Friday, July 08, 2005

On terrorism

The bombings in London have again demonstrated how difficult it is to stop fanatics from killing large numbers of civilians. Properly speaking, "terrorism" refers to politically-motivated (physical) attacks against non-combatant targets, typically undertaken with the intent of spreading fear among the general population of which the victims are members. "Non-combatant" is the key here. Attacking US or British military forces does not make Iraqi rebels terrorists, although they are commonly called terrorists in the US media. The October 2000 attack on the USS Cole was not a terrorist attack, despite President Clinton's characterization of it as such. German soldiers who attacked Allied forces during World War Two were not terrorists, even though they were fighting for an evil cause.

But who is a "non-combatant", and why is it wrong to target non-combatants? Fanatics in the Al-Qaeda mould may believe that they are engaged in a holy war against all infidels, and that most Westerners, not simply those in the military, are in effect combatants and therefore legitimate targets. And when it comes to modern conventional warfare--as exemplifed by World War Two--doesn't the mass mobilization of society for the war effort make almost everyone a participant? Add to that the fact that civilians may be supporters of the war--indeed, civilians like President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld may be in charge of the war--while, as in Vietnam, some soldiers may be reluctant draftees, and the justification for drawing a moral line between combatants and non-combatants can appear murky.

However, if a combatant is defined as anyone in the chain of command of the war effort, then it is clear that Bush and Rumsfeld are combatants in the Iraq War, while farmers selling produce to US Army bases are not, and that while attacking the latter would be terrorism, attacking the former would not be. Even so, it does not follow that non-combatants are morally innocent, or that combatants are morally guilty. One writer, George Mavrodes, has suggested that the rule against attacking non-combatants can best be thought of as a utilitarian convention designed to minimize casualties, just as driving on the right side of the road (or left side, as the case may be) is a convention designed to minimize injuries. Driving on the right isn't inherently better than driving on the left, but in Canada and the US that's the rule, and we should stick to it because of its practical effects.

If that's correct, can a utilitarian case ever be made in favour of terrorism? The bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in World War Two was arguably an instance of terrorism. And surely the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrorist attacks. If President Bush is really sincere in his desire to bring all terrorists to justice, shouldn't he order the arrest of all those Americans still alive who were directly involved in those terrorist attacks? On the other hand, those bombings are sometimes justified by claiming that they were designed to shorten the war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly did that), thus resulting in fewer casualties than would otherwise have occurred. But such justification opens a can of worms, for it suggests that terrorism, including that of Al-Qaeda, may be morally legitimate if it has a prospect of succeeding, in the long run, in accomplishing a worthwhile goal. At a minimum terrorists would have to be allowed to argue the worthiness of their cause as an excuse for their actions. Most of us, viewing the bombings of July 7 in London, will not want to allow any such defence. What is shocking about the bombings is not just the unlikelihood that any of the victims individually merited such treatment, but the callousness of those responsible for the attacks, whatever their ultimate goals or chances of success.

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