What Terrorism Is and Can It Ever Be Morally Justified?

Can it ever be morally justifiable to use ‘terror tactics’ in warfare? In this paper, I will be evaluating the morality behind the use of ‘terror tactics’ or terrorism, including traditional terrorist acts and the use of terror in circumstances such as interrogations. Throughout modern history, terror has been used in a variety of different circumstances, such as the French Revolution, the 9/11 attacks and the US’ invasion of Iraq, following different purposes. In this context, philosophical questions such as What terrorism is? and Can it ever be morally justified? have drowned philosophical attention. Most people agree that the act of terrorism itself can never be justified, even though, when resorting to it leads to positive outcomes, some claim it can be morally justified. In the end, it is all reduced to the principle of double effect to question morality: “when it is morally permissible to perform an action in the pursuit of a good end with the full knowledge that the action in question will also bring about bad results”.

In this paper, I will briefly discuss the definition of terrorism, to then go into the morality behind the use of terror. For this, I will first address the thesis of philosophers such as Nicholas Fotion and Per Bauhn, evaluating terrorism with considerations to its consequences exclusively (analysis known as consequentialism) and the act itself (non-consequentialism). After this, I will analyse the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, using it as an example to show that the use of terror tactics can be rarely morally and tactically justified.

Then, regarding the use of terror in interrogations, I’ll explain why this one is rarely successful, considering different testimonies and scientific researchers, to then continue discussing the main arguments of my counter-theory with references to the philosophies of Michael Walzer and Virginia Held, who morally justify the use of terror under certain conditions. Finally, I will offer my own opinion on the topic, concluding that that use of terror tactics in warfare is, most of the times, morally unjustifiable. What is terrorism? Several attempts have been made, in situations such as the UN’s General Assembly, to make the countries agree on a definition for terrorism.

However, all of these attempts have failed, as all countries define it in a different way, for their convenience, not wanting to recognise that they have used terrorism. They justify their actions claiming terror was used as a means for liberation, that their enemies are ‘terrorists’, that terrorism has to be done by non-state agencies in order to be considered as such, etc. Furthermore, an issue arises when considering the complicity of the victims, as they may be considered innocent or non-innocente depending on the perspective. For example, Osama Bin Laden blames the whole US population of the atrocities committed by the US army, as they pay taxes that finance their actions and are represented by the Congress, who backs up the actions of the army.

So, according to his perspective, the 9/11 attacks did not target innocent civilians, and therefore, under the definitions that classify terrorism as the use of violence against innocent civilians, he didn’t lead a terrorist attack. A more recent example is the US’ designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. No such announcement as the made by President Donald J. Trump has been previously made in the US, so even though the implications of this announcement are not clear, it is inferred that they are justifying the use of terror tactics against Iranian forces, as they are now fighting against a group they formally recognize as terrorist.

From this perspective, the terror tactics used can’t be classified as terrorism as they argue, not only, that there is no such thing as state terrorism, but they are fighting a terrorist group instead of innocent civilians, even though civilians may be affected in the process. So, as there are many definitions of terrorism which are influenced by our political perspectives, for the sake of the argument, the morality of the use of terror tactics will be evaluated under the most common definition of terrorism: “violence against innocent civilians or common citizens, intended to intimidate and thereby to achieve some further objective, or more broadly, to coerce”.

First of all, considering the consequences of terrorism, this one can be very rarely justified. According to Nicholas Fotion, terror tactics can be justified when “(1) the end sought is good enough to justify the means, (2) the end will indeed be achieved by means of terrorism, (3) the end cannot be achieved in any other way that is morally and otherwise less costly”. Analysing the use of terrorism through history, with hindsight we can see there is almost always a less costly alternative to achieve the same aim, and that many times there is no certainty the means will indeed achieve the aim. Therefore, until now, the use of terror tactics is uncommonly justified, as supported by Fotion.

Additionally, as stated by Per Bauhn “freedom and safety are fundamental.. therefore (they) must be accorded paramount weight. This implies, that not in a single case, terrorism is justified, as it violates the most fundamental rights.”. In other words, there are no rights more relevant than freedom and safety, so placing these ones in risk for other causes, using terrorism, can never be justified. This links with Stephen Nathanson’s idea that “adopting civilian immunity… is the best way to reduce the killing and destruction in armed conflict”, and that this is in the greatest interest of us all, as “it is in our self-interest to deny that it can ever be justified to kill people like you and me”.

Moreover, terrorism can be rarely morally and tactically justified at the same time. Some may argue that under certain conditions, terrorism can be morally justified if it also is the only or the best terror tactic that can be applied. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance, serves as an example to prove that this rarely occurs. As known, in August 1945, during the endings of the Second World War, “the United States detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki… [that] killed 129,000 – 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians”. Even though the event is classified as terrorism under the vast majority of the definitions, the US claims it isn’t, as there is no such thing as state-terrorism, and that the bombings were the only way in which the war could be ended with, as it coerced Japan to surrender.

Additionally, many of their army officials and political authorities, considered the civilians killed were not innocent as they were complicit in the war effort. So, they consider their actions morally justified as it served a greater purpose, ending with the war, their actions were tactically justified as their aim was achieved, and they didn’t attack completely innocent civilians. But, analysing the situation to a deeper extent, we know Japan was severely weakened as the final stages of the war and incapable of inflicting any serious damage on the Allies. In this context, the US could have looked for other ways to achieve their central aim; forcing Japan to surrender, that didn’t imply such massive collateral damage as it was the killing of approximately two hundred thousand Japanese civilians.

Among other possible outcomes we can consider throwing the atomic bombs in the sea, to show the Japanese the power they had and coerce them to surrender, continue with conventional bombing at military targets, and, if all of these didn’t, invade the territory, which was an option that would’ve implied several deaths of soldiers, but it would not have involved the deliberate killing of innocent civilians. Summarizing, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki show us how terrorism is in most of the cases morally unjustifiable, considering war tactics.

Furthermore, regarding the use of terror tactics such as sleep deprivation and physical torture to obtain information, these shouldn’t be morally justified. In the first place, torture is dehumanizing, is treating people like objects, and ends up being a mental issue. As described by Eric Fair, an ex-US army officer that served on US detention centres, the use of torture for interrogations consists of “removing an individual’s humanity”. Considering all humans have equal rights, and among those, the right to life, liberty and self-determination are classified as fundamental, the act of torture itself is immoral. Additionally, the use of terror tactics in interrogations severely damages the mental health of the people involved in the process, “increasing suicide rates of military officers in charge of carrying them out.” So, everyone involved in the process ends up being a victim.

Furthermore, as confirmed by Eric Fair, the vast majority of the people tortured don’t have information or simply make stuff up to stop being tortured. A study carried out by Shein Massage, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin, concluded the “assault that occurs during torture damages the parts of the brain you want to access”, which is the one of information recall. This is why, as stated by studies done by various militaries and specifically the US, torture is regarded as inefficient and it is used mostly to introduce fear in the population.

So, torture can’t ever be morally justified if it doesn’t result in the obtaining of key information to prevent humanitarian disasters. On the other hand, many people claim the use of terror tactics can be justified when resorting to it is in the best interest of the population, or in other words, “when not resorting to it implicates paying an extremely high price.” This claim is commonly used by states such as the US, arguing that the use of terror tactics in interrogations, for example, allows them to stop terrorist attacks over the worldwide population from happening. Resorting to terror has indeed resulted in the discovering of relevant information during a war, as stated by several military officers, among which we can find Eric Fair.

In this way, Kant’s categorical imperative is challenged, as we can’t say the use of terror tactics is always immoral, and rather each case should be assessed individually. Additionally, Michael Walzer sustains terrorism may be used in situations of supreme emergency, in which a particular community is under the threat of extermination. Linking his idea to the ones previously mentioned, we can say he considers the ‘extremely high price’ to be the threat of extermination exclusively.

Similarly, Virginia Held sustains “terrorism is justified when it is used to protect a certain right that is not being respected, by infringing the same right”. When these requirements are met, as supported by the philosophers mentioned, the use of terror tactics can be morally justifiable as their use leads to a greater good. Nevertheless, considering that terror tactics may be morally justified in particular occasions, for the benefit of a great majority, the argument has several weaknesses. Firstly, regarding Michael Walzer’s findings, defining a ‘state of supreme emergency’ can be very difficult and subjective. Countries may announce a ‘state of supreme emergency’ to comply with their interests, and therefore justify the use of terror.

For example, some Venezuelan leaders can currently argue their country is undergoing such a phase and claim that the use of terror is morally justified, as the Venezuelan culture is under great threats due to violent political rivalries, massive flee of citizens outside their country and food and supply shortages. The former government, may therefore justify the use of terror in front of the international community, using Michael Walzer’s philosophy, even though the vast majority of this community agrees that Venezuela is going through a democratic crisis and that the violence implemented by the state is seriously harming the citizens without achieving to control the critical situation lived.

In the second place, once the use of violence has been approved, it may be difficult to limit the extent to which this one has been applied. We can exemplify the previous situation using the purges of Stalin’s government, as many historians argue that the Russian SS started by eradicating Stalin’s biggest political contenders that placed at risk the stability of the country and the government, but it ended up killing millions of otherwise innocent civilians as the situation got out of control. This relates with Virginia Held’s justification of terrorism, as she recognises we can’t assure that the rights the enemy has been inflicting will be the limit for the rights that are going to be inflicted.

So, considering her justification of terror tactics, we might say it can’t be applied in practice, as it’s impossible to assure the limits are going to be respected. Additionally, regarding the use of terror tactics during interrogations, the fact is that even though some relevant information has been obtained through these methods, this one is minimal, as the information obtained can’t always be relied upon, and the great majority of the victims have no information (as backed up by the ex-military serving in Iraq, Eric Fair).

Even Napoleon once said, “torture produces nothing worthwhile”. Considering this, it would be deeply immoral to interrogate someone using terror tactics without being sure they have relevant and trustworthy information in their hands. Less aggressive and more successful methods can be used when it comes to interrogation. An example of this is the work of Hanns Scharff, a German interrogator during WWII. He was considered the best interrogator of that time, according to Germany and the Allies, and he didn’t use coercive methods in his interrogation. Summarizing, it will be immoral to justify the use of terror when a beneficial outcome can’t be assured and when there are other less violent alternatives to achieve the same objective.

In conclusion, the use of terror tactics may be morally justified in particular occasions, such as when resorting to it is the only option to solve a conflict that is putting a large number of innocent civilians at risk and when we can assure that the use of terror will indeed achieve our aim. Otherwise, we would be using terror with no justifiable final purpose. The problem is, that in reality, it is very difficult to assure that the final aim will be achieved if terror tactics are used. Moreover, in most of the cases, such as discussed when analysing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are less aggressive options to tackle the same problem in an effective way. So, even though terrorism may be morally justified when is the only available option to secure the interests of our population, in practice, we know we can always find different paths to resolve an issue, that will probably cause less harm and will not make the enemy seek revenge, resorting to a widespread use of terror tactics.

Additionally, it is virtually impossible to limit the extent of the atrocities committed through the use of terror tactics, when committing such atrocities is allowed. Furthermore, considering the act itself, the use of terror degrades the human race and places all of us under risk. This is why, in my opinion, although we can justify the use of terror tactics in some occasions, as when applied in the right occasions and to the right extent, following strict control from the authorities, they have enabled some countries to prevent some atrocities from being committed. But, in the vast majority of the situations, terrorism can’t be morally justified as we can find less aggressive and sometimes more effective alternatives to resolve the issue in question.