Terrorism and Legitimacy: A Response to Virginia Held

Richard W. Miller

One of the most fertile sources of violence in the world today is this cycle of repression: engage in brutal counter-insurgency, justified by the refusal to negotiate with terrorists; in this way, create rage, humiliation, despair over peaceful options and fragmentation of coherent political leadership among the oppressed; use the consequent strong impetus to terrorism to gain support among those frightened by terrorism for yet more brutal repression, justified by the same refusal to negotiate. Acceptance of Virginia Held’s main thesis in “Legitimate Authority in Non-state Groups Using Violence,” that non-state groups resorting to terrorism can be legitimate representatives of their peoples, would break this cycle. Considerations that she offers are, I think, adequate support for this important claim. So it is in a spirit of basic alliance that I will raise questions about whether the framework in which she develops her arguments is sufficiently sensitive to facts of politics and power. These questions concern the characterization of terrorism, the characterization of legitimacy and the assessment of the effectiveness of brutal counter-terrorism. In the current stage of her penetrating, influential and courageous writings on terrorism, Held denies that it must target people in any morally protected category, say, civilians, non-combatants or innocents. This is certainly one basis for denying that terrorism differs from war in being fated by its nature always to be unjustifiable. But I wonder whether it is the best way to reach this conclusion. In sorting out usage in a controversy burdened by confusion, exaggeration and bad faith, we should seek clarifications that advance the task of mutual persuasion among people of good will. Many people of good will are non-pacifists who begin with a strong inclination to condemn terrorism, even in a just cause, as always or almost always wrong, or much more deeply suspect than most acts of war in which modern governments openly and unashamedly participate. These general inclinations to condemn terrorism reflect concerns for the moral status of certain kinds of targets of violence. They lead, in turn, to condemnations of the characteristic stance toward violence of certain leaders and movements. Admittedly, the term “terrorism” currently has diverse usages. But this diversity is no less a feature of “legitimacy,” Held’s other major label. Conversation would be advanced by specifying different senses and scrutinizing generic condemnation in each sense, rather than cutting the link between “terrorism” and morally troubling kinds of targets.

JOURNAL of SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 36 No. 2, Summer 2005, 194–201. © 2005 Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

and adult settlers in the West Bank or Gaza—though other norms would certainly regulate the incidence of this killing as well as requiring concern for side effects. by ANC militants who. this is a serious pro tanto reason to deliberately target those who are not even active participants in an unjust coercive project. In South Africa in the mid-80s. the fact that a restriction would put those who combat injustice at a serious disadvantage in seeking to overcome their oppressors is a serious pro tanto reason to reject the restriction—the more serious the graver the injustice. the more burdensome the disadvantage. These are cogent arguments for equity in condemnation. . but not innocent bystanders of any description. Held offers a variety of reasons why it would be arbitrary or inimical to justice for a non-pacifist to condemn all actions fitting such target-specifying characterizations while refusing to condemn certain acts of war that do not target in these ways. “The action can be directed against government personnel. day laborers working for the occupying army. spies. If violent interference with everyday life among the dominant people has a reasonable prospect of sustaining a rebellion against grave injustice that will otherwise be stifled by the contentment of the dominant people. I think.Terrorism and Legitimacy: A Response to Virginia Held 195 One alternative specification might be that terrorism is political violence deliberately targeting those who are not active members of a hostile armed force. there were incidents of terrorism in this stronger sense.”1 Each sense of “terrorism” (and there may well be others) corresponds to a distinction in the moral status of targets that is a cause for serious concern. violent repression. best used as means of assessing terrorism in various senses of the term that do depend on targeting. Steven Mufson reports: “believed that only white casualties would awaken whites. But. [the previous years in which anti-apartheid violence had been constrained by official ANC norms] . . regardless of whether it is absolutely decisive or utterly different from other reasons to reject violence. indeed. stronger alternative would characterize terrorism as political violence deliberately targeting those who are not actively taking part in a coercive effort promoting the order that is opposed as unjust. Ceteris paribus. But rather than supporting a targetneutral definition of “terrorism. acts that have been committed by governments now urging such blanket condemnation. the inattention of the world at large. Anyone who properly values peace will regard the entry into terrorism in this sense as a morally significant step. police and soldiers. and the more likely the other side is to resort to violent measures analogous to those the norm forbids. and pervasive.” the considerations that Held powerfully deploys are. In recent times in Iraq and Israel. and issued bomb-making manuals that said. agents. stooges and informers. as Held’s arguments often remind us. she notes that it would be arbitrary not to condemn certain acts of violence by which such governments fight terrorism. participants in a conflict should uphold norms that would narrow the circle of violent disorder. who had spent . Another. This reflects the usage of the African National Congress when it denied it engaged in terrorism. these might be adequate reasons to reject a prohibition against deliberate killing of political leaders.

This violence departs from normal appeals to self-defense. Held is certainly right to suggest that use of the label “terrorism” currently scares most people away from seriously entertaining reasons in favor of what receives the label. simply because of the nature of the target. the need to displace a government bent on injustice might justify attacks against those who choose to take part in this project of injustice. Whether acts relevantly similar to the suicide bombing of the cafe are ever justifiable is such a discussion. in addition to these considerations of injustice and disadvantage. and so do I.”2 However. Unless widespread linguistic intuitions are gravely offended. which is. Still. which provide reasons against proposals to target certain types of victims. As Held emphasizes. Still. This fact could shape a definition of the term writing wrongness into its very meaning. we ought to avoid definitions whose acceptance would make it harder to engage in moral discussions that responsible political judgment requires.196 Richard W. obdurately unjust governments themselves create these justifications. in the absence of a special linguistic rationale. there are also (as Held recognizes) independently important considerations of moral standing. Held rejects such moralizing definitions of terrorism. This makes it harder to engage with the worries on the minds of reflective people of good will who say that terrorism is always or almost always wrong. one should use the term in a way that creates an open question for discussion. and makes it harder to institute peace at the end of violence. Not caring about whether one’s victim had chosen to take part in a project of coercive injustice would be especially inappropriate in a fight for national self-determination. But the same consideration. if the chance of change through more restricted violence is sufficiently small and the injustice is sufficiently great. Those who take part in a coercive effort promoting a profoundly unjust order but are not active members of a hostile armed force—such as the government personnel on the ANC’s list who were not police or soldiers—have special moral standing requiring special reasons for targeting them. Miller carrying on business as usual. there is a current usage of “terrorism” that could organize the discussion by carving out the relevant similarities. widens the circle of enmity. of facilitating necessary discussions. counts against the other extreme of denying that terrorism necessarily has a target of a distinctly morally troubling kind. one could hardly properly value human choice without severely disvaluing the killing of people who did nothing to expose themselves to violent death apart from their unlucky choice of aircraft. so that it becomes a contradiction in terms to say that the suicide bombing of a cafe in Tel Aviv is justified under the circumstances and to add that it is an act of terrorism. Crossing the other line and targeting those who are not actively taking part in an unjust coercive effort is much harder to justify. sipping drinks by the pool. even though specially powerful reasons to cross this line are required. doing more to advance it than suicide bombing of soldiers at checkpoints. a fight to enable people to choose their shared destiny on the basis of their own cultural and historical identity. after all. so. Perhaps al-Fatah’s blowing up of airplanes kept the world from forgetting the Palestinian cause. . stroking tennis balls and cooking sausages in their gardens.

” she explains. 2001. count as terrorist.”3) Every violent engagement that was part of the whole would. judgments that Held frequently advances in her critique of standard accounts. But there would still be a need to sustain characterizations of individual acts as terrorist or not. war in Vietnam. with its reliance on shock-and-awe tactics combined with precision targeting of “all those things that allow a nation to sustain itself. might be terrorist on this construal of Held’s proposal. There are other construals of Held’s proposal which would not include civilian targeting in a definition at any level. Was the attack on the USS Cole terrorist? If the U. since the twin attack showed that any emblem of the power of a hated country would do. terrorist. But no construal seems to do better as a basis for characterizing individual military engagements. with a goal of hunting down al-Qaeda. terrorist according to Held’s criterion. so might the first Gulf War. Navy is seen as already constituting a hostile armed force. She also presents a brief positive proposal. U. then. or just an atrocity? Perhaps one should say it was an atrocity that was terrorist in guiding intention. the proposal has to be reconciled with Held’s repeated insistence that someone using the term “terrorism” “should not. But why should manipulators of language and their willing dupes be treated as decisive in specifying proper usages? Look at how they use “democracy” (as in “Israel’s thriving democracy”) and “sovereignty” (as in “the handing over of sovereignty to Iraq”).S.Terrorism and Legitimacy: A Response to Virginia Held 197 Admittedly. some uses of the label “terrorism” are hard to fit into a targetspecifying characterization.S. than facilitation of needed discussions among people of good will. (The U. precise fit with all uses that seem initially all right is less important. presidents and many newspapers will call this act “terrorist” nonetheless. Was the attack on the Pentagon on September 11. as a whole. stipulate that its violence attacks civilians.4 . as well. In any case. Suppose one government’s conduct of a war against another usually involves sudden attacks to spread fear to a larger group. This yields strange judgments.” One strategy of reconciliation would construe the proposal as specifying the proper sense of “terrorism” when used as a label for a whole campaign or course of conduct: her insistence that the targeting of civilians is not necessary could still apply to some of the acts that are part of the whole. especially given her highly plausible thesis that governments are appropriate agents of terrorism. suicidal means. in these matters. “As I use the term. “terrorism is political violence that usually involves sudden attacks to spread fear to a wider group than those attacked. attacks which often target active units of the opposed armed forces but often target civilians. No doubt. Nearly all of Held’s examination of the nature of terrorism consists of arguments that terrorism does not necessarily target victims of particular kinds.S. including set-piece military engagements without ambushing and on roughly even terms. this attack does not fit either of my specifications: it was guerilla warfare by stealthy.” If all of this is meant as a definition (moving her approach closer to my own). as part of its definition. often doing so by targeting civilians. The characterization of the whole only yields targeting-independent ascriptions of terrorism to individual acts if we count any act of political violence as terrorist if it plays a role in a larger endeavor.

which will not be based on mere assurance that their terrorism is no worse than Nixon and Kissinger’s war-making. much will still depend on the reasons that support the wrong choice to engage in terrorism and the type. If this were a moral entitlement possessed in light of good relationships to the people of the relevant territory. Short of abysses of utterly disproportionate terrorism (a proviso that Held. Everyone knows that acts of war can be atrocious. even if the group claiming such support resorts to terrorism. acquiescence in the management of regime change by a particular terrorist group may . those groups who use or condone it can perhaps never become the legitimate authorities of the people they claim to represent. reflection on the considerations of injustice and disadvantage favoring PLO terrorism could have supported a positive assessment of the PLO’s aptness to play a responsible role in constructing a new. Held notes the attractiveness of such an inference: “If terrorism can never be justified. Even if the terrorism in which a group engages is wrong. quite invalid. peaceful political order. Productive discussion of those evaluative questions is important for reasons of political power. terrorist activity (at least of the stronger kind) and conduct connected with it would tend to undermine the entitlement. is never justified. The PLO’s sensitivity to relevant moral reasons could be good enough for entry into that role. in the relevant sense. This interest in moral assessment is not satiated by the observation that acts of terrorism may be no more unjustifiable than some acts of war. the irrelevance of terrorism may generally reflect the moral modesty of the relevant claim of legitimacy. The central question of legitimacy for the purposes of Held’s essay would seem to be whether a group should benefit from international recognition and non-interference in presiding over the transition to a new regime. even if it leads to lethal moral misjudgment in uses of political violence. solidarity and fervor. National movements against powerful oppressors often depend on international popular support. At the start of her essay. Held’s specific interest is the bearing of terrorism on political legitimacy. I am sure. I do not mean to suggest that the identification of a terrorist group as a legitimate representative is precluded by the judgment that terrorism. Her tendency is to take popular support as the appropriate basis for legitimate representation. even if the considerations of moral status of targets were judged to be stronger and terrorism by PLO militants was condemned. not just for reasons of moral edification. rather than the legitimating force of popular support. frequency and internal monitoring of wrongful terrorist acts. Miller By specifying senses of “terrorism” connecting it with kinds of targets. one clarifies the questions that are on the minds of people of good will who wonder what impact the resort to terrorism should have on their assessments of groups and leaders.198 Richard W. Terrorist groups rely on small numbers of courageous fighters and dispense with contentious deliberations in the interest of secrecy. But in the real world of terrorism and rebellion. would accept). As in Algeria. Violence against normal life encourages the use of violence against political competitors. popular support for a group resorting to terrorism does seem one appropriate basis for legitimacy.” But the inference is. in fact. For example. during the intifada.

and alludes to a similar component in traditional criteria for just war. sometimes in tension. It seems perfectly possible that such a group could legitimately engage in such political violence while lacking the popular support that would give it moral legitimacy in wielding power over the territory of its people. the Polish state would seem to have been politically illegitimate throughout the era of Soviet domination. Why call it “popular support” of non-colonial dominators? Nor does the expectation of genuine future popular support seem essential to justified recognition. I have emphasized one sense of a term at least as polymorphous as “terrorism. This strikes me as yet another form of legitimacy.Terrorism and Legitimacy: A Response to Virginia Held 199 mostly reflect a desire to end mayhem. perhaps a terrorist attack. Terrorism and what typically goes with it are typically irrelevant in seeking the right end to a struggle over national selfdetermination because what counts is reducing violence while establishing a framework in which people can eventually work out terms of collective self-rule that most can willingly embrace and the rest can peaceably accept. It might also lack the capacity to maintain an enduring good-enough peace that is the core of political legitimacy in the external-recognition sense. rightly worried about retribution. Elsewhere. these regimes have rightly been admitted as representatives in negotiations concerning the fate of the people in their parts of the planet. and the Saudi kleptocracy would seem to be politically illegitimate today. They are legitimate representatives in the way the FLN was when other contestants for supremacy in Algeria had fallen by the wayside. as in Iraq after the defeat of the 1920 uprising against Britain. Virtually all ultimately successful rebellions seem to start this way. a small organized group might launch an attack. However. Held speaks of legitimate authority in using terrorist violence. Given this construal and the emphasis on democracy that she shares with Buchanan. We don’t call this “popular support” when it leads people to acquiesce in colonial dominance. A friend of a people may hope that the terrorist group that legitimately represents it now in virtue of sufficient power in its territory will soon be replaced on account of the discontent of its people. thrown there by the often unjust violence of the FLN. it seems . among those the group claims to represent. This criterion can favor a terrorist group because of its superior capacity to raise hell. She begins her discussion of political legitimacy with an allusion to Allen Buchanan’s dictum that an entity has political legitimacy if and only if it is morally justified in wielding political power. in principle. In singling out aptness for international recognition as the relevant sort of legitimacy. Among a generally terrified people. when the majority are too concerned with the inevitable reprisals to lend the group their support.” Perhaps this external-recognition sense is not as central to Held’s essay as I have assumed. If Held is insisting that a group engaging in terrorism could. governed by distinctive criteria. a capacity different from. I would agree. be politically legitimate in all of these senses. Yet even if these regimes lacked sufficient popular support for such internal legitimacy. with the achievement of genuine support by the people as a whole.

The brutal counter-insurgency in the Kurdish parts of Turkey succeeded in ending the terrorism that was fought. Still. Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa (Boston: Beacon Press. could have pursued its actual goals in Iraq without inspiring insurgency that could only be put down. if at all.S.” Washington Post (June 23.. Otherwise. people will be tempted to regard it as a prerequisite for a duty of other powers to recognize a group as manager of regime change. and so. . inappropriate exports of criteria for legitimacy are encouraged. Held’s sympathy. Better to distinguish the external-recognition sense and acknowledge that brute facts of power can sustain this sort of legitimacy. may Israeli repression. Perhaps the resort to terrorism in Iraq will eventually be ended by these brutal means. But the underlying goals had nothing to do with counter-terrorism. 1991): A1. Held’s essay is highly relevant to brutal counterinsurgency in the Middle East. by appalling carnage. Having concluded that the widespread and willing support epitomized by the ANC is a prerequisite for morally justified power within a territory. 200. Or. The demonization of the Iraqi and Palestinian insurgencies has played a large role in getting Americans to ignore carnage inflicted and facilitated by our government. the less optimistic theses are also part of Held’s position. Virginia Held’s critique of absolutism concerning terrorism has a large role to play in repelling attacks on moral reflection and human life. “Allied Air War Struck Broadly in Iraq. 2 Ibid. 3 The characterization of a goal of the bombing of Iraq by an “officer who played a central role in the air campaign but declined to be named. ‘Get rid of this guy and we will be more than happy to assist in rebuilding .-led violence now advertised as part of the War on Terrorism creates more terrorism than it snuffs out. for the European view that stern. and they are vitally important. eventually. The claim that harsh counter-terrorism is generally counter-productive may be overly optimistic. the conflation of legitimacies would obscure real damage that the resort to terrorism can do to democratic values. U.200 Richard W. Fix that and we’ll fix .” as reported by Barton Gellman. as well. we wanted to let people know. As a whole. exporting in the other direction. 1990). in her final discussion. “Big picture. people who appreciate the capacity of brute facts of order and disorder to create a duty of recognition may be led to regard mere acquiescence as making the wielding of power morally justified. Israeli and American style counter-terrorism is counter-productive may also dismiss hard facts of power. Notes 1 See Steven Mufson. Gellman reports further characterizations by Air Force planners such as this. In any case. . Miller important to distinguish these senses. so has Syrian repression of Islamicist terrorists. And there was no way that the U. 199. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a great boon to global terrorism. as in Falluja.S. It ought to be distinguished from these less optimistic theses: justice would be at least as effective as the imposition of injustice through brutal counter-terrorism in reducing terrorist violence.

. Out of the Ashes (New York: Harper Collins. whereas war is composed of a series of violent events” (“Terrorism and War. . See Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn. as well. could fit. 131. the Oklahoma City bombing. 1999). 4 Initiatives in political violence fitting Held’s characterization can be big wars. water supply and sewage treatment depend. she notes that terrorism “can consist of single events such as .’ ” As part of this initiative. even though wars.” In a parallel passage in a recent essay. .Terrorism and Legitimacy: A Response to Virginia Held 201 your electricity. Perhaps the present comment conveys the similar observation that typical endeavors fitting the general proposal are smaller than typical wars.” Journal of Ethics 8 (2004): 68). including big ones. precision-guided weapons destroyed the power stations on which refrigeration. 4. which has to be reconciled with her comment that terrorism “most resembles small war. and bombs destroyed the main Baghdad sewage treatment plant.