World for Peace


The word “terrorism” is in danger of becoming little more than a pejorative term used to refer to the tactics of one’s enemies.

Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s really an easy way: Stop participating in it.”
― Noam Chomsky


The term “terrorism” may by now have become too ideologically freighted to have any analytic value. On the one hand, there is the tendency, among the representatives and defenders of governments facing violent threats from non-state groups and organizations, to use the term to refer to all forms of political violence perpetrated by non-state actors.

On the other hand, there is the tendency, among the representatives and defenders of non-state actors engaged in political violence, to insist that “the real terrorists” are the officials or the military forces of those states with which they are locked in conflict. Under the combined influence of these two tendencies, the word “terrorism” is in danger of becoming little more than a pejorative term used to refer to the tactics of one’s enemies. In this paper, I will proceed on the assumption that the concept of terrorism retains more content than that, and that we recognize a use of the term in which it refers to a special kind of phenomenon or class of phenomena.. Clearly, it will be impossible to do this without making some attempt to characterize the phenomenon. Still, my aim is not to produce a definition of the term “terrorism” or to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for its application.

First, I will assume that terrorism is a prima facie evil, and that the use of terrorist tactics is presumptively unjustified, but I will remain agnostic on the question of whether there can ever be circumstances in which such tactics may nevertheless be justified, all things considered. Second, I take it to be obvious that, although terrorism is a prima facie evil and its use is presumptively unjustified, it may sometimes be a response to policies that are also unjustified and which may be as objectionable as the terrorist response itself.


Furthermore, the fact that terrorism is unjustified does not mean that all of the measures used to oppose it are themselves justified. In short, I assume that terrorism is a prima facie evil and my concern is with the kind of evil it is. Terrorism may sometimes be a response to great wrongs, and great wrongs may be committed in opposing it. But I will not be concerned here with the nature of those other kinds of wrongs nor will I address the question of whether the presumption against engaging in terrorism can ever be defeated. Some other recent writers have taken a different approach to this subject. Their primary focus, understandably enough, has been on questions about the justification of terrorism, and they have sought to arrive at a definition of the term that would cohere with their justificatory conclusions. This has led many of them to endorse a broad definition according to which terrorism is simply politically or ideologically motivated violence that is directed against civilians or non-combatants.

In fact, this broad definition has become sufficiently widespread that Jeff McMahan refers to it as the “orthodox definition.”Its popularity may reflect a concern about some of the apparent implications of relying on a more narrowly circumscribed definition. Since any narrower definition will presumably fail to classify certain types of political violence against civilians as forms of terrorism, any such definition may seem to imply that the types of violence it excludes deserve less severe condemnation. This implication is bound to seem troubling, especially if it is assumed that a narrow definition would single out forms of violence characteristically engaged in by non-state actors and exclude forms of violence characteristically engaged in by states. Given this assumption, it may seem that reliance on a narrow definition would unwittingly import an uncritical pro-state bias.

Although I understand this concern, I think it is a mistake to begin an inquiry into the morality of terrorism by endorsing a broad definition. Such a starting point may lead us to overlook relevant distinctions and to give an oversimplified description of the moral terrain. I prefer to begin, not by trying to settle on a definition, but rather by thinking about certain familiar forms of violence that most people would not hesitate, prior to analysis, to classify as instances of terrorism. I want to ask whether there is anything morally distinctive about these specific patterns of activity. relatively narrow focus will serve to highlight some morally salient features and distinctions that might otherwise be easier to overlook.

And, as I will try to make clear, such a focus need not import an uncritical pro-state bias, both because state activity can fall within the narrower sphere of activity on which I will concentrate and because many forms of violence that do not fall within that sphere nevertheless deserve severe condemnation, whether or not they are classified, in the end, as instances of terrorism.

Although terrorism is a political phenomenon, the resources of contemporary political philosophy are of limited assistance in trying to understand it. In recent years, a valuable new philosophical literature on terrorism has begun to emerge, and philosophical interest in the subject has, of course, intensified since the September, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, with one or two exceptions, the major political philosophies of the past several decades have been little concerned with the political uses of terror or with political violence more generally.

To a great extent, for example, they have concerned themselves with issues of distributive justice, and they have implicitly addressed this topic from the perspective of a secure and well-established society with significant wealth to distribute among its citizens. Even when philosophers have looked beyond the boundaries of their own societies and have addressed issues of global justice, as they have increasingly begun to do, they have generally done so from the perspective of affluent, western societies whose responsibilities to the rest of the world are in question precisely because their own power and prosperity are so great.

Contemporary political philosophers have not in general needed to concern themselves with threats to the survival or stability of their societies or with the conditions necessary for sustaining a viable social order at all. None of this is intended as criticism. It is entirely appropriate that political philosophers should address themselves to the questions that actually vex the societies in which they live. But it does suggest that the recent political philosophy of the affluent, liberal west may not afford the most useful point of entry for an investigation into problems of terror and terrorism.

A number of contemporary writers on terrorism have found it natural to situate their discussions in relation to the traditional theory of the just war. The pioneering contemporary revival of just war theory is, of course, my purposes, it will be helpful to begin instead with the pre-eminent philosopher of fear in our tradition, Thomas Hobbes. It is striking that, in his famous catalogue of the “incommodities” of the state of nature, Hobbes describes fear as the worst incommodity of all. The state of nature, he says, is characterized by a war of “every man against every man,” and such a war comprises not merely actual battles but an extended “tract of time” in which “the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known.”5 This means that, in the war of every man against every man, a condition of general insecurity prevails for an extended period. “In such condition,” he says, “there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death. And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Ch. 13, para. 9, pp. 95–6, emphasis added). Hobbes makes at least three points in this passage and the surrounding text that are relevant to our topic.

First, there is his insistence on how bad a thing fear is. Continual fear—not momentary anxiety but the grinding, unrelenting fear of imminent violent death—is unspeakably awful. It is, he suggests, worse than ignorance. It is worse than the absence of arts, letters and social life. It is worse than being materially or culturally or intellectually impoverished. Fear dominates and reduces a person. A life of continual fear is scarcely a life at all. Someone who is in the grip of chronic terror is in a state of constant distress; he “hath his heart all the day long gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep” (Ch. 12, para. 5, p. 82). The second point is that fear is incompatible with social life.

On the one hand, sustained fear undermines social relations, so that in addition to being worse than various forms of poverty and deprivation it also contributes to them, by destroying the conditions that make wealth and “commodious living” possible. Fearful people lead “solitary” lives. Alone with their fears, trusting no one, they cannot sustain rewarding forms of interpersonal exchange. On the other hand, the establishment of society offers relief from fear and, in Hobbes’ view, it is to escape from fear that people form societies. Walzer devotes one chapter of that book to terrorism, and he also discusses terrorism in several of the essays included in Arguing about War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004). Indeed, and this is the third point, it is only within a stable political society that the miserable condition of unremitting fear can be kept at bay. In addition to being incompatible with social life, sustained fear is the inevitable fate of pre-social human beings.

Terrorists take these Hobbesian insights to heart. In a familiar range of cases, at least, they engage in violence against some people in order to induce fear or terror in others, with the aim of destabilizing or degrading (or threatening to destabilize or degrade) an existing social order. Without meaning to beg the very questions of definition that I said I would not be addressing, I will call these “the standard cases.” I do so in part on the boringly etymological ground that these cases preserve the link between the idea of terrorism and the root concept of terror. But I will also go on to argue—indeed, it is my primary thesis—that the etymology points us to something morally interesting which might otherwise be easier to overlook.

In “the standard cases,” terrorists undertake to kill or injure a more or less random group of civilians or noncombatants;6 in so doing, they aim to produce fear within some much larger group of people, and they hope that this fear will in turn erode or threaten to erode the quality or stability of an existing social order. I do not mean that they aim to reduce the social order to a Hobbesian state of nature, but only that they seek to degrade or destabilize it, or to provide a credible threat of its degradation or destabilization, by using fear to compromise the institutional structures and disrupt the patterns of social activity that help to constitute and sustain that order.

The fear that terrorism produces may, for example, erode confidence in the government, depress the economy, distort the political process, reduce associational activity and provoke destructive changes in the legal system. Its ability to achieve these effects derives in part from the fact that, in addition to being intrinsically unpleasant to experience, the fear that terrorism produces may inhibit individuals’ participation in a wide range of mundane activities on which a polity’s social and economic health depends. In some cases people may become mistrustful of the other participants in the activity (one of the other passengers may be a hijacker or suicide bomber), while in other cases they may fear that the activity will be targeted by terrorists who are not participants (someone may toss a hand grenade into the night club or movie theater).

There is, of course, a large literature on the principle of noncombatant immunity in wartime. describe, the fear that is generated by terrorism can lead to significant changes in the character of society and the quality of daily life, and at the extremes these changes can destabilize a government or even the social order as a whole. In the standard cases, then, terrorists use violence against some people to create fear in others, with the aim of degrading the social order and reducing its capacity to support a flourishing social life—or at least with the aim of credibly threatening to produce these effects.7 Terrorist violence may, of course, have many other aims as well, even in the standard cases.8 The terrorists may hope that their violent acts will attract publicity for their cause, or promote their personal ambitions, or provoke a response that will widen the conflict, or enhance their prestige among those they claim to represent, or undermine their political rivals, or help them to achieve a kind of psychological or metaphysical liberation. Nor need they conceive of their actions exclusively in instrumental terms. They may also be seeking to express their rage. Or they may believe that their victims are not in the relevant sense innocent, despite being civilians or noncombatants, and they may think of themselves as administering forms of deserved punishment or retribution.

There are many other respects in which what I am calling standard cases of terrorism can differ from one another. But they all have the following minimum features:

1) the use of violence against civilians or noncombatants,

2) the intention that this use of violence should create fear in others, including other civilians and noncombatants, and

3) the further intention that this fear should destabilize or degrade an existing social order, or at any rate that it should raise the specter of such destabilization or degradation. The destabilization or degradation of the social order may itself have many different aims.

Among other things, it may be intended

a) as a prelude to the imposition of a different social order or the reconstitution of the existing order on different terms,

b) as a way of effecting some change in the policy of an existing state or society,

c) as a form of deserved punishment, and hence as an end in itself, or

d) as some combination of these. What makes terrorism of the standard kind possible is the corrosive power of fear.

As Hobbes suggests, sustained or continual fear is a regressive force both individually and socially. It can induce the unraveling of an individual’s personality and, as we have already seen, its cumulative effects on large numbers of people can degrade the social order and diminish the quality of social life. Its capacity to achieve these effects is enhanced by the infectiousness of fear, the fact that it can so easily be transmitted from one person to another, even when the second person is unaware of the reasons for the first person’s fear. Waldron has a good discussion of many of these aims in “Terrorism and the Uses of Terror,”. one that Hobbes called “panic terror,” and which he described as “fear without the apprehension of why or what.” In such cases, he added, “there is always in him that so feareth, first, some apprehension of the cause, though the rest run away by example, every one supposing his fellow to know why. And therefore this passion happens to none but in a throng, or multitude of people” (Ch. 6, para. 37, p. 45).

The fear induced by terrorism does not ordinarily fit the description of panic terror, since those who are subject to it normally know the reasons for their fear. But terrorism still benefits from the infectiousness of fear, because the fact that something has frightened one person may itself frighten another person, and the fearful attitudes of different people can exert mutually reinforcing and intensifying effects.

In this age of instant communication, moreover, the capacity of terrorist acts to cause fear, and to exploit the phenomena of mutual reinforcement and intensification, is greatly increased. The news media can be counted on to provide graphic coverage of each terrorist outrage, so that a bomb blast anywhere can generate fear and insecurity everywhere. These attitudes in turn become newsworthy and are dutifully reported by the media, thus contributing to the syndrome of mutual reinforcement. I said earlier that, in the standard cases, terrorist violence is usually directed against a “more or less random” group of civilians or noncombatants. It is difficult to be more precise. Sometimes virtually any civilians will do.


At other times, terrorists will select a particular population group, defined by occupation or ethnicity or religion or social class, and will target people indiscriminately within that group. Or they will select a symbolic target (the World Trade Center), and those who are killed or injured will be those who happen to be in the chosen location at the wrong time. Even when the target class is maximally wide, the victimization is random in the sense that it is indiscriminate within that class but not in the sense that it is pointless or irrational. And even when the target class is relatively narrow, there is an advantage in preserving some degree of indiscriminateness within that class. In both cases, the randomness or indiscriminateness has the same point. It is to maximize (within the relevant parameters) the numbers of people who identify with the victims, thus subverting the defensive ingenuity with which people seize on any feature that distinguishes them from the victims of misfortune to preserve their own sense of invulnerability. In this way, the appearance of randomness is used to exploit the psychic economy of identification in such a way as to maximize the spread of fear. This is not to say that it is always easy to achieve one’s aims using terrorist tactics.

In fact, it is usually difficult for terrorist acts to destabilize an otherwise stable social order. This is not merely because such acts can backfire, and reduce support for the terrorists’ goals. Nor is it merely because of the large armies, police forces and intelligence services that stable societies normally have available to fight those who employ terrorism. Just as important is the fact that stable societies, and individuals raised in such societies, have substantial social and psychological resources with which to resist the destructive effects of fear. People can be remarkably tenacious in their determination to preserve the lives they have made for themselves in society, and if fear can be infectious so too can courage and the determination to persevere in the face of great danger. These too have mutually reinforcing and intensifying effects.

But terrorism does not need to destabilize a social order altogether in order to transform and degrade it and, as we have seen, often such transformation and degradation will suffice to enable those who employ terrorist tactics to achieve some or all of their aims.

The problem is that living with fear can have corrosive effects even for those who are courageous and determined to persevere. One might put the point provocatively and say that courage itself—or the need to sustain it over long periods of time—can be corrosive. Living each day with the vivid awareness that one’s children may be killed whenever they leave home, or that a decision to meet one’s friends at a restaurant or café may result in violent death, or that an ordinary bus ride on a sunny day may end with lumps of flesh raining down on a previously peaceful neighborhood, exacts a cost. Nor is this true only if one yields to one’s fears and keeps one’s children at home, gives up socializing and avoids public transportation. It is also true if one grits one’s teeth and resolves to carry on as normal. People often say, in explaining their determination to maintain a normal routine in the face of terrorist activities or threats, that to do otherwise would be to “give the terrorists what they want.” This is not wrong, but it understates the problem. Maintaining one’s normal routine does not suffice to preserve normalcy.

Terrorism undermines normalcy almost by definition. One cannot, simply through an act of will, immunize oneself against the effects of continual fear and danger on one’s state of mind or on the quality of one’s life. These effects are distressingly easy for groups that use terrorist tactics to achieve and distressingly difficult for the members of targeted populations to avoid. This is one reason why terrorism is so popular, even if it is not always ultimately successful.

Apologists for terror often claim that it is the weapon of the weak, who have no other tools available for fighting back against their oppressors. This may be true in some circumstances. As far as I can see, however, those who engage in terrorism rarely invest much time in exploring the availability of other tools. All too often terrorism is the tool of choice simply because the perceived advantages it offers are so great. It costs relatively little in money and manpower. It has immediate effects and generates extensive and highly sensationalized publicity for one’s cause. It affords an emotionally satisfying outlet for feelings of rage and the desire for vengeance. It induces an acute sense of vulnerability in all those who identify with its immediate victims.

And insofar as those victims are chosen randomly from among some very large group, the class of people who identify with them is maximized, so that an 8 SAMUEL SCHEFFLER extraordinary number of people are given a vivid sense of the potential costs of resisting one’s demands. Figuratively and often literally, terrorism offers the biggest bang for one’s buck. If what I have said to this point is on the right track, then it does seem that terrorism is morally distinctive, at least insofar as it conforms to the pattern of what I have been calling “the standard cases.” In these cases, at least, it differs from other kinds of violence directed against civilians and noncombatants. By this I do not mean that it is worse, but rather that it has a different moral anatomy.

By analogy: humiliation is morally distinctive, and so too are torture, slavery, political oppression and genocide. One can investigate the moral anatomy of any of these evils without taking a position on where it stands in an overall ranking of evils. Many people are pluralists about the good. We can be pluralists about the bad as well. In the “standard cases,” some people are killed or injured (the primary victims), in order to create fear in a larger number of people (the secondary victims), with the aim of destabilizing or degrading the existing social order for everyone.

The initial act of violence sets off a kind of moral cascade: death or injury to some, anxiety and fear for many more, the degradation or destabilization of the social order for all. Nor is this simply a cascade of harms. It is, instead, a chain of intentional abuse, for those who employ terrorist tactics do not merely produce these harms, they intentionally aim to produce them.

The primary victims are used—their deaths and injuries are used—to terrify others, and those others are used—their fear and terror are used—to degrade and destabilize the social order. The fact that the secondary victims’ fear and terror are used in this way is one thing that distinguishes the standard cases from other cases in which civilians are deliberately harmed in order to achieve some military or political objective. In other cases of deliberate, politically-motivated violence against civilians, the perpetrators display a callous disregard not only for the lives of their victims but also for the misery and suffering of the people who care about or identify with them.

Since those who commit such acts are willing to kill or injure their victims, it is hardly surprising that they should be indifferent to the intensely painful human reactions—fear, horror and grief—that their acts are liable to produce in others. In the “standard cases,” however, the primary victims are killed or injured precisely in order to elicit such reactions—precisely in order to elicit fear, horror and grief—so that those reactions can in turn be exploited to promote the perpetrators’ ultimate, destabilizing objectives. Using Kantian terminology, we might say that the primary victims are treated not just as means to an end but as means to a means: that is, they are treated as means to the end of treating the secondary victims as means to an end. Those who engage in this kind of terrorism do not merely display callous indifference to the grief, fear and misery of the secondary victims; instead, they deliberately use violence to cultivate and prey on these reactions.

This helps to explain why there is something distinctively repellent about terrorism, both morally and humanly. As I have said, not all instances of terrorism fit the description of the “standard cases.” Sometimes, for example, terrorist tactics may be employed not to destabilize or degrade an entire social order but rather to make the place of a particular social group or class within that order insecure, as in cases where the ambition is to drive the members of the targeted group into another country or territory (“ethnic cleansing”). In cases like this, the description of the “moral cascade” will differ somewhat, but the moral anatomy of these cases will still bear a clear and recognizable relation to that of the standard cases.

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