Can Terrorism Ever Be Justified? If So How? If Not, Why Not?

Topics: Terrorism, Laws of war, Just War Pages: 11 (3195 words) Published: April 19, 2004
Martin Allan


Can Terrorism Ever Be Justified? If So How? If Not, Why Not?

Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends. This definition was proposed by terrorist analysists in 1979, but has never been surpassed for clarity and concision. Schmidt and Youngman in their book Political Terrorism for example, cited 109 different definitions of terrorism, which they obtained in a survey of leading academics in the field. Thus, for the purpose of this paper I shall make no attempt at defining this ambiguous and elusive term but will nevertheless reveal its importance in helping to discuss the question with which this paper is concerned.

Terrorism is now a well established feature of world politics and conflict. Indeed, the literature on this particular form of political violence is seemingly endless. This paper shall take precedence with the highly contested issue of whether terrorism can ever be justified. In what follows I shall endeavour to explore a number of issues that confront academics when discussing the judgement of terrorism. Primarily, a comprehensive analysis of just war theory shall be undertaken to see if acts of terrorism can accommodate its citation. A particular focus into the discriminate principle shall be discussed, as it is widely believed that a terrorist act is often judged from within this "non-combatant immunity" concept. Secondly, this paper shall focus on the importance of defining terrorism and how the lack of agreement regarding the phenomena can often get confused with notions of revolutionary violence and national liberation. Finally, I shall conclude by exposing the need for a common definitional consensus on the term, if acts of political violence can be officially labelled as terrorism and ultimately their actions being condemned or justified.

The just war theory tradition is the basis of a long held view in the West that there can be legitimate uses of war and is usually traced back to St Augustine's fourth-century masterwork, The City of God. Coady (1985) argues that consistency is required when discussing just war theory and that it is necessary to apply the same standards to both kinds of political violence, state and non-state. It is under this assumption that just war theory provides a valid framework from which to discuss non-state (terrorist) political violence.

Indeed, Valls (2000) proposes that if acts of terrorism can satisfy the conditions of just war theory then they would have a moral legitimacy. In his article Can Terrorism Be Justified, Valls criticises Walzer's (1992) dismissal that terrorism may be justified and advocates that 'on the most plausible account of the just war theory, taking into account the ultimate moral basis of its criteria, violence undertaken by non-state actors can, in principle, satisfy the requirements of a just war.... [Thus] if just war theory can justify violence committed by states, then terrorism committed by non-state actors can also, under certain circumstances, be justified as well'.

Valls endeavour is to explore the jus ad bellum criteria (concerning the justice of going to war) and the jus in bello criteria (which apply to the conduct of war) that comprise the just war theory in an attempt to show that certain terrorist acts can satisfy the criterion and thus through an interpretation of just war theory some terrorist acts can ultimately be justified.

Jus Ad Bellum

Firstly, the just cause provision of the just war theory holds 'that the state has a right to defend itself against aggression of other states.' Valls argues that 'the right that is usually cited as being the ground for the state's right to defend itself is the right to self-determination.' Through an analysis of various commentators on secession and self-determination, Valls claims that under some circumstances, some groups other than those constituted by the state in which...

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