A Time of Terror: How Democratic Societies Respond to Revolutionary Violence
The Ultimate Weapon: Terrorists and World Order
The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East
Though nothing can be immortall, which mortals make; yet, if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their Common-wealths might be secured, at least from perishing by internall diseases…. Therefore when they come to be dissolved, not by externall violence but by intestine disorder, the fault is not in men, as they are the Matter, but as they are the Makers and orderers of them.
—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
No terrorist will admit to “terrorism”—only to committing the violence necessary for his presumably just struggle. Terrorism is the more perplexing since many good causes—the abolition of slavery, the subversion of the Nazi occupation, the founding of the Jewish state, the destruction of European colonialism—have been furthered by sickening acts of violence.
Of course the effectiveness of such acts may be exaggerated; it is doubtful that the underground operations of the Irgun and the Sternists would have had much impact on subsequent events were it not for the Histadrut’s previous success in organizing an incipient Jewish state in Mandate Palestine. But even if some “terrorist” act does little to further the good cause it is meant to serve, the moral status of the action still gains. No one could think it an end in itself just to be terrifying. Underground fighters themselves prefer that their declared purposes—and not their murderous strategies—be the main subject of debate. Why not accept their view?
There are, as Michael Walzer has recently suggested, good reasons for resisting it, although, like most of us, he is prepared to make some allowances. We might reasonably forgive the assault of the assassin, bomb thrower, kidnapper, or hijacker if his acts are a response to the active and violent repression of the lives and ideals of people opposing a tyranny—a cruel foreign imperial regime, for example, or police acting brutally for an intolerant majority. Second, the terrorist must convincingly be seen as working for a society in which one form of violent repression will not be replaced by another. Third, and here Walzer is more explicit, the assault must not be directed randomly against innocent civilians, but only against the officials and armed agents of the repressive regime, taking all precautions not to harm those who are neither. All these conditions are necessary. The Red Brigades, for example, cannot be exonerated merely because their victims are carefully chosen. The judges, prison officials, government workers whom they murder and cripple enforce a constitution which provides effective political freedoms that the Brigades forgo. Only terrorism that is defensive and limited to the tyrants and their cruel agents is morally tolerable. And such actions are probably not best described as “terrorism” in the first place.
It is when underground groups take the offensive against civilians in a society that would otherwise suppress neither their ideas nor their nonviolent political organizing that we need an unequivocal epithet like “terrorism.” Terror is clearly a moral violation in democratic societies, in which libertarian constitutions and practices …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.