzer’s earlier belief that terrorist violence targets innocents comes under scrutiny. Were the people of Dresden not innocent civilians? Even the application of Just War theory where jus in bello and the Principle of Discrimination cannot account for the deliberate attacking of innocents on a mass scale. Returning to the issue of terrorism as a last resort, Robert Young criticizes Walzer’s belief that there can never be no ‘last resort’ to violent terrorism by arguing that ‘it amounts to no more than an insistence that however unrealistic, or unlikely to succeed, the remaining options may be, they must continue to be tried ’ (Young cited in Primoratz, 2004:58). Thus, Walzer’s viewpoint is a straightforward black or white expression of his disdain and rejection of terrorism as justifiable or even to be considered as a means of addressing inequality and oppression. Even though Ignatieff disagrees with Walzer, he believes that ‘Time and again, terrorists resort to violence not as a last resort, turned to reluctantly after peaceful means of political action have been exhausted, but as a first resort ’ (Ignatieff, 2004:101). In looking at, for example, the emergence of the IRA in the 1970s and the subsequent campaign of violence that lasted for over 30 years, it could be contested that the IRA began their campaign of violence as a first resort, because Sinn Fein emerged as a political party in the North after years of violence. This turn to democratic means has evolved over the years into a peace process and the addressing of inequality and the grievances of the Nationalist community. However, in another example, Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in the US, Spain, Britain and other countries, they have made no intention of sitting down to negotiate and terrorism is the means by which they look to address their grievances. With this in mind, can terrorism be thus called only if it is used as a last resort, or can it be used in order to create conditions in which the grievances of those behind the terror can be addressed? In reality, what would constitute as a ‘last resort’ would also bring about contentious discussion. With regard to the question however, within Walzer’s perspective, terrorism is always unjustifiable because there are an infinite number of political and non-violent methods to deal with grievances and that if it is a just cause, it can be resolved within the parameters of democracy.

Another advocate who questions whether terrorism can be justified is Haig Khatchadourian whose stance is summed up succinctly in ‘Terrorism, in all its types and forms, is always wrong’ (Khatchadourian, 1991:113) which is taken from the book ‘The Morality of Terrorism’. Haig identifies four types of terrorism: predatory, retaliatory, political and moralistic, and contends that the terrorism in all is unjustifiable and wrong. Khatchadourian sets out two conditions in which violent terrorism would be justified. The first is that it be the lesser of two evils. The second is that terrorists’ actions should violate no one’s equal human rights or other moral rights. Under these conditions, number two would never be satisfied. In looking at the examples of the IRA’s campaign, the Palestine-Israel conflict of even the Al Qaeda terrorism, all have violated the second of Khatchadourian’s conditions. Within the IRA’s context, they claimed only to attack legitimate targets. However, there are a number of incidents where innocent civilians lost their lives and had their moral and equal rights violated, like the Enniskillen and Omagh bombs. Rocket attacks from the Israelis and suicide bombings from Palestinians have also violated moral rights as well as the Principle of Discrimination which prohibits the killing of civilians. As Khatchadourian argues ‘terrorism in general always violates the immediate victims’ and the suffers’ human right to be treated as moral persons. But an act cannot be morally right if it violates anyone’s human rights’ (Khatchadourian, 1991:121). All the examples above therefore, cannot be justified. Khatchadourian looks at Kai Neilson’s work in ‘Violence and terrorism: its uses and abuses.’ In which Neilson identifies Revolutionary terrorism as justifiable under the conditions that it ‘ might be effective ’ and that violence ‘would not cause more injury and suffering all round than would simple submission or non-violent resistance to the violence directed at them by the state ’ (Khatchadourian, 1991:122). However, whether we base our conclusions on intentions or the consequence of terrorist actions, would affect which position one would assume. The IRA claimed civilians were not legitimate targets and so only directed their attacks against those they defined as combatants. However, as has been said before, they have killed civilians with their terrorist actions. Neilson adds that ‘terrorists must demonstrate that their acts satisfy the conditions for the justifiable use of force. Failing that, they bear ‘a special burden of moral wrongdoing’ (Neilson cited in Khatchadourian, 1991:124). With that in mind, all of the conflicts and incidence of terrorism mentioned before would bear some kind of burden of moral wrongdoing.

Young attempts to explain terrorism and its activities as a product of a lack of political power, ability to influence the government of the state, or even the prospect of realistically attaining political power within the conditions of the current state. Therefore the resort to violence and terror is a tool of the politically weak and powerless. What would amount to a justification for terrorist activity for the acquisition of a position of power and influence is the focus of Young’s attentions, but it is also something which is conventionally a controversial topic. Like Khatchadourian, Young contends that it is ‘difficult to provide a convincing moral justification for such violent political action whenever it involves injuring or killing the innocent ’ (Young cited in Primoratz, 2004:57). However, terrorism, though divisive in terms of a clear and succinct definition of its exact meaning, is almost universally accepted as including the killing of innocent civilians and non-combatants with the aim of gaining some degree of power or influence through such terror. Whoever is defined as an ‘innocent’ is again another controversial argument. Usually government officials, the military, police, politicians and leaders of the state are seen as legitimate targets because of their role in supporting the state and cause with which the terrorists have grievances with. However, to give some perspective, within the context of Ireland, the Real IRA has included those who ‘collude’ or provide services to the state and it s military. Therefore they have threatened action against caterers, electricians, painters and people who provide any type of service to the police. In their eyes, the services these people offer only serve to prop up a state which they believe oppresses them. In this way, these people become legitimate targets. To Young then, this would conflict with his assertions for the justification of terrorism, ‘if the targets are carefully chosen and are confined to property, or to those who cannot reasonably be regarded as innocent, even in a setting with democratic features terrorism may be morally justifiable ’ (Young cited in Primoratz, 2004:59). Even Young admits that many terrorist organisations themselves do not conform to this justification. For example, Al Qaeda, with their attacks on the World Trade Centres in 2001, attacked and killed around 3,000 civilians in an attack that did not conform to the rules of justifiable terrorism and one in which this was not the last resort, which gives much moral weight to other terrorist causes. But Young’s premise is that terrorism is not always unjustifiable because there are always contexts in which it is permissible. Indeed it would have to adhere to certain rules regarding the killing of innocents and in most cases, would not be justified but there is logic in his assertions because to dismiss all terrorism as unjustifiable is to ignore the uniqueness of certain situations in which terrorism can be the lesser evil.

In looking at whether terrorism can ever be justified, what emerges is a complex myriad of theories and conditions in which terrorism could be permissible, or will never be justified. Michael Walzer’s work insists that no form of terrorism can ever be justified. Khatchadourian would agree with him only because conditions which would justify the use of terrorism could never be met because they infringe on the rights of the individual. Likewise, Young sets out certain conditions by which the majority of terrorists have not conformed to and therefore cannot be justified in their actions. On the other hand, Virginia Held believes that terrorism can be justified on the grounds of the equalisation of the violation of rights. When applying this to acts of terrorism, she finds that Palestinian terrorism has a claim to justification whereas Al Qaeda terrorism cannot make such claims. Ted Honderich also believes that terrorism can be justified within a consequentialist context. If the result of such terrorism brings about an overall good that outweighs the destruction and cost of the terrorism inflicted, then it is justifiable. Ignatieff, who would also believe in justified terrorism under certain conditions, does not agree with Honderich in believing that Palestinian terrorism is justified. Indeed, whether terrorism can be justified will depend on which viewpoint makes most sense, and in that way, it is subjective, until an all-encompassing definition of justifiable or unjustifiable terrorism can be formulated. However, this is something which may never happen because the subject is so complex.

Almond, B. and Hill, D. (1991) ‘Applied Philosophy: Morals and metaphysics in contemporary debate’, First Edition, Routledge, London

Frey, R.G. and Morris, C.W. (1991) ‘Violence, Terrorism and Justice’, First Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Haldane, J. (2000) ‘Philosophy and Public Affairs’, First Edition, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge

Honderich, H. (2003) ‘Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy’, Second Edition, Pluto Press, London.

Ignatieff, M. (2004) ‘The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror’, First Edition, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, Edinburgh

Khatchadourian, H. (1998) ‘The Morality of Terrorism’, First Edition, Peter Lang Publishing, New York

Murchadha, F. (2006) ‘Violence, Victims, Justifications: Philosophical Approaches’, First Edition, Peter Lang, Oxford

Paskins, B. and Dockrill, M. (1979) ‘The Ethics of War’, First Edition, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota

Primoratz, I. (2004) ‘Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues’, First Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire

Webel, C. (2004) ‘Terror, Terrorism and the Human Condition’, First Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire