Recently, I wrote an article on “terrorism” that was rejected by a publication that typically accepts my submissions.
In my piece, I make two points.
First, in spite of the confidence with which everyone presumes to know its nature, there is anything but agreement over what “terrorism” could possibly mean, for the word has been applied in connection with both those Muslims who have killed agents of the American government as well as with those who have killed civilians.
The definition of “terrorism” is unclear.
The second point I made is that whether we apply the term “terrorism” to one class of attackers or the other, we presuppose a meaning for the word that at least appears to apply just as well to modern states—including our own country.
If the Muslims who take aim at agents of the U.S. government are terrorists, then so too, it would appear, were the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor. If those responsible for 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing are terrorists because they attacked civilians, then, it would seem, so too might our own government’s actions toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, be acts of terrorism.
But only non-state actors can be terrorists, some might say. If so (and this is a big “if”), then maybe it is the case that only states can go to war, and then, only with other states. This objection proves too much, for it undermines those who insist that we are in a “war” with “Radical Islam.”
A much more common objection is that neither America nor any other modern “democracy” intends to kill civilians—even if this loss of life is foreseen. The otherwise sound Catholic doctrine of “double-effect”—the doctrine that an otherwise objectionable course of action may be permissible as long as its consequences, though foreseen, are unintended and unavoidable—is here invoked. It is also corrupted.
As the distinguished 20th century Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe notes: “It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end. Otherwise there is absolutely no substance to the Pauline teaching that we may not do evil that good may come.’”
The publication that rejected this piece rejected it on three grounds.
First, the editors protested, terrorism does indeed have an “objective definition.” To support this contention, they directed me to an old article in their archives in which the author, following conventional practice, defines terrorism as the murder of innocents for political purposes.
For starters, I never denied the possibility of defining terrorism. In fact, I draw on elements of my editors’ definition to support my point that whether it is Islamic belligerents killing government agents or civilians (i.e. “innocents”), labeling these as acts of terrorism gives rise to problems that are both logical and ethical. Moreover, the claim that there is an “objective definition” of terrorism may be true, but this precludes neither the possibility of other “objective” definitions nor the possibility that this definition is objectively false. To assert otherwise is question-begging.
Second, the Benghazi attack on an American embassy was conducted by, not a spontaneously formed mob, but “an Al-Qaeda affiliate”—i.e. a terrorist organization.
Again, this does not speak to anything that I wrote. I never denied that there are terrorists. As the title of my article makes clear, I am interested in answering the question: What is terrorism? This is a philosophical question that, as such, cannot be answered by merely pointing to a group that is widely regarded as a terrorist group. To go about it this way is, once more, to beg the question.
Finally, the editors disagreed with my insinuation that we treat the attacks I list as acts of terror just because they are executed by Muslims. After all, the Oklahoma City bombing was deemed a terrorist act, yet the bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was a white American.
This objection is just as misplaced as the first two.
Because their shared faith is the only common denominator in my list of attacks, it is true that I suggest that this is why we insist upon lumping together Muslims who kill government agents with those who kill civilians as terrorists. But this in no way implies that anyone thinks that only Muslims are terrorists.
Even a friend remarked that I should’ve first stated “the accepted definition” of terrorism and then critiqued it. But I wanted to work backwards by looking at the various ways in which we use the term “terrorism” to show that if a meaningful definition is forthcoming, it still eludes us. I wasn’t going to start with a definition: I am still in search of one.