“Here’s a scenario. You have the power to cure all the world’s diseases but the price for this is that you must kill a single innocent child; could you kill that child?” (Sena) This quotation was born in Hollywood and completely idealistic and hypothetical, but its underlying philosophy raises the question that unfortunately for many has become so poignant in today’s society. Can terrorism be considered moral? In a situation such as posed in the above quotation from the movie Swordfish, one might be more inclined to agree with the speaker. However, in the face of the World Trade Center bombings, the question seems almost obscene. What makes these situations different and what determines the context in which an act of terrorism can be considered moral or immoral? Who owns the power to make the judgment of morality? Terrorism, one of the hot topics of the last fifty years, has cost many American lives, many American dollars, and many American headaches. Yet, the topic of morality within the culture of terrorism that the world endures today is something that is not at the forefront of the average American citizen’s thoughts. In the wake of the terrorist acts that America has experienced in the past decade, the question of morality in terrorism seems easily answerable. However, the roots of terrorism and political violence suggest a more complex answer. To investigate terrorism fully, it needs to be broken down into two states: top-down terrorism, which is state-sponsored acts of terrorism; and bottom-up, which are independent factions acting on their own. To further complicate matters, terrorism also breaks down into two distinct timelines: pre and post-nuclear weapons. After the creation of nuclear weapons, terrorism has evolved greatly, and this is the segment that bears investigating. Two global instances of terrorism provide insight into the theory that terrorism can in fact be considered moral. The bombings during WWII of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offer an example of a state-sponsored decision that when analyzed from the context of morality become much more complex than at first glance. Likewise, the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 highlights a bottom-up action that also contains a moral aspect. The connection between these two events is that the United States figured heavily into each situation, and the reaction of Americans is the basis for which morality has been based from both of these events, at least in America itself. Thus, the events can be analyzed from an American perspective, but without the reactionary impulse to label those on the opposite side immoral enemies.
To begin any discussion of morality in terrorism, both terms need to be clearly defined. However, in the case of both morality and terrorism, the terms are nearly indefinable. For example, many Americans would quickly answer something similar to “the killing, disruption, or destruction of something of value for political purpose by someone other than a government or its agents acting overtly,” (Laqueur) which is the commonly accepted definition. However, when reversed and placed into American history, events like the Boston Tea Party, John Brown’s Raid, and the Civil War itself can all be viewed as terrorism. Thus is the difficulty in defining terrorism. Often, those who do the defining never look in the mirror. For each person who attempts to define terrorism, there is a separated definition. Additionally, morality is a very individually-defined term. What one person may consider moral, another person may consider immoral. The extreme range of cultures which exist in the world ensure that hugely varying ideals of morality exist. Granted, in terrorism, the lines between moral and immoral seem to be more distinct than in other situations. However, as history has shown, looking at events from multiple angles clouds these views as well.
To know the answer to whether terrorism can be considered moral or not solely depends on who asks the question. First, one must define whether or not killing in general can ever be considered a justifiable act. I believe that people exist for whom their personal or cultural beliefs have been skewed in such a way that they are dangerous to others. For people such as this, negotiation and talks have no effect on their decisions. In cases such as these, killing that person to protect others is a justifiable act. However, the interpretation of that person’s decisions can be viewed in a plethora of ways, thus clouding the issue of morality. For example, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was clearly a danger to others as they murdered millions of people. However, to some Germans within the regime, Hitler’s acts were justified as providing “lebensraum,” or living space to the German people, a supposed act of goodwill. Would as assassination of Hitler have been a moral act? The question is answered differently, depending on the answerer. The most important aspect in the case of moral terrorism is the victim. Would the German people have been to blame if they had defended Hitler, believing he was doing a positive thing for Germany? Hitler’s actions were undoubtedly deplorable, yet reflecting on an event and decision by the United States provides insight on state-sponsored acts of terror, and the morality involved with those events.
On August 6, 1945, the world’s first combat atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, a similar bomb fell on Nagasaki. The decision by the United States to drop these atomic bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of people, was considered both a last resort and an attempt to save thousands of American lives by ending the war abruptly. However, looking at these bombings from a terrorism standpoint, it becomes clear that these acts fit at least some of the characteristics of what Americans consider terrorism today. Though pamphlets were dropped over the city encouraging evacuation and messages were sent to the Emperor, the dropping of the bombs came as a shock to most of the world. With the sudden rising of the stakes now that a “doomsday” weapon was functional, Japan surrendered, saving the US from a costly land and sea invasion. However, looking at the incident only as a measure to save lives is too one-sided. With the general consensus being that Hitler’s actions were unacceptable, to blatantly write off the atomic bombs as a necessary measure is insufficient. Theodore Seto argues that doing this would, “In effect [claim] that is it moral for us to kill, bomb, and maim, but not for Al Qaeda to do so.” (Seto) The argument translates directly into World War II because as the United States, we believed our actions to be moral, which is only natural for a nation that has seen such success. However, does success translate into morality? Japan also believed their position in defending their own country was moral as well; I feel that their position cannot be invalidated simply because America was more successful. Ultimately, each party develops a self-centric form of morality, and the individual act cannot accurately be judged as moral by an unbiased third party source because that source also brings bias into the equation.
Throughout history, philosophers, historians, and terrorists have all wrestled with the notion of the “virtuous” murder. The process and virtue behind murder changed with each era. With these changes, so too did the perceptions of past participants in political violence. In Eqbal Ahmad’s Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, he describes the often reversal of perception for participants in terrorist acts, saying, “The terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today.” (Ahmad) Never did this difference become more significant than the dawn of the nuclear age. Harry Truman began as a hero, ending a war abruptly and saving untold lives of both Americans and Japanese. However, once the destructive power of the atomic bomb became fully realized, the decision turned sour for Truman, and Truman has become the scapegoat for the opening of the gateway into the constant fear of the Cold War. In an official record of a conversation between Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, prior to the US dropping the atomic bomb, Churchill noted, “‘People in America were beginning to doubt the need for ‘unconditional surrender.’ They were saying: was it worth while having the pleasure of killing ten million Japanese at the cost of one million Americans and British?” (Churchill) Thus, the question of morality was a part of the atomic conversation even before the bomb dropped. In situations where such large numbers of noncombatants are injured, it is tougher to accept the rationale that acts still cannot be judged as moral or immoral, yet the same underlying philosophy remains.
While state-sponsored terrorism has arguably been the most devastating throughout history, bottom-up terrorism has received the most media attention. Those who take down tyrants have become the most despised enemies of the state, and the most revered types of terrorists within terror circles. The moral code extends to independent terrorism as well. John of Salisbury, the earliest supporter of religiously-based, virtuous tyrannicide, writes, “Not that I do believe tyrants ought to be removed from our midst, but that it should be done without loss of religion or honor.” (Salisbury) Salisbury is advocating tyrannicide, but only from a religiously moral standpoint. While much of political violence and terrorism throughout history has been religiously-motivated, it is impossible to base standards of morality on religion because each religion has its own code of morality.
Additionally, regardless of the era in which the actual event takes place, there is always a reversion back to a previous act from decades, even centuries ago, that justifies the retaliation of the present situation. In 1979, radical Iranians seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostages for over a year. The average American sentiment was that this was an unprovoked attack, involving innocent American citizens, and thus an immoral act. However, the Iranians morally believed that they were retaliating for the US removing their elected president nearly a quarter century before. This event thus proves how far apart two different versions of morality can be for a single event.
Multiple theories regarding morality can be applied to specifically terrorist or politically motivated violent acts. Two of the more major theories apply specifically to this argument. Deontology argues that morality is defined by the act itself, thus adhering to pre-set rules and duties. This notion of morality is a much easier position to accept simply because the final decision of morality is placed not on one person or one culture, but rather on some outside third party rule maker. Conversely, consequentialism, which is the theory that an act is moral depending solely on the outcomes of the actions, is a more flexible theory that can be applied more uniformly to political violence throughout history. However, for most people, this theory is a much tougher one with which to agree simply because in the end, murder is the outcome, and it is tough to accept murder as a necessary means to an end. In the American context, consequentialism means that Americans must accept the September 11th bombings as moral because they brought Americans together in a sense that the country had not been seen since Pearl Harbor, and they also united the radical Islamic base. However, present-day terrorism operates under a different model than political violence from the pre-nuclear era simply because the fears associated with attacks or assassinations did not come with the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction.
An investigation of morality in terrorism would not be complete without an examination of the argument that all forms of terrorism are immoral. Jean Baudrillard states in The Spirit of Terrorism, “Terrorism is immoral. The occurrence at the World Trade Center, this symbolic act of defiance, is immoral, but it was in response to globalization, which is itself immoral. We are therefore immoral ourselves, so if we hope to understand anything we will need to get beyond Good and Evil.” (Baudrillard) ndirectly and somewhat counter-intuitively, Baudrillard proves my point that terrorism cannot be judged as moral or immoral. Baudrillard states that “to understand anything we will need to get beyond Good and Evil.” (Baudrillard) This is true because we cannot judge what is good and evil; that is only our perception of good and evil. To the terrorist, notions of good and evil are different from those of the victim; therefore, notions of morality are also different.
Essentially, acts of politically motivated violence cannot be uniformly deemed “moral” or “immoral.” For each act of violence, there are two sides to morality. The people committing the murder believe truly that they are doing the moral act by removing the dangerous person. On the other hand, supporters of the victim naturally believe that the act is immoral simply because they trusted in the judgment of the victim. Any third party who tries to comment on the morality or immorality of the act itself is overstepping their bounds because they cannot know exactly the motivations of the person committing the act. Those involved hold the final judgment because only they possess the true motivations for the act itself. Morality is completely relative because a person can have his own judgment of morality for an act of terrorism if one’s notions of morality do not extend past himself or even his group. Some may agree with the morality regarding the event, but that event cannot be judged on its own. As Americans, we are very quick to dismiss the actions of enemy groups as immoral. However, this characterization is not at all correct because it does not factor in the moral code of those enemies. “Killing in the Name” will remain in our culture; the morality of terrorism will constitute a long-standing debate for years to come. However, one thing remains: we do not have to power to determine whose “Name” is immoral, and whose is moral.
Laqueur, Walter. Voices of Terror: Manifestos, Writings, and Manuals of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Other Terrorists from around the World and throughout the Ages. New York, NY: Reed, 2004. Print.
Transcript of Conversation between Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, July 17, 1945, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, London.
Ahmad, Eqbal, and David Barsamian. Terrorism: Theirs and Ours. New York: Seven Stories, 2001. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism; And, Other Essays. London: Verso, 2003. Print. pp. 12-13.
Held, Virginia. How Terrorism Is Wrong: Morality and Political Violence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Hersey, John, Warren Chappell, and Edith Goodkind Rosenwald. Hiroshima. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1946. Print.
Primoratz, Igor. “The Morality of Terrorism.” Volume 14 Issue 3, Pages 221 – 233 Published Online: 16 Dec 2002
Rapoport, David Charles., and Yonah Alexander. The Morality of Terrorism: Religious and Secular Justifications. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. Print.
Swordfish. Dir. Dominic Sena. Perf. John Travolta and Halle Barry. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2001. DVD.
Seto, Theodore P., The Morality of Terrorism. Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, Vol. 35, p. 1227, 2002. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=341600 or doi:10.2139/ssrn.341600