Essay on Is Terrorism Ever Justifiable?

Published: 2021/11/15
Number of words: 4089

Historians, such as Eagleton, have traced the origins of the word terrorism back to the French Revolution[1]. The subject of terrorism is particularly relevant to today’s modern world, with attacks occurring as recently as the 3rd of March 2009 in Pakistan[2]. Within this essay I will be answering the question, ‘is terrorism ever justifiable’? The definition of what terrorism is has been subject to frequent debates, and the international community is still unable to formulate a universally accepted definition[3]. For the purpose of this assignment I will be utilizing a definition inspired the historian Lomasky that, terrorism is the use or threat of violence by private parties in the hope that it will bring about their own objectives[4].

I will be framing terrorism within the context of the just war theory, encompassing ‘jus ad bellum’, (justification of war)[5], taking into account their conditions and principles. Just War theory has been evolving for centuries. Philosophers have been debating, and modernizing the theory since 1557 when Francisco de Victoria’s ‘On the Law of War brought the theory to the attention of a wide variety of philosophers. The version of just war theory I am using is considered the most recent and advocated by Mark Rigstad[6]. The reason for using this theory is that if qualities of a terrorist incident can fit the just war theory criteria, the action the terrorist takes is just. This would then mean that terrorism is also justified, as it serves a useful purpose. However, if it fails to meet the specifications then, terrorism should be viewed as nothing but “violence” [7], as Honderich would argue. This would signify that terrorism can not be justified, and has no place in our modern society.

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One such criteria is, that only a legitimate authority can wage war. These legitimate authorities are generally considered to be states and governments that “can act as agents in the international world” [8]. This should outlaw terrorism and make it an illegal and unjustifiable act originating from private factions. However, fifty one percent of people who took part in a recent poll believed that Bush is an illegal president due to the 2000 election scandal[9]. If true, this would mean any act of the American army under George Bush as commander in chief could be considered terrorism[10].

If the acts of war are still deemed as just, this would mean a legitimate authority is simply one with a large support network. Juergensmeyer suggests that the acts of Al-Quada during the September the 11th incident were hugely supported morally, ideologically and in terms of organisation[11]. This would show terrorism to be justified, as in this case it has the support and meets the criteria that make it a legitimate authority. This is also shown in cases of organizations acting against animal cruelty. Citizens will give donations to the cause the same way votes are given during an election. If the organization choose to act in a violent way to get their policy heard, then that is their right as they have been legitimately been given the power to do so by the people who donated to their cause. This idea was inspired by a recent play ‘Talking with Terrorists’[12], and shows that terrorism can fall under the category of legitimate authority, which makes it justified. Not only this, legitimate authorities have often been referred to as being terrorists, for example the British army on Bloody Sunday 1972 (the British army killed many Irish civil rights marchers) [13]. If legitimate authorities can be considered terrorist, then terrorists should also have the right to be considered legitimate authorities.

However, legally these terrorist organizations are not legitimate authorities. Coates describes as legitimate authority as one that has to abide by international law[14]. Terrorist organizations act by instilling fear into the public in order to force their policy upon the government, this is in not in keeping with international law. Also, legitimate authorities, (as Honderich illustrates), make contributions to such problems as world famine and help out with natural disasters[15]. Terrorist organizations on the other hand are not widely renowned for their contributions during such catastrophes. Therefore one must conclude that terrorist organisations are simply violent factions and not legitimate authorities, this would mean terrorism is not justified.

It could be argued that religion in itself is its own legitimate authority, this would make terrorists acting in a way that represents their religion just. The religious terrorist is a feature seen in most major religions and main incidents recently such as 9/11 have been performed by Islamic terrorists. However, the “thou shalt not kill”[16] commandment that exists within the Quoran outweighs any act of terrorism, and shows that even if you consider religion a legitimate authority. Terrorist acts which lead to breaking a religious law therefore can not be viewed as legitimate acts as they are working outside of the religion and its rules

Another section of jus ad bellum that can be used to prove terrorism is not justified is that for a war to be justified, the act of violence itself has to be only done as a last resort. There are countless occasions in history where a major change was enacted without the perpetrator having to resort to violence. It has been argued that Gandhi and his pacifist actions were the reason for the British rule being ended in India[17]. If true this would show terrorism is not a justified action as there is always an alternative and it is not a last resort.

Other historians have gone further and suggested that the violent acts of terrorists simply can not ever be considered as justifiable, regardless of the lack of any other option. The fact some argue, we live in a civilized society which is based on “negotiation and compromise” [18], this means there should never be a reason for an act of force such as terrorism to be used, making it unjustifiable. Diamani also describes how under “no circumstances”, is it right to use force in the defense of a faith[19]. This would rule out terrorism being used as a last resort in any religious context. Juergensmeyer who was once an activist, stated he could never see of a reason that would ever justify taking another’s life[20], showing that you can fight for your cause without resorting to violence. If this can be achieved it shows terrorism is never a last resort and does not fit the criteria of a just war, making it unjustifiable.

Although, there are arguments that would suggest in many cases, terrorism is the last resort. Donner writes of the struggle faced by men, as their people are being slaughtered by their enemy[21]. It is simply not reasonable just to allow this treatment to go on, so the last resort of terrorism may be used in order to protect them. This would make terrorism justifiable and a reasonable last resort. The “defensive war” [22] being described in this scenario is not what is commonly seen as terrorism, but as soon as a member of the repressed community strikes back in some form, it is terrorism. Many terrorists come from poverty stricken, war ridden communities[23] and until we are placed in the position they are in, it is extremely difficult to interpret truly whether their terrorist action is a last resort. In the civilized Western society, the practice of compromise is followed. Within these violent cultures, in which the terrorists live, it may simply be a case of kill or be killed. Self preservation justifying terrorism as the last resort.

Another stipulation placed upon war in the just war theory is that it can only be waged if there is a high probability of the aggressors being successful. Unfortunately the chances of an entirely successful outcome arriving from a terrorist attack, is extremely unlikely for various key reasons. One reason is described by Schmidt-Leukel, in which the conquered party will always have a hatred for their conquerors, and as a result will look for revenge[24]. If this is true then this is only a temporary success as it probable that a second war, started by the conquered would occur.

Not only this, if the terrorists and their ideologies are not fully accepted then it can not be seen as successful. Eagelton likens this idea to fearing God or the law in a way “one might fear rabies” [25]. The terrorists may have the citizens acting in a way they want, but until this is by the free will of the people, it is certainly not a success. In terms of religious terrorists, often it will be considered a victory to draw attention to their religion in the hope others will be converted to their faith. Unfortunately the terrorists may have an adverse effect and draw people away from the religion, for example non violent supporters[26]. The downfall of terrorism as a tactic, is that it does instill fear in the public, forcing them to act in a certain way rather than how they wish to behave. This will act as a further reason to go against the organizations from which the terrorists derive. Lack of popularity and concordance by the general population, shows that terrorism can not be justified.

Alternatively, a terrorist may have another interpretation of what is successful. There may be different goals the terrorists wish to achieve that the general public may not realize. Even if an organization does not achieve its overall main purpose, the exposure that the media will undoubtedly give it for its actions, means that the public may become enlightened to their cause. Reed uses the example of Al-Qaeda during 9/11 during his article[27]. Before these attacks, many of the general public may have been widely unaware of their existence, but after their attack, they are an extremely well known organization. As a result of this publicity, there is the possibility they will have gained new supporters, and with these supporters, a greater chance of success.

Not only this, there are occasions when terrorism has achieved its goal. This was notable in South Africa where the murder of a Quebec cabinet minister, was rewarded with “provincial power” [28]. If the “opportunity to advance” [29], is made available by the action of terrorism and it is an effective method of achieving an aim, then this makes it justifiable and a viable option. Terrorism is blighted by heroic stories of colonialism being ended by its hands[30]. This will always show terrorists of the future, that it is a successful method and justifies its use.

In order to make terrorism just, if must be done with a right intention, this could often encompass the idea of readdressing a wrong because as Lomasky states terrorists “carry with them their grievances” [31]. This is evident for Palestinian Muslims, who have an understandable grievance due to their lack of political control[32]. Osama Bin Laden claimed that purpose of the September 11th attacks was to avenge the wrongs done in Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia[33]. Due to these attacks highlighting grievances, by definition, this should make them, and any terrorist attack that addresses a grievance justified.

It is not just readdressing a wrong that can be seen as a right intention. There is also a defensive element protecting both ideology and humanitarian views, which can make terrorism appear to be justified. The American Protest Clergyman feels that their terrorist actions against abortion clinics are protecting the lives of the unborn that can not protect themselves[34]. Mcternan explains, that certain terrorists see themselves as protectors of the weak and vulnerable[35], and upholding the rights that they feel were bestowed upon them by God himself[36]. The fact in many cases terrorists do have the intention of trying to “secure human happiness” [37], does make it justified. It could be argued that the intention of the terrorists have make terrorism justifiable, despite their questionable methods.

But, whatever the wrong being readdressed “tearing some ones head from their shoulders” [38], will always make any cause the terrorist is fighting for, instantly unjust by their violent actions[39]. There is also reason to suggest that the intentions of the terrorist are not always as honorable as they may wish the general public to believe. Psychologists who studied various terrorist incidents, identified the reason for the attacks to be “envy and hatred” [40]. These are extremely immoral intentions by organizations that judge which citizens lead an unacceptable type of life[41]. These “innocent victims” [42] are targeted by what it is now believed to be men acting not for the greater good, but out of their own frustrated lives. Not only this, but by using an evil action, such as killing, to denounce another evil action deprecates the idea that the right intention is being used[43].

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Having a right intention, and being wronged are all subject to personal perception and morality. Whilst one group will see themselves as correct, the other invariably feel themselves as wronged. With this knowledge terrorism can never have the right intention as it simply continues a cycle where there can be no winner and no wrong is fully redressed. The “eye for an eye” biblical theory is too primitive for the modern day world[44]. This is unfortunately the format upon which terrorists often base their actions. However, mankind is far for more advanced, to not realize, that any cause in which violence is used that, invariably becomes an unjustifiable act, making terrorism not fit the ‘right intention’ criteria, therefore not being justified.

To conclude, I feel the famous phrase ‘One mans terrorist, is another mans freedom fighter’ perfectly summarizes my view on whether terrorism is justified. Terrorism as an individual idea and can be justified if one can achieve the intended aim. By using jus ad bellum, I have taken the criteria of, a war only being waged by a legitimate authority, high probability of success, only used as a last resort and right intention, to show that you can argue for either point depending upon your personal view. Terrorism can perfectly fit the criteria or be its complete antithesis at the same time depending on your stand point on the subject. It is very difficult defining terrorism let alone fitting it into set criteria. If only one person in the world feels that the actions of a terrorist is justified then it is justified. Just because a majority disagrees, does not make it unjust, because the persecution of a minority is a form of terrorism in itself. Terrorists are often in a terrible position within their own lives, facing repression and terror of their own on a day to day basis. Until we are in that position, I do not feel we can judge their actions as simply unjust. Unless, we have a belief so strong, we are willing to go to any length to protect or enforce it, we must accept that there actions are justified by their situation and beliefs in many cases.


Secondary Sources

Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford University press, 2005)

Perry Schidt-Leukel, War and Peace in World Religions (SCM press, 1989)

Ted Honderich, After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2002)

Robin Soans, Talking to Terrorists (Oberon Modern Plays, 2005)

John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism (Pluto Press, 1989)

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2001)

John Kelsay, James Johnson, Just War and Jihad, historical and theoretical perspectives on war and peace in Western and Islamic traditions (Greenwood Press, 1991)

Oliver Mcternan, Violence in Gods Name (Orbis Books, 2003)

Frey, Christoper Morris, Violence, Terrorism and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1991) p.

Scott C. Lowe, Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness (Wickedness Net, 2003) p.43

Georg Meggle, Ethics of terrorism and counter terrorism (Ontos Verlag, 2005)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Historical Biographies <> Accessed 10th March 2009]

Solutions terrorism, Public Book Shelf <> [Accessed 10th March 2009]

John T Reed, Terrorism is a publicity stunt <> [Accessed 11th March 2009]

Steven Mintz, Terrorism in Historical Perspective <> [Assessed 12th March 2009]

Intro to just war theory, Just War Theory <> [accessed 20th March 2009]

Primary Sources

Lahor attacks Lankan coach in disbelief, Pakistan News <> [Accessed 10th March 2009]

Poll results, Agnosticism / Atheism<> [Accessed 10th March 2009]

[1] Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford University press, 2005), p.1

[2] Lahor attacks Lankan coach in disbelief, Pakistan News <> [Accessed 10th March 2009]

[3] John Kelsay, James Johnson, Just War and Jihad, historical and theoretical perspectives on war and peace in Western and Islamic traditions (Greenwood Press, 1991), p.217

[4] Frey, Christoper Morris, Violence, Terrorism and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1991) p.89

[5] Scott C. Lowe, Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness (Wickedness Net, 2003) p.43

[6] Intro to just war theory, Just War Theory <> [accessed 20th March 2009]

[7] Ted Honderich, After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p.102

[8] Georg Meggle, Ethics of terrorism and counter terrorism (Ontos Verlag, 2005), p.154

[9] Poll results, Agnosticism / Atheism<> [Accessed 10th March 2009]

[10] Frey, Christoper Morris, Violence, Terrorism and Justice, p.88

[11] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2001), p.11

[12] Robin Soans, Talking to Terrorists (Oberon Modern Plays, 2005), p.35

[13] Ted Honderich, After the Terror, p.93

[14] Georg Meggle, Ethics of terrorism and counter terrorism (Ontos Verlag, 2005), p.155

[15] Ted Honderich, After the Terror, p.14

[16] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, p.80

[17] Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Historical Biographies <> Accessed 10th March 2009]

[18] Ted Honderich, After the Terror, p.105

[19] Oliver Mcternan, Violence in Gods Name (Orbis Books, 2003) p.60

[20] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, p.xiv

[21] John Kelsay, James Johnson, Just war, p.39

[22] John Kelsay, James Johnson, Just War, p.39

[23] Solutions terrorism, Public Book Shelf <> [Accessed 10th March 2009]

[24] Perry Schidt-Leukel, War and Peace in World Religions (SCM press, 1989), p.40

[25] Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror, p.41

[26] Oliver Mcternan, Violence in Gods Name, p.27

[27] John T Reed, Terrorism is a publicity stunt <> [Accessed 11th March 2009]

[28] Steven Mintz, Terrorism in Historical Perspective <> [Assessed 12th March 2009]

[29] John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam (Harvard University Press, 2007), p.204

[30] Steven Mintz, Terrorism in Historical Perspective <> [Assessed 12th March 2009]

[31] Frey, Christoper Morris, Violence, Terrorism and Justice, p.95

[32] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, p.31

[33] Ted Honderich, After the Terror, p.127

[34] Oliver Mcternan, Violence in Gods Name, p.29

[35] Oliver Mcternan, Violence in Gods Name, p.46

[36] Oliver Mcternan, Violence in Gods Name, p.42

[37] John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam, p.147

[38] Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror, p.2

[39] John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam, p.220

[40] Ted Honderich, After the Terror, p.87

[41] Ted Honderich, After the Terror, p.125

[42] Frey, Christoper Morris, Violence, Terrorism and Justice, p.117

[43] Frey, Christoper Morris, Violence, Terrorism and Justice, p.94

[44] Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror, p.18

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