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Terrorism: Definition and Ethics
o say that I was disappointed by J V Deshpande’s article (‘Nuclear Terrorism and All That’, EPW, April 6-12, 2002; hereon JVD), pegged as a response to my piece on ‘Nuclear Terrorism’ in my last Nuclear Notebook column, is an understatement. JVD’s piece insofar as it concerns what I have written, is little more than an accusatory rant largely (though not entirely) criticising me for presumed sins of omission. The general style of argument thus runs on particular lines: so I am guilty of not condemning this or that; or while I have not said this or that directly, nonetheless my bias or implication or imputation is whatever JVD sees fit to interpret; and so on. Having written on the issue of terrorism for many years now, long preceding September 11, 2001, what I will do is re-present some of that thinking. My intent is not to reply polemically or specifically to JVD but to make clarifications for a wider and more thoughtful readership better inclined to recognise the complexities surrounding the issue of political terrorism. than risk confusion and uncertainty in a larger domain of inquiry. Even with respect to terrorist acts or events I restrict myself to political terrorism excluding criminal terrorist behaviour or what some might feel are expressions of an ‘economic’ terrorism. Within the sphere of political terrorist acts I focus only on ‘international’ ones. Elsewhere, I have drawn distinctions of some importance between domestic and international terrorism as well as discussed the issue of terrorism’s efficacy. Here I will confine myself only to provisionally defining the political terrorist act and discussing the ethics of international political terrorist events, which is also of general applicability to domestic terrorist acts. At first glance, to talk of the ethics of a terrorist act might seem peculiar. Is not terrorism by its very nature ethically bad or wrong? It seems to me that only if a terrorist act can be defined or understood in an evaluatively neutral way can there be a serious discussion of the ethics pertaining. There is much to be said, in fact, for just such a morally neutral definition of the terrorist act. The problems of a non-neutral definition are considerable. For example, the old saw about one person’s terrorist being another person’s freedom fighter is not without significant merit. How would we get out of this relativist trap? Did Shahid Bhagat Singh engage in a terrorist act or did he not? Since so many Indians are justifiably proud of Bhagat Singh, seeing him as a heroic revolutionary and martyr, the temptation would be strong for them to deny that he was a terrorist or that he engaged in what could legitimately be described as a terrorist act. However, this is a temptation that should, in my view, be resisted. It makes more sense to recognise certain behaviour, such as his, as terrorist and yet be prepared to defend it even on moral grounds. To do this is precisely to enter the terrain of discourse about the ethics of terrorism or of the terrorist act. Similarly, why should I or anyone else necessarily regard the assassination of president John F Kennedy with moral shock or horror rather than with justified indifference or even a certain relief, if not approval? What if one believes, by no means unreasonably, that all US American October 5, 2002


Issues of Definition and Ethics
The complexities and difficulties of understanding so multifaceted a phenomenon like terrorism, let alone of finding an adequate definition of it, are so great that without conscious delimitation one would risk sinking into a complete and contradictory morass. Thus I am confining myself to only looking at terrorist acts. I avoid taking up the question of ‘terrorist regimes’ whose terrorism would be of an institutionalised type quite distinct from the non-institutionalised but necessarily and openly violent form characteristic of those particular acts usually deemed terrorist. Obviously there is much value in pursuing discussion about what it is that characterises a terrorist regime or organisation. But that is outside the purview of this particular project.

That kind of effort might etymologically focus on the word ‘terror’ and then go on to draw out the meaning of terrorism as something that causes and sustains terror. This would lead to a broader definition of terrorism than one used specifically to describe terrorist acts or campaigns, where campaigns are frequently repeated acts within a given time-span (often against the same opponent or perceived enemy). One problem with too broad a definition of even terrorist regimes is that if ‘terror’ is the main criterion then one is unlikely to draw sufficient distinctions between democratic and undemocratic regimes or even between different kinds of authoritarian regimes. All regimes in some way or the other invoke terror and one could so easily fall into the unhelpful posture of calling all or most all regimes or states or countries terrorist in one way or the other. I believe it is far better, therefore, to make a distinction between terrorist regimes and democratic ones, which by definition are not terrorist governments or states but do and can carry out terrorist acts and campaigns internationally and at times domestically. Indeed, over the last 55 years (since the end of the second world war) one of the most advanced political democracies – the US – has been the worst offender in regard to the frequency and scale of terrorist acts and campaigns internationally. Clearly, in my approach it is not the etymological emphasis on a connection to the word ‘terror’ (a psychological state of mind in the victim) that is the main foundation for a provisional definition of terrorism, but the emphasis on a restricted conception of violence (the violence itself need not be restricted) carried out by the perpetrator. I also believe it is more helpful not to search for a definition (even if provisional) that seeks to encompass terrorism in all its possible forms or usages. As in the case of many complex ‘cluster’ concepts it is sometimes better to delimit the terrain of one’s investigation so as to maintain clarity in a restricted field rather


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presidents since the second world war have behaved like political criminals in their foreign policy and bear principal responsibility for events which in some cases (Vietnam) even reach the scale of being considered attempts at genocide? It does not, of course, follow that one is justified in condoning or applauding the assassination of Kennedy or the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. The conditions under which condoning or applauding such acts as morally legitimate are strict and depend also on whether the condoner does or does not belong to a community which is a direct victim of immoral US policy. Final moral judgment can also be influenced by the presence or existence in that society of other avenues for seeking justice. But the point is that there is a serious issue regarding the ethics of terrorism that is deserving of a more thoughtful discussion. Friends more familiar than myself with the intricacies of moral philosophical reasoning have suggested that it is possible to have an evaluatively negative definition of terrorism and yet arrive at a judgment that certain terrorist acts could be judged morally defensible. These exceptions might apply to certain acts of hostage-taking where there are no eventual casualties or injuries, or of assassinations, provided the political consequences were extremely positive. Two examples that come to mind are the Officers Plot of 1944 to kill Hitler, and the Sandinista capture of the Somozadominated National Assembly in Nicaragua and holding its members hostage for certain demands in 1978. The political consequences of the latter action were very positive indeed with eventually no one getting hurt and the act marking the moment when the Sandinistas moved from being a guerrilla organisation with some support to becoming a much more powerful force channelling mass support against the Somoza regime which subsequently collapsed within a year. If it is possible to have an evaluatively negative definition and yet allow for a small number of exceptions, then such an approach would seem far superior to the effort to have an objectively neutral definition. This is because the vast majority of acts deemed terrorist are morally unjustifiable and our definition could be geared to accommodating this majority situation rather than having to gear it to accommodating the small minority of exceptional cases. However, I have yet to be shown by philosopher friends that this intellectual Economic and Political Weekly

approach is consistent and appropriate. Till such time, I will prefer to go along with the commitment to an ethically neutral working definition of the terrorist act.

Defining the Terrorist Act
Perhaps the best way to begin the search for a proper definition of the terrorist act is to first be clear about how not to go about defining it. I started off by taking down all the dictionaries I had on my home shelf and looking in each of them at their entry for ‘terrorism’. This was itself quite revealing. The two early (1950s) American dictionaries I had (Webster’s and Funk and Wagnall’s) were clearly reflective of dominant cold war perspectives then prevailing, as well as being written before the worldwide eruption of combat group terrorist events from the 1960s onwards. Here, terrorism was defined specifically with regimes in mind, more specifically with the ‘totalitarian’ Soviet or Communist or East bloc regimes in mind contrasted to the democratic regimes of the US and the west. Terrorism was defined here as a negative form of governance or system of rule. My other dictionaries (one belonging to the 1970s and the rest to the 1990s), British rather than American (Chambers, Oxford, Collins), did not have definitions of terrorism that linked it to any particular system of rule. Freer from cold war reflexes, the definitions given here are broader in character, theoretically speaking, and capable of being applied to any part of the world. But these definitions are, in fact, too broad. Since any sensible definition of the terrorist act must link it to a notion of violence, defining the latter in an appropriate way also becomes necessary. Unhelpful are those definitions of violence that, implicitly or explicitly, are too broad. If terrorism is to be linked to violence, it is important for our purposes not to use a notion of violence that is too broad. This can be appropriate in certain contexts where we may wish to talk of the violence of poverty, racism or sexism, etc, i e, of injustice as itself a form of violence. But such a broad understanding is hardly helpful to the present context where we wish to investigate the efficacy and ethics of terrorist acts or events. For our purposes a stricter definition of violence has to be used, namely, the exercise of force such as to physically harm, injure, pain or kill humans. Such a definition excludes damage to property and is independent of the

ends or intentions or subjective perceptions of the agents of such violence. It is therefore an objective definition appropriate to the search for an ethically neutral and objective definition of terrorism itself. Thus, this perusal of various dictionaries showed broadly four kinds of approaches to definition, all of which should be rejected. Terrorism is understood as having one or a number of the following characteristics: (i) it is organised intimidation; (ii) violence against civilians or non-combatants; (iii) indiscriminate use of violence; (iv) illegitimate use of violence. Each of these understandings carries grave problems. Intimidation is too loose and broad a concept. There are many kinds or forms of organised intimidation including systems or structures of psychological intimidation at various degrees and levels. Would these qualify as a form of terrorism? Terrorism need not only have civilian and non-combatants as targets. Terrorist acts can also be inflicted on combatants as well. The attack on General Vaidya in Pune in western India was still a terrorist act. Similarly, when indefensible violence or extreme disproportion in violence is used against opposing combatants, such as the use of nuclear or chemical or biological warfare, this too can count as terrorism. One does not have to go so far as to use weapons of mass destruction. Simply using tanks or bombers to destroy a militant hideout where the defenders are known to only have rifles can also count as an indefensible terrorist act. Furthermore, certain civilians such as presidents or prime ministers, etc, given their own very major responsibilities for conducting warfare can be seen by the opposing side with justice as legitimate targets for terrorist efforts at assassination. As for terrorism being the indiscriminate use of violence, so much of what we understand as terrorist acts or events involve very specific, indeed highly discriminate use of violence. Finally, assigning the label of terrorism to only those acts deemed illegitimate begs all questions about the legitimacy of the ‘officially’ legitimate wielders of violence – the state. Such an approach is far too narrow, for it definitionally outlaws even the possibility of state terrorism. An appropriate and serviceable definition of the terrorism of an act or event then must possess the following properties: it should be evaluatively neutral; it should not be too broad or too narrow; it should be objective. In regard to the last named

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property, the judgment of whether an act or event is terrorist or not should be made independently of, and without reference to, the motives or self-perceptions of the perpetrators of that act. For example, the agents of state terrorism rarely see themselves as engaged in terrorist acts. Even the more moral-minded of state officials will concede only that the state (especially if it is a liberal democratic state) is sometimes guilty of unfortunate and condemnable ‘excesses’ or human rights ‘abuses’ but never of terrorism. Such a view would effectively exculpate the liberal democratic state of the US from the charge of nuclear terrorism in dropping the bombs on the overwhelmingly civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! The untenability of such an exculpation should be obvious. Once we arrive at a definition of terrorism that is balanced, neutral and objective, we can then more intelligently discuss its ethics. The following can serve as a working definition of the political terrorist act or event: It is the calculated or premeditated use or threat of use of violence against an individual, group or larger collectivity in such a manner that the target is rendered physically defenceless against that attack or against the effects of that violence. What makes this a form of political terrorism distinguishing it from say, criminal terrorism (murder), is that the act is harnessed to some political intent or purpose and carries a political meaning. The defencelessness can be the result of (a) surprise outside of a battle- or warzone; (b) the nature of the target chosen, e g, its civilian status; (c) the nature of the weapons used; (d) enormous disproportion in the violence exercised between the two sides even within a battle- or warzone, i e, a gross violation of the principle of minimal or reasonable force. The agents of the terrorist act can be the individual, the combat group, or larger entities like the apparatus(es) of the state.

Ethics of International Political Terrorism
Much of what will be argued for in this section has relevance for domestic terrorism. But focusing on international political terrorism does make matters a little easier since so much of this kind of terrorism is linked to wars of liberation. Insofar as domestic political terrorism can be linked to ‘righteous’ revolutionary struggle to overthrow oppressor regimes,

the discussion of ethics would apply to these cases as well. Clearly, in talking of the ethics of such kinds of political terrorism we are operating very much on the terrain of the age-old discourse about the relationship between ends and means. To begin with, any possibility of claiming that a terrorist act is just and should therefore be supported must assume that the cause to which that act is harnessed is itself good and just. This is a necessary even if not a sufficient condition for one to claim that such an act is to be defended. If the cause is itself not believed to be just, as one side will usually consider it not to be, then the act cannot be justified. The justice then of using terrorist methods is related to the justice or justness of the cause itself. Indeed, to rebel against an ‘unjust’ system can itself be considered a fundamental right of the individual in the Lockean sense. But even when we accept this, it still doesn’t answer the question of how to rebel? There are two ways of justifying all violence in the aid of a supposedly just cause or one perceived to be so. The first way is to do so in the name of efficacy. Here the question of what means or methods to be used in pursuit of the given end is no longer a moral but a practical one. It is a question of effectiveness, of tactics and strategy. This is how revolutionaries usually rationalise the use of terrorist threats or acts of violence. Since the end striven for constitutes such a profound transformation of existing society and its values including its moral ones, why then should the struggle against it be bound by such values, the revolutionary asks, especially when the enemy will not feel bound, even by existing values, in defence of its power? Of this last point there are many examples but a particularly important one was the 1973 US supported military coup in Chile to overthrow and crush the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende. Chile had perhaps the longest history of representative democratic government of any third world country. Nonetheless, although Allende was re-elected in 1973 with a bigger mandate than in 1970 and had committed himself to the use only of peaceful and constitutional methods of political activity, this did not prevent the ruling classes who felt deeply threatened by his policies to resort to the most brutal and undemocratic methods to overthrow him. Allende refused to listen to his own supporters who, in anticipation of the coup

and in clear recognition of the turmoil in the country, were clamouring for arming of the general civilian public to prevent the coup which so many recognised was obviously coming. The point then, is not a trivial one. It is what lies behind, for example, Malcolm X’s famous dictum concerning the liberation of black people in the US – ‘by any means necessary’. That is to say, such revolutionaries claim there should be no weakening of their struggle to achieve a just end by a renunciation in advance of the means to be used. The second way of justifying all violence in the name of a just cause is through an approach that Barrington Moore Jnr (Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery, 1972) has aptly called the ‘calculus of suffering’. Here the claim is that the oppression of the oppressor is so great that no amount of terrorism by the oppressed can change the overall balance sheet of suffering. In the remarkable film by Gilo Pontecorvo, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, this particular approach to justifying terrorist violence was dramatised most effectively. The French authorities had captured one of the principal leaders of the FLN, Ahmed Ben M’Hidi and were parading him in front of an international press conference. One reporter of a French newspaper asks him that if he thinks the cause of Algerian independence is so just then what kind of cause is this which can justify the placing of home-made bombs in baskets which are then put in public places and blow up innocent French women and children? M’Hidi replies that yes, it is terrible that French women and children are killed in this way but then goes on to remind the reporter and the others at the press conference that French planes which fly over Algerian villages and drop their bombs kill many, many more Algerian women and children. He then goes on to exclaim, “I tell you what, give us your planes and we will give you our baskets”. However, neither of the two rationalisations given (whether of efficacy or of a balance sheet of suffering) can be fully acceptable. To do so begs a crucial question. Does this mean that everything or any form of violence can be justified such as cruelty, torture, killing of children? Merely to ask the question should, one hopes, be enough to elicit the proper reply. No, it cannot. ‘By all means necessary’ is an utterly unacceptable dictum. One must accept that there are individual rights and that some of these are all but inviolable. October 5, 2002


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That is to say, certain rights (e g, no cruelty to children, no torture) are, if not absolute, near absolute. If we accept this, as we should, then it becomes possible to formulate general rules regarding the use of permissible or acceptable means in pursuit of just ends. However, much discussion in India on the relationship between means and ends has been strongly influenced by the Gandhian tradition whose approach has been insufficiently subtle, to say the least. Ends, we are repeatedly reminded, cannot justify means. Good ends cannot justify bad means. But another question is rarely if ever asked within the Gandhian tradition: do means justify ends? Do good means justify bad ends? Does the building of schools and hospitals justify or even lessen the evil end of maintaining colonial rule? The idea that means must prefigure ends has to be handled carefully. There is genuine merit in the view that the goodness or worth of ends achieved bears some significant relationship to the goodness of means used in pursuit of those ends. But what is this relationship? To what extent can means prefigure ends? Any claim that means must prefigure ends, which is the basic thrust of the Gandhian approach, is ridiculously and unjustifiably rigid. For means cannot only reflect or presage their ends, they also unavoidably reflect their beginnings. Means are doubly determined, both by their putative goals and by their starting point, the prior situation of injustice (in variable forms of brutality and repression) confronting victims. In the struggle to overthrow slavery or fascism, for example, to expect that means used will not bear some definite relationship to the character and system of this repression is quite unrealistic. Such means can certainly differ significantly from those used to overthrow other kinds of oppression operating in much milder contexts of physical repression and brutality. There is, however, another claim within the Gandhian tradition. Terrible or unacceptable means, it is argued, can negate or nullify ends. What are we to make of this line of argument? Clearly, it depends on what we mean by negating or nullifying ends. All too often this is misunderstood to mean that the very justice of the end sought can be negated or nullified by the injustice of the means used in its pursuit. However, the justice of a cause is never contingent on the means used in pursuit of that cause but is determined independently of those means. This may be a trivial Economic and Political Weekly

point of logic but it is surprising how often it is forgotten. Nor does this mean that a sympathiser or supporter of that cause cannot condemn or oppose the use of a whole range of means. Of course, one can. But it is to insist that, for example, the justice of the Palestinian cause cannot be negated or nullified or even altered in any way by the iniquity of means (however terrible) that may be used in its pursuit. This does not mean, however, that the justice of that cause stands eternally. That justness is historically constituted and can therefore be historically altered in that it might no longer become a meaningful cause whose value must be adjudicated or placed on the political agenda. So it is historically and theoretically conceivable, for example, that at some future time, few Palestinians may remain concerned about securing a Palestinian nation. If, however, by negating or nullifying, one means that the worth of achievement or of the realised form taken by the goal desired can be diminished, sometimes greatly so, or even fully nullified by the character of the means chosen to pursue it, then this is obviously correct. If the overthrow of South African apartheid had resulted in the institutionalisation of say, a reverse apartheid, then many would certainly question the value of the form that the final achievement – the goal of overthrowing apartheid – had taken. The value, many would feel, was significantly diminished even if not fully negated or nullified. Or to take another example, the use of nuclear weapons in the service of some cause could easily and fully nullify the value of that final achievement however just the goal and the struggle for it might be. Any judgment of the possible indefensibility of the use of certain means is connected not so much to the concrete effect of those means on the form in which the just cause is realised but on the grounds of other general principles, ethical principles concerning individual human rights. This is the basis of the well known and very important distinction between the justice of a war and justice in the conduct of a war. Even if opposing sides cannot agree on the justice of a particular war as seen by the other side, e g, the Indian state and its supporters are not likely to accept the justice of the Naga struggle for independence, both sides can still accept the necessity of justice in the conduct of that war. Thus there can be certain rules of warfare that even pertain to terrorist acts

that can be accepted and respected by all. Following Norman Geras (Discourses of Extremity, 1990), the following rules would seem to be particularly pertinent in this regard. First, there has to be a distinction between legitimate and non-legitimate targets. This does not have to correspond strictly to the distinction between civilians and non-civilians. Certain kinds of civilians, depending on the particular context, have real responsibility for the conduct of warfare on one side and from the perspective of the other side are entirely legitimate targets. There is, moreover, an unavoidable grey area or twilight zone, e g, blowing up an ordnance factory can result in killing of nearby civilians but that does not mean the factory is not a legitimate target. But despite the inescapable generality of this rule it can still serve as an important guideline to proper moral behaviour. It is one thing to target a Golda Meir for assassination or to target senior defence officials or to attack a military or strategic installation. It would be another thing altogether and quite unacceptable to bomb a public space wherein ordinary Israeli citizens will be killed or injured or threatened with grave physical harm. However, for one who supports the Irish Republican cause, IRA public bombings which damage property and cause severe disruption in everyday life but are preceded by adequate prior warning to the relevant British authorities to successfully clear the targeted site of people, need cause no serious moral dilemma or anguish. Second, even for legitimate targets there have to be rules for how they are attacked. Certain vital principles have to be respected. One, is that only minimum or reasonable force be applied. You don’t use a hammer to kill a fly. Or to put it another way, every effort must be made to avoid the imposition of gratuitous suffering. A serious and genuine commitment of this kind would outlaw forms of torture or the infliction of humiliation or the use of unwarranted interrogation methods. There may be exceptional circumstances in which such restraint does not apply but these exceptional circumstances are much more likely and frequently to be found in the abstract peregrinations of moral philosophers or in the fiction of films and books than in life. Forms of fairly brutal interrogation methods used by the police and army on captured suspects or militants/terrorists as a matter of routine are not justified by the argument that extraction of information from such

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captives is necessary to preserve the larger good and protection of the public over which the state exercises its sovereignty. Third, there has to be a distinction between the combatant who can be attacked and the ‘person’ whose rights have to be respected. One can attack a combatant, even kill him or her. In a combat situation one can hardly avoid this. But this does not give a right to calculatedly disfigure or maim an opponent. Moreover, once the situation changes and the status

of the opponent is no longer that of being a combatant, then his or her new role must be recognised and the rights associated with that new role, or those rights associated with him or her being a ‘person’, must be respected. Thus prisoners, for example, have definite rights to be fully respected once a former combatant becomes a prisoner. Of course, the rules we are talking about are general. They can hardly be expected to cover all contexts, contingencies or

situations. But they nonetheless provide real practical guidelines. When so much of current practice, even in democracies like India, constitute a standing violation and contempt for even these very elementary principles, then we will be accomplishing a great deal if we can generalise respect for such principles and institutionalise their practice regardless of whether our support and loyalty is extended to the combat group in question or to its opposing state or to other power structures. -29


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