Justifying Terrorism

For the last few days I’ve been trying to write the final post in my series on “Terrorism and Communism”, Trotsky’s apologia for the Bolshevik methods of the Russian revolution. And failing, because I don’t really know the answer to the question I’m setting myself. So this post is just a preface.

Of the four questions I set myself in this earlier post, I’ve now devoted posts to three of them. On two – whether the proletariat should aim to take exclusive political power, and whether it should behave “dictatorially” in the sense of “as appropriate to a state of emergency” – I have agreed with Trotsky. On one – whether party rule is the same as class rule – I have disagreed strongly.

The one question remaining is a sticky but also an important one, which relates most directly to the book’s title: what methods can be used by a revolutionary force in its struggle against counter-revolution. Trotsky’s position is uncompromising: all methods should be available. He is explicit that  the methods of the revolutionaries are no different from the methods of the counter-revolutionaries, no different from the methods of any reactionary or oppressive force – only directed towards a different end. The end, that is, justifies the means.

In approaching this question (read: beating about the bush) I want to first clarify the meaning of ‘terrorism’. Much of the time this word has no meaning – it is a term of abuse no more articulate that “boo”. When boiled down to a definition – using fear for political purposes – it becomes almost commonplace. Indeed it seems at risk of becoming a synonym of ‘deterrence’. And no government in the world has a problem with ‘deterrence’.

To get at the idea I want to discuss will thus require a bit of elaboration. It’s a cliche to say that the four motivations of punishment are deterrence, protection, rehabilitation, and retribution – but these aren’t just comparable aims to add together. Rather, they represent two approaches.

Deterrence and protection, and to some extent rehabilitation, aim at causing crime to not occur, and treat the individual merely as a means to this end. On the other hand, retribution, and to some extent rehabilitation, treat the individual as an ‘end in themselves’, and crucially, they constrain the first approach in both directions. The idea of retribution doesn’t just object to insufficient punishment, to letting someone off because they can be expected not to re-offend, but also to excessive punishment, to punishing someone very severely in order to prevent them or others from re-offending (in practice we tend to punish people in a way that makes them more likely to re-offend, but let’s stay at the comforting level of sanitised abstractions). So we use punishment to acheive deterrence only to the extent that’s compatible with ‘fairness’ and appropriate retribution.

If terrorism has a single meaning, then, it seems to be this: the logic of deterrence, freed from the constraints of retribution. That is, using ‘punishment’ to produce fear, aiming to control people’s actions, regardless of whether they ‘deserve’ it. A very clear example might be taking hostages and threatening to execute them if the enemy does X – the goal is to produce fear that will influence behaviour, but the desert of the hostages is irrelevant. But less obviously, any case where a crime which is not, in a moral sense, very bad, is punished severely in order to deter people from committing it, is also ‘terrorism’. Nuclear deterrence, as practised by the UK government, is very clearly a form of (threatened) terrorism.

So the question of justifying terrorism resolves itself into the question of treating people as things, destroying their bodies in order to influence the behaviour of others. Now phrase like that it seems obviously a bad thing. But the issue is not about using it under normal circumstances, but in exceptional ones. Remember that basically every government in the world (except Bhutan? most generalisations apply to every government except Bhutan’s) accepts the infliction of ‘collateral damage’ in war.

But approached in this way the question almost seems unanswerable. The whole point of emergency actions is that they ignore the rules established at other times. If I find myself in a life-or-death situation (consider perhaps some of the thought experiments that moral philosophers love to devise) and have to take lives to save lives, how much sense does it make to even try to apply a ‘principle’ to decide whether my action was ‘justified’. Yet at the same time, it’s clearly unacceptable simply to give people carte blanche to respond to take ‘desperate measures’, because different people’s definitions of ‘desperate times’ and what they call for will differ.

I feel that it would be too easy to re-affirm the abstract principles of respect for human life and so forth. Of course I can do that, I’m sitting in a comfortable castle in Scotland. There’s no point addressing the issue if we can’t do justice to the possibility that shooting a hundred people might actually save a thousand lives – that may be unlikely but surely it’s not impossible. And if it’s possible, how does it even make sense to say ‘those people should not be shot’? Isn’t that prioritising clean hands over human lives?

It is late at night and I’m tired and this stuff is confusing.

2 Responses to “Justifying Terrorism”

  1. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I don’t know if you’ve read William Godwin (early anarchist, but fairly obscure and most anarchists don’t read him these days), but you might find the following quote interesting. Godwin had already argued that punishment for retribution isn’t reasonable because, from the utilitarian point of view, in this capacity it only increases the sum of human misery, doesn’t decrease it. I’d also agree with this strongly, there is no morality or justice in retribution. He has also argued that punishment to make it less likely that someone will commit another crime in the future is wrong (as you mentioned above too). Then he goes on about punishment as a deterrent:

    In addition to this it is to be remembered that, when I am made to suffer as an example to others, I am myself treated with supercilious neglect, as if I were totally incapable of feeling and morality. If you inflict pain upon me, you are either just or unjust. If you be just, it should seem necessary that there should be something in me that makes me the fit subject of pain, either absolute desert, which is absurd, or mischief I may be expected to perpetrate, or lastly, a tendency in what you do to produce my reformation. If any of these be the reason why the suffering I undergo is just, then example is out of the question: it may be an incidental consequence of the procedure, but it forms no part of its principle. It must surely be a very inartificial and injudicious scheme for guiding the sentiments of mankind, to fix upon an individual as a subject of torture or death, respecting whom this treatment has no direct fitness, merely that we may bid others look on, and derive instruction from his misery.

    Godwin, “Political Justice”, Book VII, Chapter III

    In other words, he’s saying that punishment for crimes is essentially no different to terrorism. And I think his argument has some force. I agree with his conclusion that the only coherent moral argument for punishment for crimes is deterrence, and I also feel uneasy at the fact that this means using one person as an end to set an example for others.

    This is interesting in relation to your discussion of terrorism, because you talk about terrorism as something that happens only in exceptional circumstances, but crime and punishment don’t have that character. Does this mean that terrorism might be more justifiable than the system of punishment for crimes?

    I have my own answer to this but I’ve just noticed it’s 4am and I think I’ll go to bed…

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Yeah, I’ve come across Godwin a few times (mainly News from Nowhere). I like a lot of what he says in the passage you quote.

    “terrorism might be more justifiable than the system of punishment for crimes”
    Well, quite possibly. I mean, maybe not all punishment – fines or restriction of privieleges as a deterrent to mildly anti-social behaviour might not run into the same kinds of issues, and I’m not sure if Godwin is arguing against ‘protection’, the physically keeping the psychopathic murderer away from potential victims, etc. – but for most things, the way I see it is that punishment as an everyday routine approach relies on hierarchy. It makes authority and force the natural, default response to problems, which I think is largely counter-productive.

    Whereas…well, I don’t need to claim any special authority or superiority to say that I’m taking exceptional measures in an extreme situation. Which at the same time is partly what’s so scary about it – could anybody do that?


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